Did one man write the first great English dictionary all by himself?

We’d like to take a moment to celebrate the man behind A Dictionary of the English Language, the first definitive English dictionary, the famous Samuel JohnsonA Dictionary of the English Language, also called Johnson’s Dictionary, was first published in 1775 and is viewed with reverence by modern lexicographers.

He created a widely imitated style of biography and literary criticism in addition to setting the meticulous tone of reference books. His cause was to make English, especially the great classics, accessible for all readers. His dictionary was the first book to address English as it was written and spoken. It was the first to include context-based information about English. And it was the first to attempt to enforce a standard of spelling and grammar upon unruly English, which had no equivalent of an academy to defend its use as proper or improper.

To understand Johnson’s undertaking, it’s important to understand the state of English lexicography in the middle of the 18th century. There were a handful of glossaries of difficult words, but overall, there was no reference for the English reader to consult words one might encounter on a day-to-day basis. In addition, books were becoming widely available and literacy in England was growing. Several book publishers got together and commissioned Johnson to compile a dictionary similar to the one created by the French Academy. In France, that effort took 40 scholars 40 years to complete. Johnson, in a barb aimed at the supposed inferiority of the French, said he could do it in three: “This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.” It took Johnson 9 years to complete.

The dictionary was huge: Its bulk was made up of the finest paper available, printed on pages cut to 18 inches in height. At the time, only special editions of the Bible had been printed on anything nearly so extravagant. Flipping open to any page, the curious reader could scan double columns of small type. Entries included a definition and a full-length quotation from a literary source. Notes on the word’s usage provided a context. The original included 42,773 entries with 114,000 literary examples. The examples were the only portion of the dictionary that about half a dozen assistants helped in compiling.

Over two centuries later, the influence of Johnson’s Dictionary on lexicography remains evident in the way dictionaries are compiled and constructed today.