Collection Spotlight

Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language

Samuel Johnson’s ground-breaking A Dictionary of the English Language is one of the most famous English-language dictionaries in history. Published in 1755, it became the foremost English dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was published in the early 1900s. The Library of Parliament’s rare book room holds a first-edition copy of Johnson’s masterpiece.

In 1746, a group of London booksellers commissioned Johnson to produce a dictionary of the English language. Over the next eight years, he scoured books dating back to the 16th century. The dictionary drew heavily from Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum (1730) and John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708).

While Johnson’s dictionary wasn’t the first dictionary of the English language, no other dictionary had been so comprehensive: it has 42,773 entries and 140,871 definitions. It was also the first dictionary to illustrate words by using literary quotations – about 114,000 of them – from great writers, including Shakespeare. Johnson’s dictionary would also influence the American A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary.

Some entries have gained notoriety, especially those where Johnson expresses his own views and interests. Excise is defined 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 Johnson’s eye, Lunch is simply “as much food as one’s hand can hold.” He also did not spare himself in describing his own profession, Lexicographer, which he defined as “harmless drudgery.”

If you’re into word games, impress your opponents by playing these terms from Johnson’s dictionary:

  • Wawl: To cry; to howl
  • Slubberdegullion: Paltry dirty sorry wretch
  • Ophiophagous: Serpent-eating

Details

  • Complete title: A dictionary of the English language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers: to which are prefixed a history of the language, and an English grammar.
  • London, printed by J. Strahan, for J. & P. Knapton, et al., 1755.
  • There are four volumes, each measuring 42 x 27 x 15 cm.
  • The Library of Parliament’s copy once belonged to William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland. 
A Dictionary of the English Language, de Samuel Johnson
First edition of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English language. Folio, four volumes.
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Johnson’s longest entry, “Take,” occupies 11 full columns of print.
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The bookplate shows the copy came from the library of William Cavendish-Bentinck, 6th Duke of Portland.