The Author of the 250-Year-Old Dictionary Was a True Man of the Word
by Ian Hunter
Two and a half centuries ago this year, the first comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language was published. The lexicographer (def. “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge”) was Dr. Samuel Johnson, better known then as an essayist and moralist, and (as is more obvious now than then) a serious Christian in a deistic, even skeptical age.
Nine years earlier, a bookseller named Robert Dodsley asked the 36-year-old Johnson about compiling a dictionary. Dodsley considered it a rebuke to national pride that England lacked anything to equal the great dictionaries of France and Italy, each the product of teams of academics. At first Johnson declined, but when a consortium of London booksellers offered 1,575 guineas (today about $150,000), the chronically impoverished Johnson relented.
The contract called for the dictionary to be delivered in three years. When a friend remonstrated that it took “40 scholars of the French Academy 40 years to complete their Dictionary” (actually, they took 55 years), Johnson replied: “Sir, thus it is: This is the proportion . . . forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”
Johnson launched himself on “this vast sea of words” on June 18, 1746, assisted by six amanuenses, five of whom were Scots, in the garret of a house (17 Gough Square) just off Fleet Street. His plan called not just for defining words, but determining their derivations, and illustrating correct usage by apt quotation from the best English authors (Shakespeare, Swift, and Milton predominate in the Dictionary).
For so immense an undertaking it was natural that Johnson should seek a patron. Dodsley suggested Johnson dedicate his much-delayed Plan of the Dictionary—in effect a solicitation for subscribers—to the Earl of Chesterfield, a member of the House of Lords, a former ambassador, and a widely regarded arbiter of public taste. “If any good comes of my addressing it to Lord Chesterfield,” Johnson told a friend, “it will be ascribed to deep policy, when, in fact, it was only an excuse for laziness.”
For nine years Johnson slogged on, his only encouragement from Chesterfield an early gift of ten pounds. Then, on the very eve of publication, Chesterfield wrote two letters to The World, commending the Dictionary and appearing to claim some credit as its patron. This was too much for the proud Johnson, whose stinging reply ranks with the most celebrated letters ever written:
Johnson had few illusions about the reception of his Dictionary. In the preface he wrote: “Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach.” As it turned out, Johnson’s work was to be considered authoritative, at least until James Murray’s great Oxford English Dictionary appeared over a century later.
Johnson’s Dictionary differs from today’s dictionaries in several respects, not least in its personality. It is frequently acerbic. “Cant,” for example, is “high sounding language unsupported by dignity of thought.” His definition of “excise” will, at least for Canadians, seem a model of concision: “a hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but by wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.”
And it is often funny. Johnson defined “pension” as “an allowance made to anyone without an equivalent,” then elaborated: “In England it is understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” He famously defined “oats” as: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
Johnson made no claim to infallibility. He defined “pastern” as “the knee of a horse” and when challenged by a lady in Plymouth to explain why, replied, “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.”
Of course, the Dictionary has dated since 1755. Indeed archaisms are half its charm. It is full of lovely, long-lost words, like “clapperclaw” (to scold), “ninnyhammer” (a simpleton), and “wamble” (to roll with nausea).
Sometimes Johnson’s definitions were more abstruse and impenetrable than the word being defined; for example, for “network,” Johnson gave: “anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.”
Johnson concluded his Preface with a note of stoic resignation, a note sounded frequently in his late writings. The Dictionary
Humbling words, these, particularly given the magnitude of Johnson’s achievement: more than 40,000 words defined, etymologies provided, usage illustrated; two volumes, 2,300 pages; original price four pounds, ten shillings. By the end of the project, the tempers of everyone were frayed: “Thank God I now have done with him,” bookseller Andrew Millar said when the last, hand-corrected proof sheets arrived from Johnson. When informed of Millar’s comment, Johnson said: “I am glad he thanks God for anything.”
From Birth to London
Samuel Johnson was born in September 1709 in the cathedral town of Lichfield in Staffordshire. He was the first of two sons of an impecunious bookseller, Michael Johnson (then 52), and his wife Sarah (40). The birth was difficult. His parents doubted he would survive and arranged to have him christened that night in the room where he was born.
