The Birth of the Dictionary

Among Johnson’s principal aims, he wrote, was to produce a volume, ‘for the use of such as aspire to exactness of criticism or elegance of style’. H.P. Collins assesses whether he succeeded.

Johnson was a wretched etymologist’, Macaulay.

I knew very well, Sir, what I was undertaking -and very well how to do it - and have done it very well’, Johnson.

In the Monthly Review of April 1755, there appeared the Advertisement which ran:

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. By Samuel Johnson, A.M. Folio, 2 vols. £4 10s. Bound. Knapton; Longman; Hitch & Co; Miller; and Dodsley.

His aged mother, we know, was ‘counting the days’ till April 15th; and nobody understood him better than she. To the hypochondriac and born procrastinator, it had been a heavy task; indeed, it was ‘easier to write poetry than to compose a Dictionary’. His mind was ‘less upon the stretch’ when versifying, or so he told Thomas Blacklock, the poet, in 1773. Also, he was, to his loss and ours, impatient of research.

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