The Ground-Work of Style:
Use, Elegance, and National Identity in Johnson's Dictionary

By Jack Lynch

Delivered 29 September 1996 at NEASECS in Worcester, Massachusetts.

I begin with two quotations from the Preface to the Dictionary, where Johnson describes his work. The first:
I have studiously endeavoured to collect examples and authorities from the writers before the restoration, whose works I regard as the wells of English undefiled, as the pure sources of genuine diction.
The passage is familiar enough to Johnsonians, perhaps because of the Spenser citation, even though it has received little extended critical scrutiny. The second sentence is perhaps equally familiar, its Johnsonian periods stretching to eighty-two words:
Our language, for almost a century, has, by the concurrence of many causes, been gradually departing from its original Teutonick character, and deviating towards a Gallick structure and phraseology, from which it ought to be our endeavour to recal it, by making our ancient volumes the ground-work of stile, admitting among the additions of later times, only such as may supply real deficiencies, such as are readily adopted by the genius of our tongue, and incorporate easily with our native idioms.1
Familiar as these passages are, no one, to my knowledge, has examined their relation. Even those who know them may be surprised to realize that one follows immediately on the other, without so much as a paragraph break. I'm especially curious about the juxtaposition of these "undefiled" sixteenth-century writers with the source of subsequent pollution, "a Gallick structure and phraseology," and what that means for the kind of authority Johnson claims for his Dictionary.


It's always wise to take metaphors seriously; it's doubly so with so careful a writer as Johnson; and I suggest it's trebly so in the Dictionary. Johnson's calling the sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century writers "undefiled" (a borrowing from Spenser) and "pure sources" suggests a concomitant corruption in others. Purity versus corruption was an important theme in the eighteenth century; George Campbell's 1776 Philosophy of Rhetoric, for instance, makes much of an unadulterated English tongue. But however much the metaphor was used in Hanoverian London, it originated neither there nor then.

Purity, in fact, is a favorite and Protean topos of Renaissance humanists. For the writers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, impurity is always charged to barbarians. But Quattrocento barbarians, it turns out, wore many hats. Some ostensible barbarians were the comparatively innocuous Scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages, infecting the learning and the Latin of the ancients with their own debased texts. Others, like the fifteenth-century Turks occupying Constantinople, were little better than the fifth-century Vandals and Visigoths. Still others, at least in the Protestant countries, were to be found among the villains of the Inquisition and Counter-Reformation, who sullied the early pristine Church. This is a diverse group, but they all taint and infect an otherwise pure tradition. Countless examples could be adduced, but two will serve. Linacre's motto, ad fontes, suggests the tenor: the desire is to arrive at the pure source, to drink from waters yet unpolluted. At the other end of the Renaissance, Milton, decked out in his full Puritan gear, develops the motif in characterizing the "threefold corruption" of the medieval bishops:

1. The best times were spreadingly infected. 2. The best men of those times fouly tainted. 3. The best writings of those men dangerously adulterated.2
Though I'm not interested in identifying specific sources, I suggest that the eighteenth century inherited this Renaissance concern with purity. To judge by the front matter of the Dictionary alone,3 Johnson was attuned to their discourse of linguistic and cultural corruption; the metaphorical richness of the humanist tradition fills both the Preface and the History.

A guardian of the language, then, is charged with defending English from linguistic vandals. Johnson leaves little doubt as to the identity of these modern-day barbarians. "The whole fabrick and scheme of the English language," he writes, "is Gothick or Teutonick" (sig. D1r); but "Our language ... has ... been gradually departing from its original Teutonick character, and deviating towards a Gallick structure and phraseology." The French, then, are the invaders, the well-poisoners. The inversion of the hierarchy of Romance over Germanic languages, already in place in antiquity (including Tacitus) and reinforced by the sack of cultured Rome by Teutonic louts, would not likely be missed by contemporary readers.

We should be precise about the crime of which the French are accused. Though not a great etymologist, Johnson of course knew that many thousands of English words are of French origin. "Phraseology" is not a mere synonym for "words":

Single words may enter by thousands, and the fabrick of the tongue continue the same, but new phraseology changes much at once; it alters not the single stones of the building, but the order of the columns. (sig. C2v)
The danger Johnson sees is that, in the century or so before the Dictionary's publication in 1755, English was being shaken at its foundations by modern authors, "by their knowledge of foreign languages, or ignorance of their own, by vanity or wantonness, by compliance with fashion, or lust of innovation" (sig. b1v).

