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what century was dr. samuel johnson around?

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Early life


Samuel Johnson was the son of Michael Johnson, a bookseller, and his wife, Sarah. From childhood he suffered from a number of physical afflictions. By his own account, he was born “almost dead,” and he early contracted scrofula (tuberculosis of the lymphatic glands). Because of a popular belief that the sovereign’s touch was able to cure scrofula (which, for that reason, was also called the king’s evil), he was taken to London at the age of 30 months and touched by the queen,

whose gold “touch piece” he kept about him for the rest of his life.

This was succeeded by various medical treatments that left him with disfiguring scars on his face and neck.

He was nearly blind in his left eye and suffered from highly noticeable tics that may have been indications of Tourette syndrome. Johnson was also strong, vigorous, and, after a fashion, athletic. He liked to ride, walk, and swim, even in later life.

He was tall and became huge. A few accounts bear witness to his physical strength—as well as his character—such as his hurling an insolent theatregoer together with his seat from the stage into the pit or his holding off would-be robbers until the arrival of the watch.

what century was dr. samuel johnson around?
what century was dr. samuel johnson around?

From his earliest years

From his earliest years Johnson was recognized not only for his remarkable intelligence but also for his pride and indolence. In 1717 he entered grammar school in Lichfield.

The master of the school, John Hunter, was a learned though brutal man who “never taught a boy in his life—he whipped and they learned.”

This regime instilled such terror in the young boy that even years later the resemblance of the poet Anna Seward to her grandfather Hunter caused him to tremble. At school he made two lifelong friends: Edmund Hector, later a surgeon, and John Taylor, future prebendary of Westminster and justice of the peace for Ashbourne.

In 1726 Johnson visited his cousin, the urbane Reverend Cornelius Ford in Stourbridge, Worcestershire,

who may have provided a model for him, though it was Ford’s conviviality and scholarship rather than his dissipation (he is thought to be one of those depicted carousing in William Hogarth’s A Midnight Modern Conversation [1733]) that attracted Johnson.

Pembroke College

In 1728 Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford. He stayed only 13 months, until December 1729,

because he lacked the funds to continue. Yet it proved an important year.

While an undergraduate, Johnson, who claimed to have been irreligious in adolescence, read a new book,

William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, which led him to make concern for his soul the polestar of his life. Despite the poverty and pride that caused him to leave,

he retained great affection for Oxford. He would later say with reference to the poets of his college,

“We were a nest of singing birds.”

In 1731, the year of his father’s death, his first publication, a translation of Alexander Pope’s “Messiah” into Latin, appeared in A Miscellany of Poems, along with the poetry of other Oxford students.

Pope was the leading poet of the age, and throughout most of his lifetime Johnson would comment on Pope’s achievement in various writings.


Market Bosworth grammar school

In the following year Johnson became undermaster at Market Bosworth grammar school, a position made untenable by the overbearing and boorish Sir Wolstan Dixie, who controlled appointments.

With only £20 inheritance from his father, Johnson left his position with the feeling that he was escaping prison. After failing in his quest for another teaching position, he joined his friend Hector in Birmingham. In 1732 or 1733 he published some essays in The Birmingham Journal, none of which have survived. Dictating to Hector,

he translated into English Joachim Le Grand’s translation of the Portuguese Jesuit Jerome Lobo’s A Voyage to Abyssinia, an account of a Jesuit missionary expedition.

Published in 1735, this work shows signs of the mature Johnson, such as his praise of Lobo, in the preface, for not attempting to present marvels:

“He meets with no basilisks that destroy with their eyes, his crocodiles devour their prey without tears, and his cataracts fall from the rock without deafening the neighbouring inhabitants.”
In 1735 Johnson married Elizabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior. Convinced that his parents’ marital unhappiness was caused by his mother’s want of learning,


he would not follow their example, choosing instead a woman whom he found both attractive and intelligent. His wife’s marriage settlement enabled him to open a school in Edial, near Lichfield, the following year.


what century was dr. samuel johnson around?
what century was dr. samuel johnson around?

