The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia

The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language is one of the most revered literary works in the English language. It brought Johnson tremendous fame – his nickname became "Dictionary Johnson" – and exists as a tremendous scholarly accomplishment. As Johnson scholar Walter Jackson Barnes writes, "so well did he succeed that, for over a century, the work was without a serious rival. Other dictionaries were little more than a modification or partial development of Johnson's." It is the first to comprehensively cover the English lexicon.

Johnson took on the task when he tired of journalism. He began in 1746 and did not finish until 1755. He received this contract from a group of London booksellers, and was paid the equivalent of over 210,000 pounds in today's money.

The Dictionary has 40,000+ entries that are accompanied by 116,000 illustrative quotations. The definitions were renowned for their precision and many are still used today. The use of quotes to demonstrate how meanings change over time inspired the similarly great Oxford English Dictionary. In fact, 1700 of Johnson's original definitions were used in the OED.

It was massive in size, with the pages eighteen inches tall and made of fine, expensive paper. It was separated into two folios but that was considered too cumbersome, and subsequent editions divided into four. As it was so heavy and expensive, only 6000 copies were in print by 1784.

In the preface to the work Johnson details how exhausting the project was – "I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds" – and how compiling a dictionary is somewhat of a thankless job – "Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from the paths through which Learning and Genius press forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress."

While the entries display scholarly rigor, they are occasionally derived from Johnson's own views or impart a moral message. He mentions his own place of birth, subtly criticizes Scotland, and elided writers and thinkers whose works he thought morally dangerous, such as Thomas Hobbes. Frequently quoted writers include John Milton, John Dryden, and Shakespeare. His learnedness in Greek and Latin made him tend to favor spellings that were more classical and rooted in those languages.

The Dictionary was acclaimed as soon as it was published. Johnson's famous biographer, Boswell, wrote, "the world contemplated with wonder so stupendous a work achieved by one man, while other countries had thought such undertakings fit only for whole academies." It was considered a product of its time and place, with modern scholar Michael Adams noting that it was "urbane. Johnson assumed levels and types of literacy that seventeenth-century lexicographers could not safely assume, and the purpose, structure, and style of his Dictionary suit the age and place, London, in which it was written, published, and, for the most part, read."