Johnson Creates the First Modern English Dictionary

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, the first English dictionary by a major English writer, established a new standard in comprehensiveness and sound lexical judgment.

Summary of Event

The history of English dictionaries does not begin until the early seventeenth century. No English dictionary was available to William Shakespeare, and the earliest such works were concerned mainly with difficult words because it was assumed that readers needed no assistance with “easy” ones. In 1721, Nathan Bailey published his Universal Etymological English Dictionary, Universal Etymological English Dictionary, An (Bailey) the title of which accurately depicts its main limitation, for Bailey was primarily interested in tracing the history and development of English words, and not in their definitions and usage. Both France and Italy had produced comprehensive multivolume dictionaries of French and Italian, respectively, in the preceding century, but nothing of the kind had been attempted for the English language. Languages;English
[kw]Johnson Creates the First Modern English Dictionary (1746-1755)
[kw]Dictionary, Johnson Creates the First Modern English (1746-1755)
[kw]English Dictionary, Johnson Creates the First Modern (1746-1755)
[kw]First Modern English Dictionary, Johnson Creates the (1746-1755)
Dictionary of the English Language, A (Johnson)
[g]England;1746-1755: Johnson Creates the First Modern English Dictionary[1180]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1746-1755: Johnson Creates the First Modern English Dictionary[1180]
[c]Education;1746-1755: Johnson Creates the First Modern English Dictionary[1180]
[c]Literature;1746-1755: Johnson Creates the First Modern English Dictionary[1180]
Johnson, Samuel
Chesterfield, Lord
Dodsley, Robert

Robert Dodsley, an English poet and bookseller, suggested the idea of a dictionary to Samuel Johnson, who is reported to have replied that he himself had been thinking of such an undertaking. Considering that the French Academy, consisting of forty members, had required more than a half century to produce an authoritative French dictionary, the size of the task had hitherto discouraged would-be English lexicographers, and Great Britain had no organization comparable to the French Academy.

When Johnson began to compile his Dictionary of the English Language
Dictionary of the English Language, A (Johnson) in 1746, he was thirty-six years old and frustrated by the lack of a degree, which would have allowed him to practice law. He was known to his contemporaries primarily for his satiric poem London (1738) and a biography of a poet named Richard Savage (1744). During the nine years of the dictionary’s composition, however, Johnson rose to literary prominence as the author of works in several genres, including poetry, drama, and the essay. He was, and remains, the most accomplished man of letters ever to make an English dictionary. Indeed, his preface to the dictionary is in itself a significant English essay, and because the dictionary is laced with hundreds of quotations chosen not merely to illustrate the use of words therein but also for their aesthetic or instructive value, the dictionary is the most literary of all English lexicographic works.

Johnson worked with the assistance of only six copyists, not all of them employed simultaneously. He expected to complete the task in three years, one-third the time the dictionary actually required. There were basically three ways to gather lexical information. One way, still very important in lexicography Lexicography but rarely practiced in Johnson’s time, is to listen to and record the language as spoken. Another way is to begin with earlier dictionaries, though, of course, in Johnson’s time, earlier dictionaries were woefully inadequate.

Johnson decided that, with few exceptions, he would confine his research to the best English writers of the preceding two hundred years, beginning with Sir Philip Sidney, Sidney, Sir Philip whose works dated from the late 1570’s. In the process of reading hundreds of works, the well-read Johnson read even more. He underlined each sentence that he intended to quote from his authors, indicating the first letter of the word he was illustrating in the margin. His copyists copied each of these sentences on a separate sheet of paper. This process of working from citation slips became the standard way of gathering information for subsequent English dictionaries and, allowing for the modifications of an electronically equipped age, remains the method still in use.

From this base of information Johnson wrote definitions for more than 40,000 words, many of which required multiple definitions. The verb “take,” for example, required 134 definitions. He exemplified the word entries with approximately 114,000 quotations from writers in every field of endeavor. Because there was no single publisher willing to take complete responsibility for the project, a group of five publishers headed by Dodsley agreed to pay Johnson £1,575 in installments to support his work.

Johnson’s definitions are mainly clear, objective, and enlightening, but the dictionary has become famous for a few exceptions in which Johnson expresses personal feeling or whimsicality. Thus, the word “excise” is defined as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities” and collected by “wretches,” while with self-deprecating humor he defines “grubstreet” Grub Street as a word deriving from the fact of a London street of that name being the home of “writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems” and thus a designation for “any mean production.” Such frequently cited deviations from objective lexicography do not obscure the seriousness and competence of Johnson’s work generally.

