Commentary: Sam's Dictionary | KERA News

Commentary: Sam's Dictionary

Dallas, TX –

Whenever I hear about some updated dictionary and the addition of 40 or 50 or 60 words, I think about the lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who wrote definitions not for 40 words, but for 40,000.

Johnson, you'll recall, was the author of what is considered the first comprehensive English dictionary. Not that there were no dictionaries before Dr. Johnson, but his was the standard English dictionary until publication of the 20th century's Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

Samuel Johnson began his monumental work in 1746, not long after the French national dictionary was published a task that took 40 French scholars 40 years to complete. Dr. Johnson did the same thing for the more voluminous English language in nine years, and he did it virtually alone.

Johnson was already celebrated as a poet and critic in his mid-30s, when he agreed to write the dictionary. He and six clerks worked in a garret, stationing themselves at a long table that ran the room's length. That set-up allowed them to move about the table as they sorted and placed their thousands of notes, lists, and other bits of paper.

They worked that way for nine years. Johnson not only wrote the definitions he also collected more than 100,000 quotations to illustrate the words' meanings a practice later adopted by the OED. And, remember, he had scant earlier work to build on, no research library, no shelves of reference works. And no Internet.

Yet, when he published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, he had a work unrivalled in size and purpose for more than a hundred and fifty years.

And his work still doesn't have a rival in originality and personality. Not all of Johnson's definitions were completely unbiased. Some of them are famous, in fact, for both opinion and wit. For example, he defined "lexicographer" as "a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge."

Scholars consider Dr. Johnson's work a model of clarity and precision. And his achievement was even more impressive considering his unpromising youth.

Sam Johnson was born in 1709 to an impoverished bookseller and emerged from his sickly early years hard of hearing and blind in one eye. But his thirst for knowledge and the books in his father's shop gave him an early and formidable education. One of the great disappointments of Johnson's life, however, was that money problems forced him to leave Oxford after only a year, before earning a degree.

Nevertheless, he embarked in his mid-20s on a writing career of such prodigious output that he became known as a titan scholar and wordsmith. He earned an honorary university degree and is identified even today as "Dr. Johnson." He's also recognized as the second most-quoted person in the English language, after Shakespeare.

Despite the volume and quality of Sam Johnson's work, it didn't make him rich although he did earn 1,575 pounds for his work on the dictionary. That was less than $3,000 dollars in today's money, but it was a tidy sum in the 1700s and surely helped to ease the poverty that had dogged him all his life.

However much it was, though, how do you pay for Dr. Johnson's monumental creation which is still considered the cornerstone of the English language?

Paula LaRocque is a former editor and writing coach for the Dallas Morning News and the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.

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