Sarah was unable adequately to nurse her son, and a wet nurse was contracted, with disastrous results: Sam developed a tubercular infection of the lymph glands, then known as “scrofula” (def. “a deprivation of the humours of the body which breaks out in sores, commonly called the king’s evil”). His vision deteriorated so badly that, when he was two, his mother took him to be “touched” by the queen at St. James’s Palace in London. These were just about the last days when people believed in the efficacy of “royal touch” as a cure.
So prodigious was young Sam’s intellect and recall that his parents frequently made him perform for visitors, a showing-off that he hated. Years later Johnson told his friend Mrs. Thrale: “This is the great misery of late marriages, the unhappy produce of them becomes the plaything of dotage . . . teased with awkward fondness . . . forced to divert a company, who at last go away complaining of their disagreeable entertainment.”
In 1728 Sam left for Pembroke College, Oxford. Here he passed four terms composing poetry, arguing, studying, and cutting lectures. When his tutor fined him for sliding in Christchurch meadow when he should have been in class, Johnson replied: “Sir, you have sconced me twopence for non-attendance at a lecture not worth a penny.”
It was at Oxford that Johnson first read William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1726). He later told his biographer James Boswell: “I took up [ A Serious Call] expecting to find it a dull book, as such books generally are, and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law was quite an overmatch for me; this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion.” It was “the finest piece of hortatory theology in any language.” In the Dictionary, Johnson quotes Law 196 times.
After his attenuated studies at Oxford, Johnson spent seven years as a schoolmaster, acquiring in the process a wife, Elizabeth Porter, twenty years his senior, a woman of scant wealth and less beauty. Yet Johnson remained devoted to his “Tetty” until her death in 1752, and faithful to her memory ever after; the tenderest, and often the most self-lacerating, of his prayers were composed on significant anniversaries, especially on the anniversary of her death.
Johnson the Hack
Finally Johnson resolved “to become an author by profession.” With his sometime pupil, David Garrick, who would rise to fame as the most celebrated actor of his generation, he set out in March 1737 to walk from Lichfield to London. Johnson’s first paid (albeit meagerly) journalistic employment was on the Gentleman’s Magazine, to which he contributed odes, epigrams, obituaries, book reviews, and, under the title “Debates in the Senate of Lilliput,” what were supposed to be records of parliamentary debate.
Johnson, however, seldom went near the House of Commons and, in any case, reporting of parliamentary proceedings was then a crime. Instead, Johnson relied upon such vagrant reports as might reach him and upon his own imagination. So lucid were the speeches he composed that politicians to whom they were attributed delighted to adopt them as their own. Only once did Johnson reveal the truth. When he heard dinner guests praising a recent speech of William Pitt’s, and going so far as to compare Pitt’s eloquence to Demosthenes’, Johnson muttered: “That speech I wrote in a garret.”
Years of poverty followed. All the schemes, heartbreak, and failures of would-be authors were familiar. “Writers who lived men knew not how, and died obscure, men marked not when.” When he came to compile the Dictionary, Johnson needed look no further than his own experience as a self-described “Grub Street hack” to define “Grub Street”: “A street . . . much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called Grub Street.”
It was Johnson’s essays, first in The Rambler in the early 1750s (whose authorship Johnson initially hoped to keep anonymous lest his own life disgrace what he wrote), then in The Adventurer and The Idler, which built his reputation as moralist and sage. After the Dictionary appeared in 1755, his stature as England’s pre-eminent man of letters was unassailable. King George III granted him a pension of 300 pounds annually.
By the time an impetuous young (22) Scottish lawyer, James Boswell, appeared on the London literary scene in the year 1762, Johnson, now 53, was a celebrated literary lion. It was at a bookshop in Russell Street that Boswell lay in wait to meet Johnson.
Boswell, aware of Johnson’s supposed antipathy to Scots, begged the owner not to disclose his origins. But not to be deprived of an opportunity for sport, he introduced Boswell as “a young gentleman from Scotland.” “I do indeed come from Scotland, Sir,” Boswell said, “but I cannot help it.” “That, sir,” replied Johnson “is what I find a great many of your countrymen cannot help.”
Boswell was crestfallen, but a friendship began that day that would forever change the lives of both men. “Give me your hand. I have taken a liking to you,” Johnson greeted Boswell a few days later. Boswell devoted the rest of his life to collecting and assembling material about Johnson, then to the writing, publication, and revising of what became (in the modern sense) the first, and arguably the greatest, biography in the English language: The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, first published on May 16, 1791, seven years after Johnson’s death.
