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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 March 2005, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
The A-Z of Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson. Courtesy trustees of the Johnson Birthplace, Lichfield
One of the most influential contributors to modern language, Samuel Johnson's Dictionary is celebrating its 250th anniversary. As the Royal Mint marks the occasion by releasing a special set of 50p coins, the Magazine pays tribute with an A-Z of the man behind the book.

A is for Authoritative - Samuel Johnson's dictionary was not, as often thought, the first English dictionary. But the quality of definitions, its numerous senses of a term and the quotations to illustrate usage made it the standard English dictionary for a century and the basis for those that followed.

B is for Boswell - Johnson is probably remembered as much for things he said as those he wrote, largely thanks to his friend James Boswell who recorded in his biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, many now-famous utterances.

C is for the Club - Johnson in 1764 helped found the Club, later renamed the Literary Club, whose members included Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and Boswell.

D is for Doctor - He was awarded Doctor of Laws degrees by Dublin University in 1765 and Oxford University in 1775, and is often referred to simply as Dr Johnson.

E is for English - Johnson's dictionary was intended to be the English equivalent of volumes produced decades earlier by Italian and French academies. A group of publishers contracted him to produce it in three years. When reminded that it had taken 40 French academics 40 years to produce theirs, Johnson apparently replied: "Forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman."

F is for First impressions - Johnson was six feet tall, clumsy, partially blind and deaf, and suffered involuntary convulsions, leading many to mistake him as ill-mannered. Boswell's biography says painter William Hogarth thought Johnson was an "idiot" until the writer spoke to reveal his eloquence.

G is for Grave - Following his death on 13 December 1784, Johnson was buried in London's Westminster Abbey.

H is for Hodge - Johnson was a great lover of cats. Boswell's biography describes him buying oysters for Hodge, his pet at the home in Gough Square, London, where he wrote his dictionary. A statue of that "very fine cat indeed" now stands outside.

I is for Illness - Childhood illness including smallpox and scrofula - tuberculosis of the lymph nodes - left Johnson blind in one eye and almost deaf in one ear. His battle with ill health continued throughout his life.

J is for Journalism - Johnson made a living largely from journalism shortly after arriving in London. From 1738 he contributed to almost every edition of the Gentleman's Magazine, writing foreign and domestic news and book reviews.

K is for Kindness - Never experiencing great wealth himself, Johnson showed generosity and kindness to beggars, prostitutes, children and animals. One example is given in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, where he found a poor, tired woman lying in the street, carried her home and at 'considerable expense' had her taken into care.

L is for London - One of the dominant figures of 18th Century London literary life, Johnson said: "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life - for there is in London all that life can afford."

Front page of the dictionary
Courtesy trustees of the Johnson Birthplace, Lichfield

M is for Museums - Johnson was born on 7 September 1709 in his parents' home in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield, Staffordshire. The house survives as the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. The Gough Square home where he wrote his dictionary is also a museum.

N is for Notorious - Some of Johnson's dictionary definitions blatantly revealed his own prejudices. In one entry he defined "patron" as "Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery". His bitterness was the product of a row with the fourth Earl of Chesterfield, who had agreed to be the patron of the dictionary but then failed to produce financial backing, giving Johnson a measley 10. Another notorious definition was for "oats", which he said were "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

O is for Overdue - Johnson completed his dictionary in nine years, six years after the original deadline. One of the phrases it used to illustrate usage of the word "dull" read: "To make dictionaries is dull work."

P is for Poverty - His father was a bookseller and the family was beset by financial difficulties during Johnson's childhood. Lack of funds later forced him to leave Pembroke College, Oxford, before earning his degree. He struggled to support himself in teaching and journalism, and was not comfortable until, in 1762, the government granted him a 300 annual pension. Oxford University awarded him an honorary Masters in 1755.

Q is for Quotations - Johnson is said to be the second most-quoted person in English after Shakespeare. His famous sayings include: "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." "A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out." On drinking too much: "He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man."

R is for Regimen - Despite his physical ailments, Johnson participated in a variety of sports including swimming, rowing and riding. He was also known to walk great distances, which it was said he did to shrug off feelings of melancholy. He wrote: "Such is the constitution of man that labour may be styled its own reward; nor will any external incitements be requisite, if it be considered how much happiness is gained, and how much misery escaped, by frequent and violent agitation of the body."

Royal Mint anniversary coin
The special 50p coin sits atop a copy of the dictionary

S is for Sausage - A well-known scene in an episode of the comedy series Blackadder, Ink and Incapability, sends up Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. Taking a strong dislike to Johnson, Blackadder taunts him with impossible words he may have left out (such as "contrafibularities" and "pericombobulation"). It is only when Johnson reads Baldrick's own 'masterpiece' - about a "lovely little sausage called Baldrick", he realises he has omitted the word sausage, leading to him cry out and abandon his book.

T is for Travel - In 1773 Johnson and Boswell set off on a three-month journey to the then uncharted territory of the Scottish highlands and isles. The trip resulted in two books, Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Apparently while travelling, Johnson, inspired by the tales from James Cook's first voyage, imitated a kangaroo and allowed Boswell to dress him up in highland costume.

U is for Underhand - Speculation exists over a possible masochistic relationship between Johnson and one of his closest female friends - Hester Thrale. Although Hester was married to Henry Thrale, a businessman and MP, there is some evidence to suggest a deeper side to their friendship existed. A line in Johnson's diary in 1771, refers to some "mad reflection on shackles and hand-cuffs" while allegedly another letter to Hester, written in French, repeatedly alludes to bondage. A biography by Sir John Hawkins also indicated Johnson had a guilty secret about his sexual past.

V is for Vocabulary - While working on the dictionary, Johnson sought to expand his vocabulary by reading a wide range of specialist and technical texts. He also consulted a copy of Bailey's 1736 dictionary and read through a large collection of books for useful quotations.

W is for Wife - Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, more than 20 years his senior, in 1735. He was devoted to his wife, known as Tetty, until her death in 1752. He is believed to have later considered and decided against remarrying, describing second marriages as: "The triumph of hope over experience."

X is for Excluded - Samuel Johnson's dictionary had no entries for the letter "X" as he claimed that it begins no word in the English language.

Y is for Yuck - Samuel Johnson described the word "yuck" only as "itch" in his Dictionary, and wrote the word's origins to be Dutch.

Z is for Zed - Dr Johnson's definition read: "Zed n.s The name of the letter z. Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter. Shakespeare. "


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