How Johnson's Dictionary
Became the First Dictionary

By Jack Lynch

Delivered 25 August 2005 at the Johnson and the
English Language conference, Birmingham

Pity the lot of the eighteenth-century scholar. Whenever I'm introduced to someone outside academia — say, when I'm allowed into decent company and taken to a party — it's just a matter of time before the "What do you do?" question arises, and I'm forced to confess that I teach literature in a university. About half the people who get that answer have the good sense to excuse themselves and look for more interesting company, but the remainder feel obliged to make conversation, and so they ask, "And do you specialize in some period?" When I admit that I teach eighteenth-century literature, about half of the remaining half follows their wiser forerunners by pretending to look for a spouse or needing to refresh a drink. But a small group still remains, and they start searching their memories, trying to remember anything published in eighteenth-century Britain. When I tell them that I focus especially on Samuel Johnson, the conversation is almost always at an end. Still, if layfolk know anything about Samuel Johnson, it's this: he's the one who wrote the first English dictionary. Since I've already bored or frightened away most of the other people in the room, I usually decide it would be merely pedantic to correct them, so I nod uncomfortably.

It's not surprising that they think so, for it's an amazingly widespread error. A quick search of LexisNexis for "Johnson" and "first English dictionary" turns up dozens of results in recent newspapers and magazines; although a few writers bring up the myth to correct it, most report it uncritically. And yet there's really no way we can count English dictionaries so as to make it the first. In the more popular talk I'll give in Oxford, I describe various ways we can assign an ordinal number to Johnson's Dictionary. ESTC tells me there were 663 English books published before 1755 with the word "dictionary" in the title; Robin Alston's monumental bibliography tells me Johnson's is the 177th printing of a general monolingual English dictionary; if we exclude subsequent editions and reprints, looking only at the first printing of each title, it's the twenty-first general monolingual English dictionary. And yet, to the world at large, it remains number one.

I had hoped in this paper to be able to report on the earliest instance of Johnson's Dictionary being called the "first," but I'm afraid I have to admit defeat. The problem is that, the less one knows about Johnson and lexicography generally, the more likely one is to make that vulgar error; but also the less likely one is to make it into the bibliographies we depend on to find such things. I went through many dozens of books and articles catalogued in various Johnsonian bibliographies under "Johnson's Dictionary," but virtually none of them called it the first. On the other hand, the claim shows up regularly in passing mentions of Johnson — but because they're not catalogued anywhere, we have to depend on serendipity to stumble across them. Still, I'd like to speculate on the process by which this myth of priority came about, and to consider some of the consequences of that fact for those of us with a professional interest in the book.

The ubiquity of this blunder may be noteworthy, but it's no great surprise that reporters sometimes get things wrong, and no surprise at all that once something is gotten wrong in prominent places, it's repeated endlessly. More interesting, though, is the way that even those who know better still feel a need to assert some claim of priority. Macaulay, for instance, famously called it "the first dictionary which could be read with pleasure." 1  In 1946 one of Johnson's biographers echoed him in calling it "the first of the readable dictionaries, a book which a man may still peruse with immediate pleasure." 2  In his own Dictionary of the English Language in 1859, Joseph E. Worcester noted — not entirely accurately, but pretty close — that "Johnson was the first to introduce into English lexicography the method of illustrating the different significations of words by examples from the best writers." 3  David Crystal calls it "the first attempt at a truly principled lexicography." 4  There are also people in the know who have tried to make the paradoxical claim that Johnson's really was the first English dictionary, usually through a witty and paradoxical redefinition of one or more of the operative terms. In a lecture called "Dictionary" Johnson, delivered in 1967, J. P. Hardy admitted all the ways in which Johnson was anticipated by his predecessors — "Yet, after this has been said," he writes, "it can still be demonstrated that his was essentially the first English dictionary." 5  For him, "first" means primus inter pares — first in our affection, if not in our chronologies. In a piece in the New York Times Book Review, James L. Clifford admitted that Johnson's wasn't the first English dictionary; "Yet if he made no discoveries, Johnson was the first in England to combine in one reliable work the various functions we now demand of a dictionary." 6  And Walter Jackson Bate calls it "the first modern English dictionary," 7  though he never defines modern.

