Dr. Johnson and His Dictionary



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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One Comment

  1. I have been scolded here before for defending Dr. Johnson, who is one of my heroes, so it’s probably time for another go.

    I read Rasselas several years ago and enjoyed it greatly. Nodded off not even once — I found it an easy read, and hard to put down. It’s a great book and going back on the list thanks to this post.

    Dr. Johnson’s “hatred” of Scots was, I believe, more in jest than serious: Boswell, one of the great friendships of his life, was Scottish, and his statement “the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees” was intended specifically to get Boswell’s goat (and it is only thanks to Boswell that we have it!). *A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland* displays more interest in and sympathy for the Scottish than hatred.

    His loathing of the Americans was, I fear, more earnest. Dr. Johnson was a dedicated monarchist and regarded any trace of Whiggishness with disgust (“Sir, I perceive that you are a vile Whig”, began one of his replies). However, I am not sure he ever met any actual Americans, and I suspect he would have been willing to be friendly with them if he had — beyond the curmudgeonly exterior he was a good-natured sort.

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