The Dictionary of the English Language

In 1755, Johnson's Dictionary appeared in two large folio volumes. It represented about nine years of work, done almost single-handedly — Johnson had only the assistance of a few amanuenses to copy out the quotations he marked. While he worked on the Dictionary, he also produced the Rambler and his contributions to the Adventurer.

Johnson originally approached Lord Chesterfield as a potential patron, but Chesterfield gave Johnson only a token sum (ten pounds), and Johnson worked more or less unsupported (except by advances from the booksellers). Shortly before the Dictionary appeared, Chesterfield published several favorable reviews in the magazines, which Johnson saw as a transparent ploy to receive the dedication normally paid to a patron. Johnson sent Chesterfield one of the nastiest poison-pen letters in the English language on 7 February, 1755, including these famous lines:

Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help?
In popular mythology, Johnson's has been made out to be the first English dictionary — which is dead wrong. The curious can read an entire book on Johnson's predecessors by DeWitt T. Starnes and Gertrude E. Noyes called The English Dictionary from Cawdrey to Johnson, 1604-1755, 2nd ed. (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: J. Benjamin, 1991). But it was the standard English dictionary for over a hundred fifty years: it was superseded only by the OED at the beginning of the twentieth century. And though much of it was derivative, it was the first English dictionary to use quotations to illustrate usage, a tradition continued by the OED.


Two early editions are especially noteworthy, the first (1755) and the fourth (1773). Both are available in facsimiles. Better yet, the complete text of both editions can be had on a single CD-ROM: it's edited by Anne McDermott, and available from Cambridge University Press. (The only surprising exclusion from the Cambridge CD-ROM is the front matter: the Preface, Grammar, and History of the Language are left out because space was short. But they're easily available in many editions, so it's no great loss.) McDermott has also made her research available on-line.

Shorter versions are also available. I'll begin by promoting my own abridgment, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work That Defined the English Language (Delray Beach, Fla.: Levenger Press, 2002; New York: Walker & Co., 2003; London: Atlantic Books, 2004). False modesty has never been among my failings, so I'll say it's the best edition out there for general readers. I include a long introduction, the full text of Johnson's Preface and his less well-known Plan, a selection of 3,100 of the most enlightening entries (all complete, including etymologies, usage notes, all the definitions, and all the quotations for each entry), and three indexes to help you find your way through it.

If you have to settle for second best . . . Johnson's Dictionary: A Modern Selection, ed E. L. McAdam, Jr., and George Milne (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963) is good for browsing. David Crystal, a prominent linguist, has done a version — Dr Johnson's Dictionary: An Anthology (London: Penguin Books, 2005) — right now, though, it's available only in the UK. There's also a cheap reprint of the Dictionary from Barnes & Noble — a facsimile of H. J. Todd's early nineteenth-century octavo edition. It's not a bad way to get the definitions, but it's got problems: first, no illustrative quotations; second, it's abridged from the folio editions; finally, Todd has added many definitions and changed others, so you're never sure that you're reading Johnson.


There's lots. The first five books are especially noteworthy.

This is part of a Guide to Samuel Johnson by Jack Lynch. Comments are welcome.