It's a strange compulsion to repeat something we all know is wrong. I got to see this need up close and personal when I was editing an abridgment of Johnson's Dictionary for a trade press — not a scholarly project by any means, but one aimed at the common reader, at the literate person who has heard of "Johnson's Dictionary" and is curious what all the fuss is about. Although the first sentence of the opening I sent to the publisher was as direct as I knew how to be — "The myth is wrong: Johnson's was not the first English dictionary" — I still had to deal with my editor's desire to find ways in which it really was a kind of first. Likewise with the publicity departments at the three presses that have now issued versions of my abridgment: all looked for copy they could put on their adverts that would bill it as a kind of first. To comply with solicitous editors, in my introduction I call Johnson's Dictionary a "first" three times: I call it "the first 'standard' dictionary," I say it's the first to make extensive use of illustrative quotations, and I quote Allen Reddick's claim that "Johnson's Dictionary was the first to attempt . . . to determine its meanings according to word usage as it was encountered in the works of the authors in the language" — related to, but not exactly the same as, the first to include extensive illustrative quotations.

I can offer two reasons why Johnson's Dictionary may have been promoted to the first of its kind. The first is that most people have no idea how to evaluate a dictionary: many, in fact, never consider the possibility that dictionaries can be better or worse examples of their kind. After all, we're introduced to "the dictionary" as children, the definite article creating a sense of authority that few lexicographers would be so bold as to claim for themselves. If, therefore, an author is supposed to be famous for his or her involvement with a dictionary, it must be the first dictionary, or the biggest dictionary, or some other kind of easily understood superlative — I suspect the very category of "a very good dictionary" means nothing to many people.

The second reason is more interesting, and it shows up in many of the more learned critics' discussions of Johnson's lexicographical priority. I've reported on a few people who've offered limited claims of Johnson's priority; I'll offer a few more. In 1885, Henry B. Wheatley called Johnson's "the first English dictionary that could in any way be considered as a standard, all its predecessors being mere lists of words in comparison." 8  A year later, in Leisure Moments in Gough Square, George Alfred Stringer plagiarized from Wheatley and italicized a first: it was "a work which was so long looked up to as a standard, especially when we reflect that it was the first English dictionary that could be so considered." 9 

Similar sentiments were expressed earlier. One of the earliest claims of firstness I've found is a mention in the second edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, published from 1778 to 1783. The claim there is not that Johnson's was the first English dictionary, exactly, but that it was the only English dictionary — or, rather, the only "regular" English dictionary. The article for Dictionary notes that "The only attempt which has hitherto been made towards forming a regular dictionary of the English language, is that of the learned Dr Samuel Johnson." 10  I have no convincing gloss for the meaning of regular here. It may be OED's sense 3a, "Characterized by the presence or operation of a definite principle; marked or distinguished by steadiness or uniformity of action, procedure, or occurrence." There's also sense 5a, "Conformable to some accepted or adopted rule or standard; made or carried out in a prescribed manner; recognized as formally correct."

Whatever regular meant in 1778, Thomas Tyers made a similar claim in 1783, in his Historical Essay on Mr. Addison: that Johnson was the first and only lexicographer to produce a dictionary worthy of the name. "Addison," he writes in his quick history of recent developments in the language, "now began to read over the works of Tillotson, towards the formation of an English dictionary; for Dryden complained that our language was without one. Swift threw out the hint; . . . Addison began to collect the words; but Johnson, single handed, set about the task in earnest, and finished, tantæ molis erat! the durable fabric of the English language." 11 

If we adjust our criteria and allow "the first dictionary" to mean "the first standard dictionary" — the first one widely perceived as an authoritative standard — then Johnson's does seem to become number one. In fact there are hints that Johnson's was the first authoritative dictionary in writings published even before Johnson was born. In the dedication to Troilus and Cressida, John Dryden commented on the state of linguistic affairs when Shakespeare was writing his version of the play: "he began it without a Grammar and a Dictionary." True enough — Troilus was probably written a few months before Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall appeared — but Dryden insists things haven't gotten better in the intervening decades: "how barbarously we yet write and speak, your Lordship knows, and I am sufficiently sensible in my own English." 12  In his essay "Of the Original and Progress of Satire" Dryden is even more direct: "we have yet no English Prosodia, not so much as a tolerable Dictionary, or a Grammar; so that our Language is in a manner Barbarous."

