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”.
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.”