15 April 1755: Samuel Johnson publishes his Dictionary

On this day in 1755, Samuel Johnson published his “Dictionary of the English Language”, after over eight years work, and with the help of six assistants.

Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language was far more than a catalogue of words. It was a source of national pride on its publication in London on 15 April 1755, as well as a best-seller and a personal triumph for Johnson.

When he accepted a commission from a group of booksellers to write a dictionary, he was already 46 years old, and penniless. Johnson was paid 1,500 guineas enough to rent a house off Fleet Street and hire a team of assistants. And he was given three years to do it in.

It was a colossal undertaking. France's Dictionnaire had taken 40 scholars 55 years to write, so Johnson can be forgiven for overrunning his deadline. For over eight years, he worked doggedly, "with little assistance from the learned and without any patronage of the great".

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He was even beset by tragedy when his beloved wife Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter sickened and died in 1752, but still the booksellers tapped their feet impatiently.

Restoring order and tracking changes in the English language was a Herculean task, for which Johnson blamed the traders of Britain's burgeoning empire.

"Commerce, however necessary, however lucrative, as it depraves the manners, corrupts the language; they that have frequent intercourse with strangers, to whom they endeavour to accommodate themselves, must in time learn a mingled dialect, like the jargon which serves the traffickers on the Mediterranean and Indian coasts."

Johnson freely admitted that his dictionary was far from perfect. But at its completion, the Dictionary of the English Language ran to 2,300 pages and contained close to 43,000 entries, or around 80% of the English words in use.

And nor could Johnson resist adding a touch of his own humour, famously defining a "lexicographer" as a "harmless drudge". For "oats", he wrote "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

Chris Carter

Chris Carter spent three glorious years reading English literature on the beautiful Welsh coast at Aberystwyth University. Graduating in 2005, he left for the University of York to specialise in Renaissance literature for his MA, before returning to his native Twickenham, in southwest London. He joined a Richmond-based recruitment company, where he worked with several clients, including the Queen’s bank, Coutts, as well as the super luxury, Dorchester-owned Coworth Park country house hotel, near Ascot in Berkshire.

Then, in 2011, Chris joined MoneyWeek. Initially working as part of the website production team, Chris soon rose to the lofty heights of wealth editor, overseeing MoneyWeek’s Spending It lifestyle section. Chris travels the globe in pursuit of his work, soaking up the local culture and sampling the very finest in cuisine, hotels and resorts for the magazine’s discerning readership. He also enjoys writing his fortnightly page on collectables, delving into the fascinating world of auctions and art, classic cars, coins, watches, wine and whisky investing.

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