Dryden, to be fair, was writing before Kersey and before both of Bailey's dictionaries. But when David Hume wrote in 1741 he could choose among a number of recent dictionaries — and yet he too complained that "The Elegance and Propriety of Stile have been very much neglected among us. We have no Dictionary of our Language, and scarce a tolerable Grammar." 13  (It's curious that he says the state of the art in English grammar was more advanced than in lexicography, since the kind of prescriptive manuals we tend to think of as "grammars" really hit their stride in the 1760s and later.) And in 1747, William Warburton noted that "the English tongue, at this Juncture, deserves and demands our particular regard." He lamented that "we have neither Grammar nor Dictionary, neither Chart nor Compass, to guide us through this wide sea of Words." He was convinced such reference works would be impossible until the texts of "our best established Writers" were "correctly settled, and the Phraseology critically examined" — thus his attempt to provide an authoritative text of Shakespeare. 14  In retrospect, it's hard to resist the impression that these writers were waiting for Johnson, almost as Christians read Christ's Advent into the Hebrew Scriptures. And someone who read these quotations from the 1740s could be excused for thinking that Johnson's was really the first English dictionary.

Things get clearer still when Johnson's Dictionary is under way. We all remember Chesterfield's insistence that "The time for discrimination seems to be now come. Toleration, adoption and naturalization have run their lengths. Good order and authority are now necessary." He attributes this sad state of affairs specifically to the lack of an authoritative dictionary: "I had long lamented that we had no lawful standard of our language set up, for those to repair to, who might chuse to speak and write it grammatically and correctly." For authors from Shakespeare to Addison, "a grammar, a dictionary, and a history of our language through its several stages, were still wanting." Even today, at the end of 1754, it's "a sort of disgrace to our nation, that hitherto we have had no . . . standard of our language; our dictionaries at present being more properly what our neighbours the Dutch and the Germans call theirs, word-books, than dictionaries in the superior sense of that title." In these inferior word-books "All words, good and bad, are there jumbled indiscriminately together." He's convinced that Johnson's dictionary will succeed where Cawdrey, Blount, Phillips, Kersey, Bailey, and all the others failed. Chesterfield didn't coin the calque word-book, from Dutch woordboek and German Wörterbuch — it goes back to Florio in 1598 — but it was comparatively rare in English. As the OED notes, "The term is often used where it is desired to avoid the implication of completeness or elaboration of treatment characteristic of a dictionary or lexicon." Chesterfield thereby manages to redefine Dictionary and in the process to eliminate all the others from competition, leaving room for Johnson's to be the first.

And in this sense it may be true, for Johnson's was the first dictionary about which such grand pronouncements were made. None of the twenty earlier monolingual English dictionaries achieved a comparable position in British culture. There's not much evidence that curious lay readers routinely thought to look in a dictionary when they had questions about usage. And none of the earlier lexicographers' names ever came to stand for linguistic authority in the way Johnson's did. Even Nathan Bailey never became a household name. In Lingua Britannica Reformata, Benjamin Martin calls Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum "the best English Dictionary hitherto publish'd," 15  and the number of reprints of both of Bailey's projects suggests they were tremendously successful. And yet it's almost entirely absent from popular consciousness. I've spent a long time scouring English writings from 1721 to 1755 for references to Bailey. My list probably isn't comprehensive, but I imagine it comes close. In 1728 John Oldmixon refers to "Mr. Bailey in his very good Dictionary." 16  In 1731 William Asplin cites Chambers and Bailey for the definition of kebleh-noma, a pocket-compass. 17 

