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Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 10:31 UK

The book that influenced all others

By Bob Chaundy

Samuel Johnson, born 300 years ago this week, wrote one of the most important books in the English language. So what made his dictionary so special?

"Dictionaries", said Samuel Johnson, "are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true."

Samuel Johnson
Johnson was buried in Westminster Abbey

It may not have achieved perfection, but Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, is generally regarded as one of the most important works of scholarship in the English language.

Such was its authority that it remained the most pre-eminent of its kind for more than 170 years, until the advent of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. Johnson introduced a literary quality to lexicography that remains an influence to this day.

Remarkably, during the nine years it took him to complete his work, his wife Elizabeth, known as Tetty, died and he suffered increasing bouts of depression that had afflicted him throughout his life.

"the animal that spins webs for flies"

London Eye
"a circular body that turns round upon an axis"

"a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people"

It wasn't just the wealth of poems, essays, novels, and literary criticism that inspired a group of publishers to commission the dictionary from Dr Johnson, but also his reputation for tackling the most daunting of literary tasks such as compiling comprehensive reports of parliamentary debates.

Books were in his blood. He was born the son of a bookseller and from an early age devoured the wide range of literature at his disposal.

"He had an amazing memory," says Joanne Wilson, curator of the Samuel Johnson Museum situated at his birthplace in Lichfield, Staffordshire.

"He was a walking encyclopaedia and there's a story that when he was three, his mother handed him a large section of the Book of Common Prayer, and he had memorised it within minutes."

Reading 2,000 books

Johnson's wasn't the first English dictionary; around 20 had been produced previously, most notably Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum of 1721. But there was open dissatisfaction with their lack of authority and style.

"Many of the previous English lexicographers had been schoolmasters who were didactic but not necessarily authoritative," says John Simpson, chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

"Johnson brought an authority which tied in with the spirit of the times, basing literature on classical models and so on."

Henry Hitchings, author of the 2005 book Dr Johnson's Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World, describes how Johnson's working method was innovative.

took eight years to compile
listed 40,000 words
required six helpers
included 114,000 quotations
words such as bang, budge, fuss, gambler and touchy were omitted

"He started not by coming up with a list of words like previous compilers had, but by reading 2,000 books. When he saw words that were interesting, he marked notes on them in the margin. So usage became his primary criterion and he had at least one quotation for each word."

Samuel Johnson also brought elegance to his definitions. Whereas Bailey described a wheel as "a round device too well known to need description", and a spider as "an insect well known", Johnson defined a wheel as "a circular body that turns round upon an axis", and a spider as "the animal that spins webs for flies".

Johnson defined a trance as "a temporary absence of the soul", and a rant as "high sounding language unsupported by dignity of thought".

He also enjoyed asserting his own prejudices into his definitions. Suicide became "the horrid crime of destroying one's self".

Johnson set out with the intention of embalming English for all time, but he soon recognised that language has a plastic nature that can't be set in aspic
Henry Hitchings

He described excise as "a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid".

In some ways, Johnson was influential without necessarily breaking new ground.

As John Simpson of the OED points out, "he brought together elements of layout and style which had appeared separately in other dictionaries, things like etymology square brackets which give the words' origins, the numbers given for different senses of the word, labelling, quotations and so on. So, he was important for bringing these elements together in one place."

Johnson was also a driver of standardising English, particularly spelling. He was writing at a time of an explosion in popular print culture, with newspapers, magazines, posters and so on.

Yet, as Henry Hitchings observes, "Johnson set out with the intention of embalming English for all time, but he soon recognised that language has a plastic nature that can't be set in aspic."

One of the patrons of the Samuel Johnson tercentenary celebrations is the actor Robbie Coltrane who, in a famous Blackadder episode is enraged when he realises, after reading Baldrick's "semi-autobiographical" novel, that he has omitted the word "sausage" from his dictionary.

It's paradoxical that Coltrane is a Scot given Johnson's famous aversion to the people north of the border.

Perhaps Samuel Johnson's most famous definition is of oats described as "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people".

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Indeed a work the perispication of which embiggens the smallest mind.
Martin Herbert, Llanidloes, Wales

As a scholar who was orthographically challenged I always took solace in the fact that my surname was spelt JohnsTon.
S Johnston, Southend-on-sea

Johnson was indeed a pioneer. I am anaspeptic, phrasmotic, even compunctious if anyone has had pericombubulations to read his work.
Robbie, Blantyre

I blame Dr Johnson for the my dyslexia and for increasing illiteracy. He was more interested in demonstrating the etymology of words in their spelling, rather than making them easy to pronounce or spell. Now, remind me again, how do you pronounce 'ough'? Through, thorough, cough, Loughborough, bough, chough. Thanks Dr. Johnson.
Rory , UK

Tony Howe - very good. I wondered how long it would take to get a Blackadder joke in there. My favourite: Dog - NOT a cat.
Ian, Swadlincote

When Johnson remarked to Boswell that in England they fed to horses what in Scotland they fed to people, Boswell replied "Aye; better horses, better people."
Ian H Thain, Banbury, Oxfordshire

My favourite entries are: "Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words" and "Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman" Just goes to show that certain words have not lost their meanings in the last 250 years!
Rod, Edinburgh

It is hardly right to say that Johnson had an aversion to the Scots. He enjoyed and appreciated the company of Scots during his travels. On the other hand he was appalled and upset by the poverty and hardship he witnessed in the Highlands.
John, Edinburgh

Johnson's dictionary is a work of genius. We must offer our most sincere contrafibularities.
Tony Howe, London

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