It is 308 years since the birth of Samuel Johnson, who wrote the English language’s most comprehensive dictionary in the 1750s. So this seems as good a time as any to express my utmost contrafibularities (see below) to the man himself.
Johnson, born in 1709, spent nine years working on A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755. It remained the definitive English dictionary until the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928.
It makes sense that this great man became so renowned for one of the greatest books in history as Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, the son of a bookseller. He attended Prembroke College, Oxford, in his late teens but struggled to afford the fees, complained of the intellectual idleness of his contemporaries and felt humiliated when a fellow student took pity on him and presented him with a replacement pair of shoes as a gift.
The great man left university without completing his degree and launched himself into the coffeehouses and print shops of literary London, living a life of genteel poverty, forever under threat from his creditors. His earliest works included the long-form poems ‘London’ and ‘The Vanity of Human Wishes’ and the periodicals The Rambler and The Idler.
Having completed the mammoth task of assembling the dictionary, a commission for which he was handsomely reimbursed, Johnson wrote an analysis of Shakespeare and a biography of his friend Richard Savage, a poet convicted of murder.
A rare foray into fiction, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia (1759), followed and proved a commercial success. The novella was an exotic philosophical fable that told the story of a wayward young royal’s decision to leave behind his isolated homeland, the Happy Valley, in search of true contentment in the wider world.
Despite his impact, fortune often eluded Johnson, and he struggled with women and alcohol. However, he is known as one of the world’s greatest lexicographers, as well as the subject of the first modern biography.
It took Johnson nine years to complete as he rarely rose from bed before noon although he had originally promised to complete it in three. Once finished it was as much of a work of art as one of reference, full of witty definitions. Here are some examples:
- Dull: Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work
- Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words
- Mouth-friend: Someone who pretends to be your friend
- Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people
- Pension: 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
- Stockjobber: a low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares
It was hardly comprehensive: the first edition contained just 42,773 entries, compared to more than 250,000 words in the English language.
While Johnson is best known for his dictionary, he had an accomplished career even without it. He was a poet and spent years creating a collection of the works of Shakespeare.
Despite professional success however, Johnson – disfigured from childhood tuberculosis – often found himself in debt and had little luck with women. His wife Tetty became addicted to laudanum – opium dissolved in alcohol – and died in 1752, before his dictionary was completed.
He then fell in love with a married woman named Hester Thrale. When Thrale’s husband died she moved to Italy to marry her music teacher.
The primary reason for Johnson’s enduring appeal though, outside of his own remarkable achievements in print, is surely the ongoing popularity of James Boswell’s fantastically detailed Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). The book recounts the many wise, comic and vitriolic sayings its subject produced when “talking for victory” late into the night with his peers and clubmates. That circle included such great figures of the age as portrait painter and Royal Academy founder Joshua Reynolds who painted the painting above, actor David Garrick, politician Edmund Burke and playwright Oliver Goldsmith.
Words of Wisdom
“When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Johnson was a great advocate for London and lived happily at 17 Gough Square off Fleet Street for many years with his wife Elizabeth “Tetty” Johnson and their cat Hodge. The house, just yards from Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, his tavern of choice, is now a museum dedicated to Dr Johnson’s memory and a statue of his cat is part way between the house and the pub!
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
“I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read.”
“The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England!” Johnson was notorious for the cheeky derision he displayed towards Scots, as demonstrated by the aforementioned dictionary definition or such assertions as, “Knowledge was divided among the Scots, like bread in a besieged town.”
However, Johnson wasn’t afraid to confront his prejudices and famously went with Boswell, a proud Highlander who sought to correct the prejudice and took Johnson to visit, a journey recorded in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides (1775)
“A fly, sir, may sting a stately horse and make him wince; but one is but an insect, and the other is a horse still.”
“Curiosity is one of the permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.”
“Tea amuses the evening, solaces the midnight, and welcomes the morning.”
Tea was integral to Johnson’s extraordinary output and he claimed to drink as many as 25 cups of an evening.
“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Johnson suffered from ill health throughout his life, beset by scrofula, gout and fits of depression.
“Integrity without knowledge is weak and useless, and knowledge without integrity is dangerous and dreadful.”
“The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.”
I have saved my favourite quotation until the end as it just seems so apt.
His melancholy often gave rise to a hatred of humanity or misanthropy as indicated by the following observation: “I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.”
To many people in the UK, Dr Johnson also brings to mind a wonderful episode of Black Adder where Robbie Coltrane portrays the man himself hoping for some royal patronage from Prince Thickiehead Regent.
When the dictionary is accidentally thrown on the fire, it leaves Blackadder and co to do the impossible and re-create 9 years of work into one night, lest they be hung up by their necks the day!