In 1737 the Memoirs of the Society of Grub-Street facetiously advised readers "to consult a very famous book published by . . . N. Bailey, Philologos, I mean his Etymological Dictionary; a book necessary to be frequently consulted by all those, who without any learning pretend to write sense and English." 18  In 1738 David Malcolm complained of errors common in many books, including that of "Mr. Nicholas Bailey, whose English Dictionary has been frequently printed here." 19  In 1740 the editor of Stephen Duck's poems noted that "Bailey's Dictionary instructed him in the Signification of all Words which he thought Uncouth." 20  Bailey is cited briefly in The Irish Spelling-Book of 1740, in Ralph Erskine's Job's Hymns of 1753, and in number 81 of The World. 21  In 1741 Wilkes Wetenhall recommended a reading of Bailey for "a Person deficient" in geography, cosmography, and chronology, and the Female Spectator recommended it as "a Library of itself." 22  In 1748 Thomas Edwards took a potshot at Bailey, noting that Warburton inherited errors from "the Dictionary of N. Bailey, the Philolog., who has taken care to preserve all the cant words he could pick up." 23  And Benjamin Martin gnashed his teeth and lamented that the English "think ourselves learned, if we know how to find out a Word in Bailey's Dictionary." 24  The closest Bailey gets to the big-time is a reference in Tom Jones, following up on Fielding's earlier reference in The Author's Farce: "'Will you never learn the proper Use of Words?' answered the Aunt. 'Indeed Child, you should consult Bailey's Dictionary.'" 25 

Now compare those thirteen or so references over thirty-four years to the many dozens after Johnson published his Dictionary. Most of the references to Bailey have to explain who he is and what he wrote; not so with Johnson. Soon after 1755, his name was shorthand for lexicography generally, and by century's end it was universal. When Henry Tilney questions Catherine Morland's use of the word nicest in Northanger Abbey, Eleanor warns, "You had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson." 26  No name before Johnson was enough to strike that sort of terror into the hearts of those who commit the crime of solecism. It may be significant that the age of the authoritative dictionary and the age of the single-author dictionary have a comparatively small overlap, for only Noah Webster has joined Johnson in this respect.

This emphasis on a "standard" or "authoritative" dictionary inevitably raises the big issue of the degree to which Johnson's Dictionary can be called prescriptive, which is a bigger question than I'm prepared to address. Geoff Barnbrook and Anne McDermott recently published an exchange on the question, and there's little I can add. If it's possible to say anything uncontroversial about Johnson's prescriptivism, it would be that Johnson is more prescriptive than most modern lexicographers, but also less prescriptive than most of his contemporaries expected him to be. I'd remind you, though, that a dictionary needn't be prescriptive in its intentions to provide a definitive standard; it's possible to be authoritative without being authoritarian. The OED, perhaps the most thoroughly descriptive major dictionary ever completed, is today routinely used prescriptively. A search of LexisNexis or similar databases for the phrase "according to the Oxford English Dictionary" is instructive: linguistic scolds routinely turn to it for authoritative guidance on what's right and wrong, even though its editors from Murray through Simpson explicitly disavowed any such intention.

I'm arguing today that it was a similar process two and a half centuries ago that turned Johnson's Dictionary into the first. Chesterfield's comments are important because he makes explicit what many writers leave unsaid: he redefines Dictionary to mean "authoritative dictionary," thereby excluding everything that came before as mere "wordbooks." Others have done much the same thing, only they have not been clear about it: for them a dictionary is synonymous with a "standard dictionary." This redefinition turned Johnson's into the first real dictionary; from there it was a small step for it to become the first dictionary tout court. Whether or not Johnson wanted to assume such a position hardly matters; whether or not earlier lexicographers hoped to do what Johnson is assumed to do matters even less.

I've just begun to consider how this came about. I have only suspicions now, not yet tested against the evidence. But my hunch is that one important factor is simply the scale of Johnson's project, which associates it with the explicitly prescriptive and standardizing works of the Italian and French academies. Britain had long been looking to the Continent for lexicographical models, and when a dictionary appeared that was superficially similar, perhaps it was taken for granted that it wasn't simply a very big word-book but a "real" dictionary. Still, this explanation isn't entirely satisfactory, since even before Johnson's work appeared, before there was a chance to be misled by the bulk of two large folios, there was a sense that it was time for such a work. I don't like to resort to vague explanations that "the time was right," but there was certainly something in the air at midcentury, when it finally seemed time to produce the sort of authoritative and standardizing work that had been expected at least since the Restoration. Still, Johnson's Dictionary managed to fill that role while Benjamin Martin's contemporary dictionary of 1749 never attracted the same kind of reputation. And Martin seems to have been hoping for something like that in his Preface: "The Article of English Dictionaries . . . has been so far from any thing of a Progressive Improvement," he complains, "that it is manifestly retrograde, and sinks from its low Apex; from bad, to very bad indeed." Thus it was no great vanity in him to boast that "this Dictionary is by much the most perfect of its Kind." 27  I hope to develop that line of thought later; I hope also to consider in more detail the consequences of this eighteenth-century association of dictionaries with authoritative dictionaries. I'm convinced, though, that in the history of this widespread misconception about Johnson's Dictionary lie some important lessons about the history of English lexicography generally.


