Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Samuel Johnson's "A Dictionary of the English Language"

[This month marks the 256th anniversary of the publication of “A Dictionary of the English Language,” the first definitive English dictionary. Today, we’d like to take a moment to celebrate the man behind the book, the famous (and infamous) Dr. Samuel Johnson...

To understand Dr. Johnson’s undertaking, we first have to tell you about the state of Englishlexicography in the middle of the 18th Century: It did not exist. There were a handful ofglossaries of difficult words, but overall, there was no reference for the English reader to consult if a word was unfamiliar. In addition, books were becoming widely available and literacy in England was growing. Several book publishers got together and commissioned Dr. Johnson to compile a dictionary similar to the one created by the French Academy. In France, that effort took 40 scholars 40 years to complete. Johnson, in a barb aimed at the supposed inferiority of the French, said he could do it in three: “This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.” It took Johnson 9 years to complete...

 Johnson wrote all the definitions himself with humor and style:
“Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
“Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman.”]

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