The flaw in Boswell’s Life is his over-reliance on Johnson’s later years. Johnson’s last eight years occupy three-quarters of the Life. It tends also to over-emphasize the irascible “John Bull” figure, the debater who tossed and gored opponents, the adversary who “talked for victory, who gave no quarter and expected none.” This obscures the deeper, religious Samuel Johnson.
The religious Samuel Johnson may be thought of as an equivalent of G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis in the mind and style of the eighteenth century. He may strike many contemporary readers as moralistic, but even if so, he offered great insight into the life of the Christian in this world, as a few quotations may show.
As C. S. Lewis wrote a friend, “I find Johnson very bracing when in my slack, self-pitying mood.” Describing his effect as a writer, Lewis noted that “the amazing thing is his power of stating platitudes—or what in any one else would be platitudes—so that we really believe them at last and realize their importance.” G. K. Chesterton, who both resembled and admired him (and wrote a play about him called The Judgment of Dr. Johnson), warned the readers of “this splendidly sane man”: “do not be in haste to call a comment antiquated; you never know when it will be new.”
Johnson’s explanation of God’s forgiveness is made in the moralistic way, but effectively still. It was, he wrote in The Rambler, “the first and fundamental truth of religion.”
Johnson was concerned with death to a degree that a materialistic age like ours (and his) may find morbid, but yet a version of our Lord’s own warnings, put in the terms of his time. “The great incentive to virtue is the reflection that we must die,” he wrote in an essay for The Rambler, and suggested that
On a more practical level, he commented with sense and wit on the Quaker rejection of fancy dress:
Much more could be said to illustrate Johnson’s spiritual insight and wisdom. Boswell’s book abounds with it, in transcriptions of Johnson’s conversation and in literally hundreds of witty and often insightful apothegms. Here are a few, taken almost at random from the Life of Johnson. On men and marriage: “Marriage is the best state for a man in general; and every man is a worse man, in proportion as he is unfit for the married state.”
And: “To find a substitution for violated morality was the leading feature in all perversions of religion.” And also: “Keep always in your mind, that, with due submission to Providence, a man of genius has been seldom ruined but by himself.” And finally, he wrote of pride that it is “a corruption that seems almost originally ingrafted in our nature. . . . It mingles with all our other vices, and without the most constant and anxious care, will mingle also with our virtues.”
Johnson never derived much consolation from his Christian convictions. In his journals, he often recorded the hope that he might recover from “the general Disease of my life.” His 1761 Easter Eve Journal entry is typical: “I have led a life so dissipated and useless, and my terrours and perplexities have so much increased, that I am under great depression. . . . Almighty and merciful Father look down upon my misery with pity.”
Three years later, on Easter 1764, he records: “Let me not be created to misery. . . . Deliver me from the distresses of vain terrour.” And again two years later: “O God! . . . Grant that I may no longer be disturbed with doubts and harassed with vain terrours.”
There are possible explanations for Johnson’s religious melancholy. On a late (1784) visit to an Oxford friend, Dr. Adams, Boswell records how he “with a look of horror” acknowledged that he was “much oppressed by the fear of death.” When Adams remonstrated that God was “infinitely good” and therefore to be trusted, Johnson replied: “I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions in which salvation is granted; I am afraid that I may be one of those who shall be damned (looking dismal).” Adams asked him what he meant by “damned.” Johnson replied, “(passionately and loudly): Sent to hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.” This exchange occurred within six months of Johnson’s death.
Also, the text in Luke 12:48, “To whom much is given, of him much will be required,” haunted Johnson. He was not falsely modest; he knew his gifts were great, and he feared that, in any divine accounting, his achievements would be found incommensurable. Mrs. Thrale, whom Johnson loved (and near the end of his life perhaps hoped to marry), wrote: “He knew how much he had been given, and filled his mind with fancies of how much would be required, until his impressed imagination was often disturbed.”
To the fears that preyed upon his imagination—fear of losing his faculties, fear of being alone, fear of dying—Johnson proposed to “confirm myself in the conviction of the truths of religion.” To accomplish this he was forever writing resolutions: “To rise by eight or earlier” and “To form a plan for the Regulation of my daily life” are typical.
