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James Boswell, Biographer and Diarist, Fall 2016 @ Archives & Special Collections: Case XI: Dictionary of the English Language

The Special Collections Department at the University of Pittsburgh presents an exhibition of the life of James Boswell, the writer who revolutionized the genre of biography and the broader literary tradition.

[A banner reading: Dictionary of the English Language]

The Dictionary

The title page from the first edition of 'A Dictionary of the English Language.'
The title page of A Dictionary of the English Language, First Edition (1755).

Published in 1755, Samuel Johson's A Dictionary of the English Language is widely regarded as one of the most important works of lexicography. What was revolutionary is that he succeeded in producing a survey of over 40,000 words, accompanied by thorough analysis, quotes from significant literary works for examples of usage, and often illustrations. This feat was completed in eight years with only six assistants. 

The content of A Dictionary of the English Language was a drastic departure from the dry and disorganized dictionary tradition, and much more useable than previous works. Johnson omitted some of the more antiquated, infrequently used words, and defined those that remained with the way they were used in practice, rather than what was 'proper.' This approach resulted in a reference book with universal appeal outside of academia. And though his definitions were often written in elegant prose, Johnson did not assume that his readership would be limited to elites and thus made sure to maintain some amount of simplicity. 

Similar to the manner in which Boswell infused his own character into Life of Johnson, traces of Johnson are visible throughout A Dictionary of the English Language. In Shakespearean tradition, Johnson invented several of the words featured in the dictionary. He also quoted famous writers such as the Brothers Grimm, but he was known to edit the excerpts if they did not precisely fit the usage he sought to convey. Johnson's biases and sense of humor were reflected in many of the definitions, making for a much more enjoyable dictionary-reading experience.

A quote from Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' reading as follows: "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives. The act of dying is not of importance, it lasts so short a time."

A display case showing the two dictionaries listed on this page.
A view of Case XI as displayed for the exhibition. 

A panorama of a London street.
Copyright GanMed64 on Flickr, retrieved from Flickr.

The above image depicts Gogh Square in London. To the far left is the Johnson House, where Samuel Johnson resided. The building is now a museum and charity that offers educational programming, workshops, and events to the public. 

Some of the lesser-known quirks of A Dictionary of the English Language are as follows:

  • The dictionary contains no words beginning with 'X,' claiming it was "...a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."
  • Some rather scandalous words were included for the first time, such as 'arse,' while Johnson omitted related words that he found too vulgar for print.
  • Johnson included the word 'foupe,' which was an unintentional misspelling of 'soupe,' as seen in William Camden’s Britannia.

A quote from Samuel Johnson in 'Life of Johnson,' reading as follows: "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire [sp] into any subject, the first thing we have to do is know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries."

Selected Definitions

Johnson was known by many for his sharp tongue and wit, and A Dictionary of the English Language was no exception. Below are some of his remarks from the dictionary, with regards to his favored topics of conversation.

"Politician: 1. One versed in the arts of government; one skilled in politicks. 2. A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance."
"Tory: One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England, opposed to a Whig."
"Whig: The name of a faction."

Foreign peoples:
"Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people."
"Monsieur: A term of reproach for a Frenchman."

"Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."
"Dull: Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work."

Things he found particularly distasteful
"Stoat: A small stinking animal."
"Stockjobber: A low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares."
"TonguepadA great talker."