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Statue of Dr Samuel Johnson in London

The fascinating origins of Dr. Johnson's iconic dictionary

Image: A statue of Dr Samuel Johnson in London | Electric Egg /


Noun: dictionary; plural noun: dictionaries

A book or electronic resource that lists the words of a language (typically in alphabetical order) and gives their meaning, or gives the equivalent words in a different language, often also providing information about pronunciation, origin, and usage.

It seems appropriate to begin with the dictionary definition of ‘dictionary’, a resource we’ve taken for granted for over 250 years. But Dr Samuel Johnson, a poet, biographer, and essayist, wasn’t the first person to take a stab at listing and defining the words in the English language.

Coote’s English Schoole-Maister (1596) and Thomas Wilson’s Arte of Rhetoricke (1533) helped to fill Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall (1604), which is widely accepted as the first monolingual dictionary of the English language. It was printed over 150 years before Dr Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published on 15th April 1755.

Cawdrey, a schoolteacher and clergyman, published his dictionary of 2,543 ‘hard’ words in response to the proliferation of new words that had appeared in English due to developments in the understanding of science, medicine and the arts.

Cawdrey’s decision to lay out the definition of words is explained in the rather long-winded title of his new book: ‘A table alphabeticall, conteyning and teaching the true writing, and understanding of hard vsuall English wordes, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French, &c. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit & helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easilie and better vnderstand many hard English wordes, vvhich they shall heare or read in scriptures, sermons, or elswhere, and also be made able to vse the same aptly themselues.’

It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and, somewhat ironically, the spelling leaves a lot to be desired too.

To our modern minds, it seems almost incredulous to think that words were simply spelt as they sounded and even William Shakespeare couldn’t even spell his own name consistently. And to some extent, definitions of words and their spelling were somewhat polarised.

For example, Richard Mulcaster’s The First Part of the Elementarie was published 22 years before Table Alphabeticall, but the former is widely regarded as the first book of correct spelling in early modern English, not as a list of early modern English words and their meanings.

It’s also interesting to note that Johnson, like Cawdrey, took some of his words and definitions from other existing dictionaries too. Johnson borrowed from Nathan Bailey's Dictionarium Britannicum (1730), which had acquired material from John Kersey's Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708), which had also obtained definitions from John Harris' A Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1704).

The reasons for this sudden interest in the English words may have been twofold. One was connected to the Royal Society‘s 1664 campaign for ‘improving the English tongue’, while the other derived from a form of Anglo-French sibling rivalry following the publication of the Dictionaire de l'Académie Française in 1687. Now the great and the good lined up to boldly propose how to tackle their version of the dictionary.

But when Johnson wrote his proposal, he was hardly known outside of a small group of like-minded writers. Assistance came in the form of the Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Dormer, a well-connected statesman who donated a much needed £10 to Johnson's project to help get it greenlit.

Nine years later, with the aid of six members of staff, Dr Johnson’s English Dictionary was complete. It was a fast turnaround as the Dictionaire de l'Académie Française had taken 50 years and a team of 40. In the same year, Scott-Bailey's A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary was also published.

So how was it that Johnson’s dictionary was considered the superior publication? Lexicographers were all about improving the English language, not necessarily trying to get one over on their fellow lexicographers. Indeed, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary even credits Johnson’s Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language as the inspiration for their version.

Johnson’s dictionary was superior because it included citations for the words it listed, all 42,773 entries of them. However, this was far less than the estimated 250,000 words in the English language at that time. There were no words beginning with X and many vulgar words were omitted, but even if less than a fifth of the words in the English language appeared in Johnson’s dictionary, and many definitions were somewhat subjective, it was a huge achievement.

10 most interesting entries in Dr Johnson’s dictionary

  • BUM: the part on which we sit.

  • EXCISE: 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.

  • LEXICOGRAPHER: a harmless drudge [who] busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.

  • LIZARD: an animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it.

  • LUNCH: as much food as one’s hand can hold.

  • NIDOROSITY: eructation with the taste of undigested meat

  • POLITICIAN: one versed in the arts of government...a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.

  • OATS: a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.

  • SOCK: something put between the shoe and foot.

  • STOAT: a small, stinking animal.