Wretches and Drudges: The Humor in Johnson’s Dictionary

In honor of Dictionary Day, which marks the birthday of a pioneer of American lexicography, Noah Webster, we’d like to discuss the contributions and legacy of another dictionary editor, Samuel Johnson. Johnson authored the first comprehensive dictionary of English, Dictionary of the English Language, which was first published in 1755. The scope and quality of this work was impressive, covering about 42,000 entries with over 114,000 supporting quotations. The scholarship of his work aside, Johnson was quite the character, and his personality and self-deprecating, dry sense of humor shine through his dictionary definitions.

As he toiled away on his project, Johnson became understandably bored, and once in a while this ennui surfaces in his definitions. He defines lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” His editorializing also appears in an example sentence at the word dull: “Not exhilarating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.”

Johnson further editorializes in his definition for oats: “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” This was not a new joke, and had been used in two of Johnson’s sources Anatomy of Melancholy and Gardener’s Dictionary from the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively. He also pokes fun at the French in his definition for Monsieur: “A term of reproach for a Frenchman.” Johnson, annoyed with his benefactor the Earl of Chesterfield, wrote this definition at patron: “One who countenances, supports, or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.”

A little over half a century before Johnson’s magnum opus was published, the Académie Française published a four-volume dictionary, which took 40 scholars 55 years to complete. Johnson, having a low opinion of the French, estimated that it would take him three years to do the job. In the end, it took him nine years to write his dictionary—three times his original estimate, but still impressive. While he did have half a dozen aids, they worked on cataloguing quotations, and not on defining.

These days lexicographers tend to abstain from this sort of humorous definition style, though perhaps more of these would pop up if we were working nearly singlehandedly on 42,000 entries over nine years like Johnson.