Johnson is not, however, engaging in knee-jerk Gaul bashing. His respect for French writers, beginning with Scaliger, Thuanus, and Montaigne in the Renaissance and running through his own age, is sincere. The problem isn't that the French language is bad or dirty, but that it doesn't belong in the English language. Languages, it seems, are mutually corrupting.


The Renaissance provides not only the source of the metaphor, but a model of proper linguistic purity. Some wells, that is, remain undefiled: they are "the writers before the restoration." The Dictionary shows, perhaps better than any of his other works, both the depth and the breadth of Johnson's reading in these authors. Among the fifteen most-quoted authors in the Dictionary are seven canonical authors of the English Renaissance, who were achieving their canonical status at just this time: Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon, Spenser, Hooker, Browne, and Sidney. The thousands of quotations from the Bible come from the 1611 Authorized Version, the only translation Johnson mentions with anything other than scorn. And some of the most characteristically "Johnsonian" words -- adscititious, dignotion, vermiculation -- are owing to Johnson's professed aim in The Rambler: "I have familiarized the terms of philosophy by applying them to popular ideas, but have rarely admitted any word not authorized by former writers."4

So it is in the "former writers" that linguistic purity is to be found, and tracing the ascent of this standard is the business of the Preface and History. "Every language," says Johnson, "has a time of rudeness antecedent to perfection," a time which took the better part of a millennium, from the middle of the eighth century to the end of the sixteenth. By then, though, the process had reached its peak, and from the writers of that time a pure and copious language may be collected:

From the authours which rose in the time of Elizabeth, a speech might be formed adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance. If the language of theology were extracted from Hooker and the translation of the Bible; the terms of natural knowledge from Bacon; the phrases of policy, war, and navigation from Raleigh; the dialect of poetry and fiction from Spenser and Sidney; and the diction of common life from Shakespeare, few ideas would be lost to mankind, for want of English words, in which they might be expressed. (sig. C1r)
The late sixteenth century, of course, probably saw a greater influx of Romance words than the middle eighth (or the middle eighteenth, for that matter), but we can set aside the question of whether Johnson's historical sense was accurate. (We must also set aside the exquisite irony of the sesquipedalian Johnson -- accused in his own day of writing Latin words with English terminations -- calling for a Germanic English.) The fact remains that he was concerned with erecting the age of Elizabeth as the standard of purity. And just as he inverts the centuries-old hierarchy of Romance over Germanic languages, he associates not only "use" with the basic Saxon vocabulary, but appropriates even traditionally latinate "elegance" for the English authors, leaving little to be desired from outsiders.

Johnson strives, that is, for a minimally adequate vocabulary -- "admitting ... only such as may supply real deficiencies" -- such as we see in the last Rambler: "I believe that whoever knows the English tongue in its present extent, will be able to express his thoughts without further help from other nations" (Rambler 208; V, 319).


I have explored some of the analogues to humanism, but with this notion of minimal sufficiency, "without further help from other nations," other possibilities may be nearer to hand.

I don't suggest that the following passage from 1684 is anything like a source for the Preface, but Johnson's writings share at least some superficial characteristics with the Marquess of Halifax's third-person comments on himself:

But for the earth of England, though perhaps inferior to that of many places abroad, to him there is divinity in it, and he would rather die than see a spire of English grass trampled down by a foreign trespasser.5
This sort of nationalism, I suggest, has lexicographical cousins. John Cannon, one of the more learned and moderate commentators on the difficult matter of Johnson's politics, is unequivocal: "In the Dictionary, ... a national purpose was clear from the outset."6 Sledd and Kolb, among the most important modern commentators on the Dictionary, also hear patriotic echoes not only in Johnson but in the other two great early modern lexicographical projects, the Italian Vocabolario and the French Dictionnaire.7 But not everyone agrees. Daisuke Nagashima uses the History of the English Language to argue that Johnson was less nationalistic than many earlier writers on language:
In accordance with Wallis as against the linguistic nationalists from Camden to Bailey, Johnson clearly distinguishes "the Saxon (Old English)" from "the present English." ... Johnson's basic purpose in the history ... lies in displaying the historical changes, rather than the continuous identity, of his mother tongue.8
I don't know that the recurring emphasis on the Teutonic roots of English bears out Nagashima's claim, but even if Johnson does not consistently trace English back to the age of the Egg Kings, Elizabeth's England is a source of not only a linguistic normative standard, but a political one as well. The victory over the Spanish Armada, for instance, was still a defining moment in the English national story nearly two centuries later.

