It’s the birthday of English essayist, poet, biographer, and lexicographer Samuel Johnson (1709) (books by this author), who compiled A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), a massive, 21-pound tome that remained the definitive dictionary for 150 years, until the completion of the first Oxford English Dictionary.
Johnson was born to a bookseller and his wife in Lichfield, Staffordshire. Of his birth, he said, “I was born almost dead and could not cry for some time.” He was in such poor health as a baby, his aunt remarked that “she would not have picked such a poor creature up in the street.” Johnson suffered from scrofula, a form of tuberculosis. He was also slightly deaf, with impaired vision.
Johnson attended Pembroke College, Oxford, for a year before he had to leave for lack of funds. He moved to London and taught for a time, though he had a series of tics and odd gestures that sometimes prevented him being hired. He was even passed over for a position as headmaster. The school’s director found him “a very haughty, ill-natured gent, and that he has such a way of distorting his face (which though he can’t help) the gents think it may affect some lads.” It’s now thought that Johnson suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, which had no diagnosis at the time.
Johnson opened a private school, called Edial Hall School (1735), with his wife’s money, but he had only three students, and the school closed.
He was writing, though, for The Gentlemen’s Magazine (1735), and imitation poems, which were well received, but made him no money. He even wrote a play, Irene, which had a successful run (1749), but was never performed anywhere, ever again, until 1999, making it the most unsuccessful play ever written by a major author.
In 1746, he was approached by a band of London booksellers about the possibility of creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language. Johnson jumped at the opportunity, telling them he could do it in three years. It took him nine, even with assistants. When it was done, the Dictionary of the English Language had over 42,773 entries and was 20 inches wide when opened. It weighed almost 21 pounds and was one of the largest books every printed. Samuel Johnson pronounced it “Vasta mole superbus (Proud in its great bulk).”
One of his innovations was to illustrate the meanings of the words with literary quotations, most commonly from Shakespeare. There were almost 115,000 quotations when the book was done. Johnson also introduced humor. For instance, the definition of “Lexicographer” is listed as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the significance of words.” “Oats” is defined as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” Johnson was not fond of Scotland and its people.
The dictionary was widely hailed as a triumph, though Johnson had his detractors, with one Thomas Babington Macaulay calling him “a wretched etymologist.” Johnson was also a bit lazy concerning pronunciation. “Cough” is listed simply as being pronounced “coff.”
Samuel Johnson never became rich, though King George did eventually give him a meager yearly stipend. What we know about Samuel Johnson is mostly because of James Boswell, who befriended Johnson when he was 23 and Johnson was 54. Boswell kept copious diaries and his biography, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), is considered the finest biography in all of literature. Boswell was so persistent with Johnson that Johnson once quipped, “One would think the man has been hired to spy on me.”
Samuel Johnson died in 1784. His books include Life of Richard Savage (1744) and Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779).