Samuel Johnson’s Peculiar Dictionary

A dictionary should be scientifically objective—or should it?

Modern dictionaries have a longer masthead than the average magazine; my copy of Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary lists 25 editors. But the first—and still, by some measures, the best—comprehensive dictionary of the English language had only one name on the title page: “Dr. Samuel Johnson, A.M.” The master’s degree was honorary—in fact, Johnson had only one year of university education before poverty forced him to leave the bowers of Oxford for the hard labor of Grub Street. (“Grubstreet: Originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet.”) His education, like his dictionary, was strictly a product of his own industry and genius.

Of all Johnson’s works, A Dictionary of the English Language is probably the most impressive and the least known. His essays in The Idler and The Rambler, his poems “London”and “The Vanity of Human Wishes,”his masterful Lives of the English Poets—all of these are still read, by people who read such things. But Johnson’s dictionary is known mainly from Boswellian anecdotes—as when a woman asked him how he came to define “pastern,” wrongly, as “the knee of a horse.” “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance,” he replied, managing, in a typically Johnsonian way, to turn humility into hauteur.

Certainly it would not do to go through the libraries of the world replacing the OED with Johnson’s dictionary. His definitions are sometimes wrong (as with “pastern”), sometimes whimsical (“lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge”), and sometimes opinionated (“sonnet: A short poem consisting of fourteen lines … It is not very suitable to the English language”). Often he records accurately an 18th-century definition that is now hopelessly inadequate (“electricity: A property in some bodies, whereby, when rubbed so as to grow warm, they draw little bits of paper, or such like substances, to them”). And, of course, many words have simply changed their meaning from Johnson’s time to ours (“cartoon: A painting or drawing upon large paper”; “advertisement: 1. Instruction; admonition; 2. Intelligence; information; 3. Notice of any thing published in a paper of intelligence”).

But it is just these qualities that make Johnson’s dictionary a delightful book and certainly the best dictionary for reading and browsing. This is especially true of the new edition, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, edited by Jack Lynch (to be published on Sept. 18, 2003, Johnson’s 294th birthday). * Lynch has selected 3,100 entries—out of Johnson’s original 42,000—for the beautifully produced volume, which also includes a useful introduction and the full text of Johnson’s preface,one of the best examples of his classical, magniloquent prose. Reading the dictionary in this form makesclear that what separates Johnson from the standard modern lexicographer is not just time and methodology, but his basic understanding of language: He isliterary and subjective, rather than scientific and objective.

Of course, the scientific, objective dictionary has an important purpose. Anyone trying to find out about the ape would learn more from Webster (“any of a family [Pongidae] of large tailless semierect primates”) than from Johnson (“A kind of monkey remarkable for imitating what he sees”). But then again, is the Webster definition really more illuminating? Certainly the ape is a member of the family Pongidae, but practically, isn’t it more important to know that an ape is remarkable for imitating what he sees since that is the sense that the word “ape” conveys to an English-speaker? Perhaps it is his very lack of scientific knowledge that makes Johnson more alert to the word as we use it, rather than as it would appear in a textbook on primates. He is less concerned about fixing the word with an absolute definition than suggesting its range of tones and implications.

The difference could be captured by imagining each dictionary’s ideal reader. The modern dictionary’s ideal reader is a Martian scientist: someone with no background knowledge, no context or assumptions, who wants a unique definition for every word. Johnson’s dictionary, on the other hand, implies a reader much like Johnson himself: a curious and intelligent speaker of English who comes to the dictionary not to learn the meanings of familiar words, but to gain a fuller sense of them—their overtones, history, and idiomatic use. Johnson recognizes the paradox of the dictionary—you have to know most of what’s in it in order to use it—and writes accordingly.

If Johnson’s dictionary is literary in this fundamental sense, it is also a part of English literature in at least three other ways. First, it illustrates most words with quotations, making the book as much an anthology as a dictionary: With its passages from Addison and Swift, Locke and Milton, Pope and Newton, there could be no better way to get a sense of classic English prose and verse style. Johnson gets more examples from Shakespeare than any other writer, and Lynch’s edition includes a useful index of these citations by play.

Second, as Lynch points out, Johnson’s was the dictionary used by every English writer of the 19th century, from Jane Austen to Oscar Wilde. Any reader confused by an old meaning or unexpected nuance in those writers could find enlightenment in Johnson, who not only used their language but helped to make it. Finally, Johnson’s own writing is a model of style. Instead of Fowler or Strunk and White, writers might want to turn to Johnson for lessons in good writing—above all, how to convey the most information in the fewest and clearest words. Johnson’s dictionary may not be perfect, but it’s still the greatest work of literature in the reference section.

Correction, Sept. 17, 2003: This article originally stated that Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary was issued to commemorate Johnson’s 194th birthday. Johnson would have been 294 this year. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)