In 1747, a year after beginning work, Johnson issued The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language (Johnson) with a dedication to Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield, a distinguished statesman who in Dodsley’s opinion represented the ideal patron for the project. The busy Chesterfield contributed some advice and a small donation to Johnson, but subsequently he forgot about the dictionary. Well before the work was completed, Johnson had used up his stipend. The deteriorating health of his wife, Elizabeth, and the need to pursue other remunerative writing took time away from the immense task. After Elizabeth died in 1752, Johnson, always a melancholy man, could accomplish little work for months.

In 1753 he completed the first of the two folio volumes of the dictionary, and then, with an astonishing burst of energy, he finished the second volume in little more than a year. At this point, Dodsley had asked Chesterfield to write something in praise of the dictionary. Chesterfield, who had been ill, managed two letters of praise in a weekly newspaper, but Johnson, who had been expecting more, sent Chesterfield a bitter letter comparing the nobleman to an indifferent observer of an individual struggling in the water who then “encumbers him with help” after he has reached safety. Chesterfield did not seem to resent this largely undeserved rebuke and even expressed admiration for the power of Johnson’s epistolary prose.

Although Johnson had to struggle to earn a living for several more years, the dictionary, finally completed and then published in two volumes in 1755, established his reputation as a scholar and remained unrivaled until Noah Webster’s dictionaries gained popularity nearly a century later.


Aside from injecting English lexicography for the first time with the linguistic and literary subtlety and judgment of a great English writer, Samuel Johnson set a high standard for all subsequent practitioners. The relatively few eccentric examples excepted and a small number of errors aside, his definitions in A Dictionary of the English Language remain models of precision and clarity. His successors, including Noah Webster, who were often critical of Johnson, inevitably borrowed heavily from his definitions.

His justly famous preface to the dictionary explains the principles that guided his work and the challenges that face any lexicographer, such as, for example, the sometimes perplexing challenge of always explaining a difficult word by the use of simpler words. He also explains the secondary motives that lay behind the endeavor and what he learned in his attempt to accomplish them. The quotations with which he hoped to enlighten his readers generally, while helping to define words therein, often proved too bulky and distracting. Trimmed in number and length from his original intention, the quotations remain a notable and influential feature of the dictionary nevertheless.

Measured by modern standards, Johnson’s dictionary falls short in a number of ways. Recognizing the difficulty of presenting pronunciation adequately, he restricted his coverage of the sound of English to identifying the principal accents of words. Johnson knew as much about etymology as anyone of his time, but his etymologies are not considered authoritative in the twenty-first century. He hoped to stabilize language habits that he judged elegant and correct, but as he himself recognized, language inevitably changes and grows. Even a dictionary as great as Johnson’s could not answer ordinary linguistic needs two and a half centuries after its compilation.

Further Reading

  • Johnson, Samuel. 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: Times Books, 1983. A two-volume facsimile reprint of the 1755 first edition of the dictionary.
  • Landau, Sidney I. The Art and Craft of Lexicography. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984. Landau’s second chapter includes a discussion of Johnson’s Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language and of the relation of Johnson’s dictionary to those of his competitors.
  • Lynch, Jack. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work That Defined the English Language. New York: Walker, 2003. In addition to representing the character of the dictionary as a whole, the selections are chosen with an eye to illuminating everyday life in Johnson’s time and to exhibiting Johnson’s analytical mind.
  • McAdam, E. L., Jr., and George Milne. Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection. New York: Random House, 1963. This long-popular book presents a substantial sampling of the most interesting of Johnson’s dictionary entries in a highly readable format.
  • Reddick, Allen. The Making of Johnson’s Dictionary, 1746-1773. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A thorough treatment of the whole process of Johnson’s work from its first conception through his later revision. Incorporates recent commentary and scholarship.
  • Romaine, Suzanne, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 4. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Chapter 6 explores concerns over English grammar and usage during the time of Johnson and his contemporaries, including Lindley Murray, who wrote and published the influential An English Grammar in 1795.
  • Sledd, James H., and Gwin J. Kolb. Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary: Essays in the Biography of a Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. The best assessment of Johnson’s achievement in the context of the tradition of English lexicography.

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