Cannon pithily sums up some of the traps into which we might fall when we drag nationalism into the eighteenth century: "The concept of nationalism has been almost as troublesome to historians as the practice of it has been to rulers" (p. 216). The conventional view was clearly formulated half a century ago: "Nationalism, as we understand it, is not older than the second half of the eighteenth century. Its first great manifestation was the French Revolution."9 But I suggest that if national identity proceeds through the exclusion of the foreign and the insistence on the adequacy of the national culture, it has unmistakable similarities to the discourse of purity and contamination. The early humanists, it is true, formulated a trans-European rather than a nationalistic identity, no doubt because the fragmentation of the Italian principalities (and later the thriving tramontane humanism) made identification with a single nation-state problematic. But even by the late sixteenth century, the same valorization of purity and castigation of barbarism found a place in nationalistic discourse: one needn't look further than John of Gaunt's "fortress built by nature for herself, against infection."

John Barrell may overstate the case when he argues "Johnson's appeal to the 'orthography of our fathers' is closely related to that deference to the wisdom of our political forefathers,"10 but I think he is right when he says "good usage is to be defined nationalistically" (p. 155) -- or at least that good usage and nationalism proceed by similar means in the eighteenth century, and that both look backwards. In both explicitly political nationalism and the celebration of "our ancient volumes," the same habit of mind is at work: both seek a foundation on which English linguistic or political authority can rest, and they work by characterizing the foreign as impure. The only difference lies in the synchronic versus the diachronic application of this paradigm: nationalism applies the metaphors of purity and corruption spatially; the extolling of Renaissance authors applies them chronologically. Both seek to justify and to constitute a privileged point, temporal or geographical, as normative by treating any deviation from it as barbaric corruption. Eighteenth-century writers used the previous age and its paradigms to understand, and even create, themselves: they used a Renaissance metaphor to valorize Renaissance authors to borrow the political glory of the Renaissance. I haven't time to argue that Johnson is in any way representative of his time, though I hope to do that elsewhere. Here I'd like only to suggest that the linguistic, national, and historical identity of an era can be constituted through the sort of cultural historiography Johnson employs in his Dictionary, and that this is one of the ways in which the age of Johnson worked to define itself through the age of Elizabeth.


1. Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols. (London, 1755), sig. C1r.

2. Of Reformation, in The Complete Prose Works of John Milton, ed. Douglas Bush et al. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1953-82), I, 549.

3. In "Johnson's Attitudes toward French Influence on the English Language" (Modern Philology, 78 [1981], 243-60), Thomas Gilmore calls Johnson's Dictionary "the only work by a major writer whose preface is read more often than the work itself and usually without extensive reference to it." I plead guilty as charged, but will note briefly that his practice in the text of the Dictionary doesn't entirely bear out the principles in the preface. But his excoriation of words as "barbarous" (forty-nine, by my count, in the first edition) shows that he can at least sometimes hear the barbarians at the gates: thirty-five usage notes and fourteen etymologies call words or usages "barbarous," "barbaric," "barbarism," "used by barbarians," and so on. The Dictionary suggests, and the OED confirms, that barbarous (pertaining to verbal solecisms) and barbaric (vicious, savage, uncivilized) had not yet gone their separate ways in the eighteenth century. For Johnson, barbarity comprises both "A form of speech contrary to the purity and exactness of any language" and "Brutality; savageness of manners; incivility."

4. Rambler 208; in The Rambler, ed. Walter Jackson Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969), V, 319.

5. Complete Works, ed. J. P. Kenyon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), p. 96.

6. John Cannon, Samuel Johnson and the Politics of Hanoverian England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 237.

7. "The two academies and Johnson all make a good deal of their patriotic purposes, and each has discovered a golden age for the native language: the fourteenth century for Italian, the seventeenth century for French, from the time of Sidney to the Restoration for English" (James H. Sledd and Gwin J. Kolb, Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: Essays in the Biography of a Book [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955], p. 25).

8. Daisuke Nagashima, Johnson the Philologist (Osaka: Intercultural Research Institute, 1988), p. 75.

9. Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in its Origins and Background (New York: Macmillan, 1944), p. 3. As recently as 1989, this conventional view has been stated with even less subtlety: "Nationalism in the modern sense does not date back further than the revolutionary turmoil that troubled the second half of the eighteenth century. It was born in France" (Peter Alter, Nationalism, tr. Stuart McKinnon-Evans [London: Edward Arnold, 1989], p. 56).

10. English Literature in History, 1730-80: An Equal, Wide Survey (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983), p. 152.