1. Thomas Babington Macaulay, Lord Macaulay, Essay on Johnson, ed. Samuel Thurber and Louise Wetherbee (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1924), p. 25.

2. C. E. Vulliamy, Ursa Major: A Study of Dr. Johnson and His Friends (London: Michael Joseph, 1946), p. 36.

3. Joseph E. Worcester, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1859).

4. David Crystal, The Stories of English (Woodstock and New York: Overlook Press, 2004), p. 382.

5. J. P. Hardy, "Dictionary" Johnson (Armidale, N.S.W.: Univ. of New England, 1967), p. 2.

6. James L. Clifford, "Dr. Johnson's Dictionary: A Memorable Achievement of the Mind," New York Times Book Review, 10 April 1955, p. 7.

7. W. Jackson Bate, The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 23.

8. Henry B. Wheatley, F.S.A., "The Story of Johnson's Dictionary," The Antiquary 11 (Jan. 1885): 11.

9. George Alfred Stringer, Leisure Moments in Gough Square; or, The Beauties and Quaint Conceits of Johnson's Dictionary (Buffalo: Ulbrich & Kingsley, 1886), p. 11.

10. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2nd ed., 10 vols. (Edinburgh, 1778–83), s.v. Dictionary.

11. Thomas Tyers, An Historical Essay on Mr. Addison (London, 1783), p. 39.

12. John Dryden, Dramatic Works, 6 vols. (London, 1725), 5:sig. A6r–v.

13. Hume, "Of Liberty and Despotism," in Essays, Moral and Political (Edinburgh, 1741), p. 179.

14. Warburton, Preface to Shakespeare, in The Works of William Shakespeare, ed. Samuel Johnson, 8 vols. (London, 1765), 1:clxii.

15. Benjamin Martin, Lingua Britannica Reformata (London, 1749), p. iv.

16. John Oldmixon, An Essay on Criticism, as It Regards Design, Thought, and Expression, in Prose and Verse (London, 1728), p. 48.

17. William Asplin, Alkibla, Part II; or, The Disquisition upon Worshiping towards the East Continued (London, 17310, p. 105.

18. Memoirs of the Society of Grub-Street (London, 1737), p. 108.

19. David Malcolm, An Essay on the Antiquities of Great Britain and Ireland: Wherein They Are Placed in a Clearer Light than Hitherto (Edinburgh, 1738), p. 43. The passage is repeated verbatim in A Collection of Letters, in Which the Imperfection of Learning, Even Among Christians, and a Remedy for It, Are Hinted (Edinburgh, 1739), p. 42.

20. Stephen Duck, Poems on Several Subjects Written by Stephen Duck, Lately a Poor Thresher, 9th ed. (Gloucester, [1740?]), p. iii. It is mentioned more briefly in the seventh edition (1730), p. iv.

21. The Irish Spelling-Book; or, Instruction for the Reading of English, Fitted for the Youth of Ireland (Dublin, 1740), p. 78; Ralph Erskine, Jobs Hymns; or, A Book of Songs upon the Book of Job (Glasgow, 1753), p. 10; The World, 4 vols. (London, 1753–57), 2:489.

22. Wetenhall Wilkes, A Letter of Genteel and Moral Advice to a Young Lady, 2nd ed. (Dublin, 1741), p. 115; Eliza Haywood, The Female Spectator, 4 vols. (London, 1745–46), 3:173.

23. Thomas Edwards, A Supplement to Mr. Warburton's Edition of Shakespear: Being the Canons of Criticism, and Glossary, 2nd ed. (London, 1748), p. 31.

24. Benjamin Martin, The Philosophical Grammar: . . . The Fourth Part (London, 1753), p. 28.

25. Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, 3 vols. (Dublin, 1749), 2:10; for The Author's Farce, see The Dramatic Works of Henry Fielding, 3 vols. (London, 1755), 1:29.

26. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, chapter 14.

27. Benjamin Martin, Lingua Britannica Reformata (London, 1749), pp. iii, xi.