Dr. Johnson and His Dictionary

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“Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”

Doctor Johnson’s explanation as to why in his Dictonary he defined a pastern as the knee of a horse.






(In honor of National Dictionary Day.)

Dr. Samuel Johnson was a curmudgeon of the first order:  he hated Americans, Scots and any number of other groups.  A writer of genius in his own day, much of his writing has not held up well.  ( I defy anyone, for example, to read Rasselass without nodding off.)  A pensioner of King George III, his pen was bought and paid for, and he entered the lists against the King’s enemies in the pamphlet wars of Eighteenth Century England, as he did against the rebellious American colonists.  Having said all that, I do honor Johnson for two reasons.

First, because of his quick wit, often conveyed to us courtesy of James Boswell, Johnson’s companion and biographer.  A few samples:

Patriotism having become one of our topicks, Johnson suddenly uttered, in a strong determined tone, an apophthegm, at which many will start: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” But let it be considered that he did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak of self- interest.

Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it.

No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.

Wine makes a man more pleased with himself; I do not say that it makes him more pleasing to others.

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!

Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for anything we allow them short of hanging. (Johnson, referring to Americans.)

It has been a common saying of physicians in England, that a cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.

I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”


My second reason is Johnson’s immortal Dictionary.  Not the first dictionary of the English language, it was certainly the finest to its time, and was a prodigious accomplishment for any one man.  Johnson’s Dictionary regularized spelling and definition both in England and America.  Johnson was not infallible.  He defined pastern as the knee of a horse, when it is actually the part of a foot of a horse extending between the fetlock and the hoof.  When he was asked by a woman how he had made the mistake, he replied simply, “Ignorance, madam.  Sheer ignorance.”

The Dictionary shines through with Johnson’s wit, beginning with the first two paragraphs of the Preface:

It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.

 Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pionier of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths of Learning and Genius, who press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress. Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompence has been yet granted to very few.

Johnson hoped that his Dictionary would help regularize the English language, but he understood that nothing could entirely stop the process of change that is the fate of any living language:

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

Johnson did not stop the English language from changing, but he helped guide that change by his masterful Dictionary, and no author can ask for higher praise than that.

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  1. Perhaps the inevitable change of ‘living’ languages is the reason the Mass said in Latin, a ‘dead’ language is preferable to the vernacular. We have a new, more true American-English translation of the Order of the Mass coming into use this Advent and this is a good thing; however, one has to wonder, had we taken Dr. Johnson’s advice, perhaps a ‘correction’ would be unnecessary.

  2. It may be worth mentioning that Johnson vigorously denied that “his pen was bought and paid for,” and claimed he would have refused his pension if it had been. I don’t know that there’s much reason to doubt him on that score.

    From his Dictionary:

    “Pension. n. s. [pension, French.] An allowance made to anyone without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.”

  3. He could deny it all he wanted to Tom. The facts speak for themselves. If he didn’t want to be regarded as King George’s hireling he should not have taken the King’s shilling. Considering that Johnson prior to the pension had been something of a Jacobite a certain betrayal of principal was involved by the mere acceptance. He wrote the definition of pension under George II, who he abhorred and whose government he attacked regularly, prior to him accepting a pension under George III in 1762. His words about pensions were famous by the time he accepted one, and his numerous critics made considerable hay out of it, as they had every right to.

  4. Francis, if this is the first time you are attempting to get through Boswell’s Life of Johnson I would recommend skimming it first. There are plenty of nuggets of gold, but quite a bit of dross. Boswell could have used a good editor.

  5. Well, I read Rasselas not only without nodding off, but eagerly — I found it very engaging, actually a page-turner. I really enjoyed it. But maybe that says more about me than about the book ..

    As to being paid-for, Johnson was an odd enough bird, I think, to withstand the worst of that charge. From what I read, his was not the kind of character that could be bought; he would not have been able to sell, even if he had eagerly wanted to. Consider the way he treated his own patron, the earl of Chesterfield! Note also that he continued to rail against the Hanovers, and to be a Jacobite not less, but if anything more, after the pension began, and it began somewhat late in his life anyway.

    I think he accepted the pension for the same reason that he accepted the invitation to the audience with George III, whom he regarded as more or less a usurper: because of his respect for authority and office. To refuse the pension, as the audience, would have been a violence against the state, and Johnson would never have done such a thing. With Johnson, it was his country, right or wrong.

    And maybe the Life of Johnson could have been better edited, but I’m glad it wasn’t. A good editor would have cut out and thrown away many things from it which we’re lucky to have.

  6. “But maybe that says more about me than about the book”

    “Page turner” is certainly not how I would describe Rasselas; “a sure cure for insomnia” leaps to my mind instead. To each his own.

    “Consider the way he treated his own patron, the earl of Chesterfield!”

    Yes, consider it indeed. Johnson broke with Chesterfield after the failure of Chesterfield to pay him anything for seven years, a fact which Johnson highlighted in his famous letter telling off Chesterfield. Unlike Chesterfield, George III kept the money coming.

    “Note also that he continued to rail against the Hanovers, and to be a Jacobite not less, but if anything more, after the pension began, and it began somewhat late in his life anyway.”

    Johnson enjoyed the pension from 1762 until his death in 1784. He had been a fierce critic of George II who had not paid him, and was a fierce supporter of George III who did. Res Ipsa Loquitur as we say in the law. Even Johnson admitted to Boswell that with the granting of the pension he would have to give up his Jacobite leanings.

    “And maybe the Life of Johnson could have been better edited”

    I think it could have been shrunken by a third without any reduction in substance.

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