Friday, April 15, 2011

Notes For April 15th, 2011

This Day In Writing History

On April 15th, 1755, A Dictionary of the English Language, the classic reference book by legendary British writer Samuel Johnson, was published. It wasn't the first English language dictionary published, nor would it be the last. However, it was one of the most memorable dictionaries ever published, as it was written by Samuel Johnson - the British poet, essayist, literary critic, biographer, and lexicographer considered to be "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history."

Most dictionaries of the time were found to be unsatisfactory at best, so in 1746, a group of London booksellers commissioned Samuel Johnson to write a dictionary for £1,575 - the equivalent of £230,o00 in today's money. Johnson claimed that he could complete the work in three years, but it took him nearly nine years to finish his dictionary.

It took Johnson a whole year just to draft a plan for the design of his dictionary. The plan received the support of statesman Lord Philip Stanhope, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. After the dictionary was published, Stanhope wrote an anonymous essay endorsing the work and complaining that the English language lacked structure. Johnson didn't like the tone of the essay and felt that Stanhope hadn't done enough to fulfill his obligations as patron of the dictionary.

The first edition of A Dictionary of the English Language was published in a ponderously large sized volume, (18" tall by 20" wide) on the finest quality paper available, making it incredibly expensive to print and affordable only by nobility and royalty. Johnson called this volume "Vasta mole superbus." - "Proud in its great bulk."

Johnson's dictionary contained the definitions of 42,773 words (only a few more words would be added in its revised editions) and was innovative in its use of literary quotations used to illustrate the meanings of words. The dictionary contained some 114,000 quotations by authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Dryden.

In addition to the quotations, Johnson's dictionary was the first to use humor in its definitions of words. A famous example is Johnson's definition of the word oats as "a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people." The legendary American writer Ambrose Bierce would employ similar humor in his masterpiece of scathing satire, The Devil's Dictionary (1911).

A Dictionary of the English Language was a huge hit in England, receiving rave reviews and becoming famous throughout Europe. In America, however, it was poorly received, especially by an American lexicographer named Noah Webster, who argued that British English should no longer be the American standard because "the taste of [Britain's] writers is already corrupted, and her language is on the decline." Webster would later write a famous dictionary of his own - a dictionary of American English.

In England, Samuel Johnson's dictionary would be viewed as the preeminent English dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was completed and published in 1884. It earned Johnson a £300 pension from King George III and a legacy that continues to this day.

Quote Of The Day

"Books, like friends, should be few and well-chosen." - Samuel Johnson

Vanguard Video

Today's video features an episode of the Learning English series that takes a look at Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. Enjoy!


Doug said...

Great article. Did this dictionary every get down-sized so as to be affordable by the English commoner?

Eric Petersen said...

Thanks, Doug. Yes, for many years, Samuel Johnson's dictionary was available in affordable "replica editions." However, the Oxford English Dictionary has been the standard British English dictionary since 1884.

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