Jesse Sheidlower has a piece in the current Bookforum on the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language that is well worth reading. A snippet:

The abundance and quality of the material are often overshadowed by the smattering of humorous definitions in Johnson, of which the most widely known is surely his entry for lexicographer, which begins “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” (This, its common form, is a selective quotation; the entry goes on more helpfully, “that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.”) A pension was “an allowance made to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.” And oats is “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” All it takes is one or two such entries, especially when combined with the many witty comments Boswell quotes Johnson as having said, to give the impression that the whole work is a frippery. It is not. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is one of the great intellectual achievements of any age. Praised from the moment of its publication, it remains an astonishing work, not least because it is the product of a single, extraordinarily perceptive mind. Johnson had the help of a half-dozen assistants—most of whom, by the way, were Scots—but their role was chiefly to help him manage the quotations, not to write definitions.
Even sympathetic discussions tend to focus on the unusual—the humorous entries, the weird words (bicipitous; jobbernowl; trolmydames). These are crowd pleasing, and easy to discuss, though ultimately not very important. The trend continues: Most modern dictionaries are publicized with their hottest new words, it being impossible to interest the press in the quality of one’s etymology.

(Via Gnostical Turpitude.)

Since I know you’re wondering, bicipitous means ‘Having two heads or terminal extremities’ (1646 SIR T. BROWNE Pseud. Ep. III. v. 141 Bicipitous Serpents with the head at each extreme), jobbernowl is ‘A blockish or stupid head; a ludicrous term for the head, usually connoting stupidity’ (1599 MARSTON Sco. Villanie II. vi. 200 His guts are in his braines, huge Iobbernoule, Right Gurnets-head) or ‘A stupid person, a blockhead’ (1890 HALL CAINE Bondman xx. II. 242 The numbskull!.. The jobbernowl!), and trolmydames (not even in the OED!) is ‘The game of nineholes.’


  1. But.. but… isn’t he the god of the prescriptivists?

  2. His house is just off Fleet Street, London and is open to the public. I wonder if Language Hat’s home will be on display in 200 years time?
    His wasn’t the first dictionary by any means, so is his acclaim truly justified?

  3. aldiboronti says

    The acclaim is justifed because of the immense influence of Johnson’s Dictionary on orthography, etc.
    BTW the Johnson Dictionary Project is putting the whole Dictionary online at last. It’s a work in progress and I confess that I can’t get the interface to work at present, maybe others will have better luck.

  4. “to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strengths.”
    “no dictionary of a living tongue ever can be perfect, since while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away”
    Not what I expect from a prescriptivist God.

  5. What’s wrong with being a prescriptivist? Haven’t they stopped people saying “kike” and “nigger”?

  6. Oops: perhaps they’re proscriptivists?

  7. Prescriptivists are the ones who tell you not to end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive. Nothing to do with racial insults.

  8. I recently read a biography of Johnson. He was indeed aided by several Scottish helpers, who, if I remember correctly, also wrote some of the definitions.
    Although the dictionary does show personal bias and humour, it was the most authoritative on the English language and deserves credit for that.

  9. Rick Robinson says

    It says everything that what we commonly call the OED is formally the NED, New English Dictionary. New compared to what? Johnson’s.
    — Rick

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