A Great Undoing: the Johnson Dictionary

“Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge….” So wrote Samuel Johnson, the brilliant, wry, cranky, hyper-literate, highly opinionated creator of the first English dictionary to be of practical use. Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in London, and in two volumes, on April 15, 1755. His definition of lexicographer is one of the thousands that appear in the Johnson dictionary.

The English language, writers such as Jonathan Swift had long lamented, was in desperate need of standards. A prescriptive dictionary that decreed what was right and what was not, one that tamed and trussed this ever-evolving language, was just what English needed.

So when a group of booksellers approached Johnson in 1746 and asked him to create an English dictionary, he readily obliged. He would subdue this headstrong, unruly language, by God.

Or so he thought.

Not Quite According to Plan

Johnson mapped out his intention in “The Plan of a Dictionary,” which he wrote upon undertaking the colossal task ahead of him. “Barbarous or impure words and expressions, may be branded with some note of infamy, as they are carefully to be eradicated wherever they are found,” Johnson wrote, adding, “and they occur too frequently even in the best writers.”

His three-year timetable stretched into three times that, and while the Johnson dictionary is much as Johnson had planned it—a repository of more than inkhorn terms, a reference that brought in great writers like Shakespeare and thinkers like Newton to illustrate a word’s usage—one aspect had not gone to plan.

“His attitude toward ‘fixing the language’ altered,” wrote Professor Jack Lynch of Rutgers University, a Johnson scholar who edited an abridged edition of the Dictionary in 2002. “He became less prescriptive and more descriptive, concerned with the language not as he imagined it should be but as it was actually written.”

A Lasting Legacy

You might say that English has always had an ear for language—lots of languages, from which it has readily borrowed. Today we have entire dictionaries devoted to American slang and American regionalisms.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which owes a considerable debt to the architecture of the Johnson dictionary, routinely adds new words to the pile, as it did on Oxford Dictionaries.com in August with terms such as binge-watch, vape, hyperconnected and tech-savvy. Merriam-Webster’s newest Scrabble dictionary, the fifth edition, trumpets the addition of 5,000 new entries.

As Johnson toiled away in his garret at 17 Gough Square in London those many years ago, it’s doubtful he could have imagined such turns of events. But after devoting 2,300 pages to his epochal lexicographic undertaking and realizing that the language was better celebrated than prescribed, he probably would not be surprised.


About Mim Harrison

Mim Harrison is the author of three books on the English language, Wicked Good Words, Smart Words (both, Penguin/Perigee) and Words at Work (Walker Publishing). A longtime professional writer and editor, she is also a producer of specialty books that are published in cooperation with leading cultural institutions. Her interest in languages began during her misadventures as a college student abroad.