Johnson’s dictionary (1755)

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) was the first monolingual English dictionary to use quotations to substantiate and illustrate its definitions. For this reason, if no other, Johnson’s work arguably had more influence on the original OED than any other word-book: according to the present-day OED lexicographers, it was the direct source of nearly 3,000 quotations in the first edition of OED, and at least 723 definitions are directly quoted from it (Silva 2005).

Johnson’s use of quotations – many of which were also inserted without any change straight into the pages of the OED – crucially influenced the definitions he wrote for his dictionary. The pages in this section discuss the role of the quotations in Johnson’s dictionary, whether for Pleasure and instruction, to provide evidence on the Historical development of a word, to display what Johnson called a ‘Genealogy of sentiments’ – a series of related cultural statements or views, as an aid to the lexicographer in either Explaining meaning or Identifying and discriminating meaning, or, most importantly of all, as the Raw material for a dictionary.

Johnson’s use of quotations has been much discussed, notably by Read 1935, Reddick 2009, Kolb and Kolb 1972, DeMaria 1986, and Schreyer 2000 (all listed, with other valuable studies, in the Johnson section of our Bibliography).

See also the introductory article, with images, on the British Library website by David Crystal (2018): Johnson’s Dictionary: Myths and realities [accessed 8 August 2019].

Page originally from the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, containing notes made by Johnson himself in 1771-73. Source: British Library. Click to enlarge

Last updated on 10 August 2019