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

On researching the history of dictionaries, you will probably come across references of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. First published in 1755, Johnson’s work is one of the most famous and important English dictionaries in history.

The dictionary took nine years to be compiled and lists 40,000 words, each defined in detail and illustrated with quotations covering every branch of learning.

It was an impressive achievement for the time:

in comparison, the French Dictionnarre had taken 55 years to compile and required the dedication of 40 scholars (Johnson only had six helpers).

The prestige of Johnson’s dictionary survived throughout times:

in 2005, a commemorative issue of the 50 pence coin was launched to celebrate its 250th anniversary. The occasion was also remembered by newspaper The Guardian, that published an article on Johnson’s biography.

what century was dr. samuel johnson around?
what century was dr. samuel johnson around?

Johnson’s work

Johnson’s work is considered the “first great English dictionary” and it is commonly pointed out as the first English dictionary in history.

Jack Lynch, an Associate Professor of English at Rutgers and the editor of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary: Selections from the 1755 Work That Defined the English Language (New York: Walker & Company, 2004) and A Guide to Samuel Johnson, discusses the matter on the article “Disgraced by Miscarriage: Four and a Half Centuries of Lexicographical Belligerence”.

In the article, he points out that 663 dictionaries had already been published in England before Johnson published his work.

In reality, the first general monolingual English dictionary is Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall, published in 1604, almost 150 years before Samuel Johnson made his debut. But why has Johnson’s work been favored in relation to others?



Tow main characteristics

Tow main characteristics of Johnson’s work contributed to that fact. Johnson’s dictionary was the first one to make an effort to standardize the spelling of the words, illustrating the meanings by literary quotation of authors like Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. In addition, Johnson added notes on a word’s usage rather than being simply descriptive, like Cawdrey.

But perhaps the main reason for Johnson’s everlasting fame is the fact that, while everybody was busy trying to enlist exclusively the “hard words”, Johnson opened his pages to words people actually used. And that created a new trend in lexicography and defined the future of dictionaries.

what century was dr. samuel johnson around?
what century was dr. samuel johnson around?


Johnson’s real labor

“Johnson’s real labor in the Dictionary was not including words like obumbrate but words like cat and hat and mat.”, writes Lynch. John Kersey’s A New English Dictionary,

from 1702, and Nathan Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary, from 1721, were the first dictionaries to include common words (and were also the first ones to be written by professional lexicographers).

But Johnson was the first author to do so in a systematic way, applying the same careful standards of definition to these words as to the so-called ‘hard words’.

“After Johnson, English lexicography became increasingly concerned with the entire language in all its complexity.

Johnson’s prodigious labor meant his was to become the first standard dictionary — the first to be authoritative, the first to settle arguments.

No earlier English lexicographer achieved a comparable position in British culture. “, writes Lynch.

The Dictionary of English Language might not have been the first English dictionary ever,

but Samuel Johnson became the pop-star of lexicography for bringing the dictionaries closer to the reality of language use. And that is why he gets the highest “top of mind” when it comes to the history of dictionaries.

What did Dr Samuel Johnson omit from his dictionary?

Still, Johnson’s dictionary was far from comprehensive,

even by mid-eighteenth-century standards. It contains 42,773 entries, but there were a good 250,000 words in the English language, even during Johnson’s time. Johnson included no words beginning with X, on the basis that ‘X begins no word in the English language.

How does Dr Johnson define poetry?

In his “Life of Milton” Johnson writes about poetry.

He says that poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth by calling imagination to the help of reason.

In this definition he combines both the nature of the poetic art (that it imitates truth or life) and its function (that it affords pleasure).


What did Johnson based his Dictionary on?


Johnson’s dictionary was made when etymology was largely based on guesswork. His Classical leanings led him to prefer spellings that pointed to Latin or Greek sources, “while his lack of sound scholarship prevented him from detecting their frequent errors”.

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