August 31, 2020

Words of the Month - Johnson's Dictionary

        Samuel Johnson (England, 1709-1784) was a writer, critic, and lexicographer whose dictionary, published in 1755, had a huge influence on the English language.  There had been a number of dictionaries published before Johnson’s, but they tended to concentrate on “hard words” rather than being comprehensive, to have poor definitions, and to fail to indicate how words were actually used.  Johnson took about eight years to produce his dictionary at the instigation of a group of publishers who saw the demand.  It included 42,773 entries in the first edition, which made it the largest dictionary of the time, but this was still perhaps only a quarter of the words in the language.  Among the words Johnson left out were all those beginning with the letter J before jubilant: everything from jab through joy.  Oops.  It also gave few guides to pronunciation and its etymologies were weak.  On the other hand, it included not only definitions of multiple senses of words, but frequent notes on usage and literary quotations.  It became extremely popular and was considered the definitive English dictionary until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary more than 150 years later - and this despite its enormous size and expense which apparently only about 200 people a year could actually afford.  (It was the abridged edition that actually sold well.)  It became the model for both how dictionaries should be made and how entries should be presented.
        Johnson’s dictionary was also widely lauded as an incredibly impressive feat of scholarship for a single person to have completed, and it is most definitely the work of one single man, displaying his own personal opinions and quirks.  Some of his more famous editorial and humorous comments include the definitions
finesse - artifice; strategem: an unnecessary word which is creeping into the language (I include this because of the editorial comment - Johnson tended to disparage all things French, as is evident below - but it’s also interesting to note how his definition differs from the current meaning.)
lexicographer - a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge…
monsieur - a term of reproach for a Frenchman
oats - a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people
patron - one who countenances, supports, or protects.  Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery
        (I have also seen the following quoted as humor or editorializing:
luggage - any thing cumbrous and unweildy [sic] that is to be carried away; anything of more weight than value    
But judging by the quotations with which Johnson illustrates the word, I tend to think it is actually a serious definition.)

        I also want to share with you some of his less-famous words.  Johnson’s dictionary includes a number of entries that are no longer present in my standard “college” dictionary, and some fun ones are
ariolation or hariolation - soothsaying, vaticination  (Johnson’s source for this word is Thomas Browne, whose contributions to the lexicon I discussed previously.)
clancular - clandestine; secret; private; concealed; obscure; hidden
cubiculary - fitted for the posture of lying down
     and also discubitory - fitted to the posture of leaning
digladation - a combat with swords; any quarrel or contest
        Johnson’s birthday is coming up, so on September 18 you might spare a moment to appreciate the work, scholarship, and occasional snarkiness of one of the English language’s most influential lexicographers.

[Pictures: Samuel Johnson, engraving by P. Maverick from a drawing by W.H.Brown, 1811 (Image from Internet Archive);
Horse, wood block print from A Farmer’s Alphabet by Mary Azarian, 1981.]

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