Samuel Johnson, who wrote the English language’s most comprehensive dictionary in the 1750s, has been honoured by a Google Doodle on what would have been his 308th birthday.
Google’s hat-tip is perhaps a little ironic, because the rise of the search engine has been partly responsible for recent declines in dictionary sales, but in many ways Johnson’s original book was a precursor to the search engine.
Johnson, born in 1709, spent nine years working on A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755. It remained the definitive English dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928.
Despite his impact, fortune often eluded Johnson, and he struggled with women and alcohol. However, he is known as one of the world’s greatest lexicographers, as well as the subject of the modern biography.
A Dictionary of the English Language
Johnson, who grew up in Staffordshire, did not create the first English dictionary, but those that preceded his were poor comparisons, often stiff and dry.
It took Johnson nine years to complete (he rarely got up before noon), although he had originally promised to complete it in three. Once finished it was as much of a work of art as one of reference, full of witty definitions. Here are some examples:
Dull: Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work
Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words
Mouth-friend: Someone who pretends to be your friend
Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people
Pension: An allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country
Stockjobber: a low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares
It was hardly comprehensive: the first edition contained just 42,773 entries, compared to more than 250,000 words in the English language.
Contrary to one particular Blackadder sketch, the dictionary does, in fact, contain the word “sausage”.
Personal life and career
While Johnson is best known for his dictionary, he had an accomplished career even without it. He was a poet and spent years creating a collection of the works of Shakespeare.
Despite professional success however, Johnson – disfigured from childhood tuberculosis – often found himself in debt and had little luck with women. His wife Tetty became addicted to laudanum – opium dissolved in alcohol – and died in 1752, before his dictionary was completed.
He then fell in love with a married woman named Hester Thrale. When Thrale’s husband died she moved to Italy to marry her music teacher.
His life also made him the subject of the first modern biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell.
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
“Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young.”
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” (On the subject of drink)
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”