Yet it should be remembered that Johnson spoke as he did from a deep belief in divine mercy as well as justice. Prayer he considered “a reposal of myself upon God, and a resignation of all into his holy hand.” In one of his Rambler essays, speaking in the voice of a hermit, he described at length and in detail (and with an insight similar to The Screwtape Letters) the course of the sinful life. Yet he ended the passage with a call
A Church of England Man
Johnson often upbraided himself for failing at “publick worship,” but the banal homilies on offer he found nearly beyond endurance. He once told Boswell that “he went more frequently to church when there were prayers only than when there was also a sermon.” And he told a friend: “I am convinced I ought to be present at divine service more frequently than I am; but the provocations given by ignorant and affected preachers too often disturb the mental calm which otherwise would succeed to prayer.”
Johnson was suspicious of solitary worship, as he was of any individualism or cultic enthusiasm. He was a Church of England adherent, steeped in and devoted to the liturgical treasures of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer (“the genuine offspring of piety and prayer”).
“To be of no church is dangerous,” he maintained. “Religion, of which the rewards are distant and which is animated only by Faith and Hope, will glide by degrees out of the mind unless it be invigorated and re-impressed by external ordinances, by stated calls to worship, and the salutary influence of example.” The solitary believer, he said to Mrs. Thrale, is “probably superstitious, and possibly mad.”
When informed of a young woman who had abandoned the Church of England to become a Quaker, Johnson was unusually rude: “I hate the arrogance of a young wench who sets herself up for a judge on theological points, and deserts the religion in whose bosom she was nurtured.” When his interlocutor insisted that the young woman’s belief was sincere, and this was demonstrated because she had sacrificed a “noble fortune” for her beliefs, Johnson growled: “Madam, Madam, I have never taught myself to consider that the association of folly can extenuate guilt.”
The most perceptive of Johnson’s modern biographers, Walter Jackson Bate, noted that Johnson lived daily with “a stark existential dread” that seems almost to belie his religious beliefs. When a friend pointed out that Christ’s death and resurrection provides “evidence, good evidence” of immortality, Johnson gloomily muttered: “I like to have more.” Arthur Murphy told Boswell that he had often heard Johnson saying aloud these lines from Measure for Measure: “Ay, but to die and go we know not where;/ To lie in cold obstruction and to rot.”
Did Johnson ever achieve any spiritual serenity? This is a difficult question. Since he recorded his prayers and meditations, there is an ample evidentiary archive, but the evidence is inconclusive. As early as 1765 he resolved, as noted already, “to consider the act of prayer as a reposal of myself upon God, and a resignation of all into his holy hand.” Yet even his last prayer, composed the very day he died (December 13, 1784), refers to “my imperfect repentance” and seeks pardon for “the multitude of my offences.”
Boswell, however, relates the story of his “tranquil” death in this way:
Charity, we are told, covers a multitude of sins, and, despite his occasional outbursts, Johnson was the most charitable of men. A friend wrote: “He frequently gave all his silver to the poor, who watched him, between his house and the tavern where he dined.” Mrs. Thrale said that he never spent money on himself, but gave all he had away.
Johnson’s house was a home to indigents, many of whom—Dr. Levet, the slum physician; Anna Williams, the blind poetess; and Frank Barber, a former slave—lived on his hospitality for years. Johnson couldn’t bear to see children sleeping in the streets, and pressed coins into their hands when he passed. When he was asked why he gave money to beggars, Johnson replied only: “Why, Madam, to enable them to beg on.”
Johnson loved John Bunyan’s classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress (the phrase “the pilgrimage of life” occurs in both his essays and sermons). It was one of only three books, he maintained, that readers wished were longer ( Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe were the others). And perhaps Johnson is best understood as a pilgrim, on a solitary, difficult trek, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. In the Dictionary Johnson had defined “pilgrim” as “a wanderer, particularly one who travels on a religious account.”
All his life, Johnson traveled on a religious account, and pilgrims beyond number have since drawn upon his account without diminishing it.
Readers interested in reading quotes from Johnson arranged by topic should see www.samueljohnson.com/topics.html.
Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at the University of Western Ontario. He is the author of biographies of Robert Burns, Hesketh Pearson, and Malcolm Muggeridge.
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“Pilgrim Johnson” first appeared in the December 2005 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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