This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Saturday Rave: Johnson's Dictionary

On 15th April 1755 Dr Samuel Johnson's great dictionary finally saw the light of day (he'd said he could write it in three years, but, as is the way with big projects, it over-ran and actually took nine). 

Johnson's dictionary was an almost incredible achievement. I mean, can you imagine even copying out a dictionary? Now imagine having to write the thing as well (and he did do the whole thing pretty much by himself, except for some clerical help).

Dr Johnson was paid 1500 guineas for his work. That wasn't too bad - a professional level of income for nine years' writing - and, indeed, it proved almost enough for him to live on.

The payment came from a group of publishers who found that, among a population rapidly becoming literate, an authoritative guide to the English language was needed. This was a task to daunt all but the bravest, but Dr Johnson was certainly brave (how I wish he'd had access to Twitter!). Johnson was also cunning, and he swerved the question of his right to pontificate rather neatly.

I shall therefore, he wrote, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides and endeavour to discover and promulgate the degrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or usurpation, the sovereignty of words.

This cleverness was reflected in the reputation of the dictionary. Although there were a few mean-spirited naysayers ('most truly contemptible performances' John Horne Took (yes, quite: who?)) Dr Johnson's great work has become the basis for every English dictionary ever since.


Word To Use Today: dictionary. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin dictiōnārium, a collection of words, from the Latin dictiō, word.

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