September 30, 2022

#08-245: Johnson's Dictionary

Samuel Johnson's Folio and Abridged Dictionaries together

Note: We often take dictionaries for granted, but they haven't been around as long as you might think.

Get Ready: Do you often use one or more dictionaries? f so, what do you use it/them for? If not, how do you find the meaning of words, their spellings, etc.

Some of us can't get through a day without using a dictionary in some form or another. It might surprise you to learn that the first Chinese-English dictionary as we know it was produced just 130 years ago, by British diplomat Herbert Allen Giles.

But even the first comprehensive English-English dictionary, Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language, was only published in 1755, just 200 years before I was born.

It's astonishing to think that one man--working with six clerks to copy out the 114,000 example quotations that he had marked in various books--produced definitions for nearly 43,000 headwords. Many words have multiple definitions, so the first edition had nearly 141,000 of them. A simple word like "turn" had 16 definitions with 15 examples; "take" had 134 definitions, comprising 8,000 words taking over 5 pages to print.

And what pages! They were 18 inches (46 centimeters) tall and nearly 20 inches (51 centimeters) wide. The paper was of such high quality that it cost more than Johnson was paid for over eight years of work!

A few of the entries suffered from "Doctor" Johnson's famously wry wit (and sometimes his opinions). He called a "lexicographer"--that is, a writer of dictionaries, his own profession at the time--"a harmless drudge." "Oats," he said, were "A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people," an insult to the Scots. "Lunch" was "as much food as one's hand can hold," as it was usually eaten on the run.

Sometimes he seems to have been a bit lazy. Of "trolmydames," a word Shakespeare used to refer to an indoor ballgame, he wrote, "Of this word I know not the meaning." "Sock," he said, was "something put between the shoe and foot." And a "lizard" was "an animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it."

He was also fussy about loanwords from French, and excluded quite a few, including the now-familiar words "champagne" and "bourgeois." Other French words were given snide definitions. "Monsieur," the French word for "Mister," he called "a term of reproach for a Frenchman"!

What is often called simply Johnson's Dictionary remained the standard word reference in England until the publication of the much-larger Oxford English Dictionary, which took 70 years to produce, under 10 editors.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. bourgeois
  2. comprehensive
  3. drudge
  4. excluded
  5. headwords
  6. loanwords
  7. reproach
  8. snide
  9. wit
  10. wry

  1. insult
  2. left out
  3. cleverness
  4. including everything
  5. words borrowed from another language
  6. the "key words" defined in a dictionary
  7. rude; nasty
  8. middle class
  9. a person who does dull work
  10. bitterly amusing

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for September 30, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. h; 2. d; 3. i; 4. b; 5. f; 6. e; 7. a; 8. g; 9. c; 10. j