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A 19th-century edition of Dr Johnson's dictionary. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
A 19th-century edition of Dr Johnson's dictionary. Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
Author and Observer writer Robert McCrum loves a good list. Thus he has crafted a definitive selection of essential works of non-fiction, classic titles he believes have had a decisive influence on the shaping of  our imagination — economically, socially, culturally and politically.

At No 86 is A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson (1755). Dr Johnson’s decade-long endeavour framed the English language for the coming centuries with clarity, intelligence and extraordinary wit.

British national self-confidence boomed throughout the 18th century, with that familiar mix of pride and insecurity. Now, more than ever, the educated English reader needed a dictionary.

In the new world of global trade and global warfare, a language that was becoming seeded throughout the first British empire required an authoritative act of definition by a vigorous and practical champion. Enter Dr Johnson.

Samuel Johnson, born in Lichfield in 1709, was a pioneer who raised common sense to heights of genius, and a man of robust popular instincts whose watchwords were clarity, precision and simplicity.

The Johnson who challenged Bishop Berkeley's solipsist theory of the nonexistence of matter by kicking a large stone (''I refute it thus'') is the same Johnson for whom language must have a daily practical use, and a ready application to the everyday world of the common man.

The would-be lexicographer signed the contract for his Dictionary with the bookseller Robert Dodsley at a breakfast held at the Golden Anchor in Holborn on June 18, 1746. He was to be paid 1575 in instalments, and from this he took money to rent 17 Gough Square in which he set up his ''dictionary workshop''.

James Boswell (No 77 in this series) described the garret where Johnson worked as ''fitted up like a counting house'' with a long desk at which his clerks could work standing up. Johnson himself was stationed on a rickety chair surrounded by a chaos of borrowed books. He was helped by six assistants (five of them Scots, one an expert in ''low cant phrases'').

Despite his formidable reputation as a man of letters, there was something rather childish about Johnson. In his awkward, ungainly walk and unkempt appearance, he was like an overgrown boy. It is said that he loved to climb trees and roll down grassy hills. Fanny Burney (No 82 in this series), who knew him well, once wrote that ''his body is in continual agitation, seesawing up and down; his feet are never a moment quiet; and, in short, his whole person is in perpetual motion''.

Overshadowing his disconcerting exuberance was a chronic depression, reminiscent of Churchill's ''black dog'', a sometimes disabling despair. He told Boswell that Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy was ''the only book that ever took him out of bed two hours sooner than he wished to rise''.

Out of this troubled psychology, masking a profound inner torment, Johnson found solace in a language that was, in its coarse complexity and comprehensive genius, the precise analogue of his character. No surprise, then, that the Dictionary would occupy almost a decade of his career.

The work was immense. Writing in some 80 large notebooks (and without a library to hand), Johnson wrote the definitions of more than 40,000 words, illustrating their many meanings with about 114,000 quotations drawn from English writing on every subject, on food, philosophy, fashion and frivolity, from Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, via Milton, to his own time. He did not, he admitted, expect to achieve complete originality.

Working to a deadline, essentially on his own, he had to draw on the best of all previous dictionaries, making his work a heroic synthesis. In fact, it was very much more. Unlike his predecessors, Johnson treated English very practically, as a living language, with many different shades of meaning. He adopted his definitions on the principle of English common law - according to precedent.

With the Dictionary, the author and his subject achieved a remarkable, unfettered unanimity. Both were adaptable, populist and instinctively subversive (or, to put it another way, libertarian).

As a result, in the decades after its publication, the Dictionary was not seriously rivalled until the coming of The Oxford English Dictionary (1884), by which time some of Johnson's definitions had passed into folklore:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge ... Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. Whigs: The name of a faction.

The distinctive wit of the Dictionary and its definitions has obscured its remarkable grace and clarity:

Heart: The muscle which by its contraction and dilation propels the blood through the course of circulation ... It is supposed in popular language to be the seat sometimes of courage, sometimes of affection.

Johnson's 12 definitions for a simple, but tricky, word like ''thought'' display the fluency and accuracy of an exceptional intelligence:

1. The operation of the mind; the act of thinking. 2. Idea; image formed in the mind. 3. Sentiment; fancy; imagery; conceit. 4. Reflection; particular consideration. 5. Conception; preconceived notion. 6. Opinion; judgement. 7. Meditation; serious consideration. 8. Design; purpose. 9. Silent contemplation. 10. Solicitude; care; concern. 11. Expectation. 12. A small degree; a small quantity.

For all its eccentricity, this two-volume work is a masterpiece and a landmark, in Johnson's own words, ''setting the orthography, displaying the analogy, regulating the structures and ascertaining the significations of English words''.

It was an achievement that, in Boswell's words, ''conferred stability on the language of his country'', a stability that would be invaluable in the decades to come. However, though it made Johnson famous and well esteemed, the Dictionary did not allay his incessant money troubles. By 1759 Johnson was so hard up that he was forced to dash off the pot-boiling fable Rasselas to pay, he said, for his mother's funeral.

''When I took the first survey of my undertaking, I found our speech copious without order, and energetic without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.''(From the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language)


Johnsons dictionary is indeed a milestone in the story of our language, and we owe much to it. But it has one major fault. It did nothing to standardize our spelling.

In her book Understanding English Spelling, retired English high school teacher Masha Bell discusses heterographs (words with different spellings for identical pronunciations). She says: "Most were created quite deliberately by Dr Johnson. When he started to compile his famous dictionary English spelling had already become largely standardized, i.e., one spelling had become adopted as the 'correct' one for the majority of English words. Yet even in 1750 a few hundred word still had alternative spellings, and Johnson was reluctant to lose them".

So, ever since his dictionary was published, literacy learners in English, that is our young school children and foreigners, have had to struggle to master our orthography. The result of this shows in international literacy stats. All English-speaking jurisdictions struggle to keep up.