Pleasure and instruction

Role 1 of quotations: to provide pleasure and instruction

In his Plan of 1747, written when he had embarked on but not completed his dictionary, Johnson recognized that ‘the credit of every part of this work must depend’ on the ‘authorities’ [i.e. quotation sources] that he would cite to illustrate his analysis of a word.1

 [accessed 20 April 2018].[/note]

It is tempting for a modern reader to assume from this that Johnson was seeking empirical evidence of usage in order to justify his inference of what a word meant. Such an assumption would be only partly justified, however. Johnson immediately goes on to say that in citing such authorities,

it will be proper to observe some obvious rules; such as of preferring writers of the first reputation to those of an inferiour rank; of noting the quotations with accuracy; and of selecting, when it can be conveniently done, such sentences, as, besides their immediate use, may give pleasure or instruction, by conveying some elegance of language, or some precept of prudence or piety.

Johnson 2005: 55

The first and third of these ‘rules’ indicate that Johnson believed his quotation sources to be important not only because they would illustrate the usage of a word, but also because they would provide aesthetic pleasure on the one hand, and moral uplift and instruction on the other. The latter aim was entirely characteristic of the pedagogic culture of his day and earlier (it is a version of the ancient and much-rehearsed view that one teaches through delight; see Horace, Art of Poetry, ll. 333-44). Johnson was also following established European practice. As one critic has written,

‘Quotation gathering, while new in England, was an old story with the Continental dictionaries of the Renaissance (specifically, of the period before 1700). Johnson’s sentiments on the value to learning of quotations from various sources closely echo the statements on method found in a number of earlier lexicons [for example, those of Constantine, Faber, Estienne, Buxtorf, and Golius]’.

Korshin 1974: 304; see further Sledd and Kolb 1955: 42, 211 and Considine 2014c.

(Johnson later had to modify his initial scheme for including quotations: ‘When the time called upon me to range this accumulation of elegance and wisdom into an alphabetical series, I soon discovered that the bulk of my volumes would fright away the student, and was forced to depart from my scheme of including all that was pleasing or useful in English literature’. He was nevertheless pleased that the ones he retained would ‘intersperse with verdure and flowers the dusty desarts of barren philology’).2

Johnson acknowledges that the choice of quotation sources will therefore play a central role in his dictionary. ‘Who shall judge the judges?’ he asks. He replies, ‘…since…a question may arise by what authority the authorities are selected, it is necessary to obviate it, by declaring that many of the writers whose testimonies will be alleged, were selected by Mr. Pope’ (Johnson 2005: 55).

Pope was one of many contemporary men of letters who felt intense anxiety over the uncontrolled proliferation of new words and new forms in the English language, and who favoured various projects, including compiling a dictionary with examples of exemplary usage, to ‘correct, improve and ascertain the language’.3

The prose writers specified by Pope were Bacon, Hooker, Hobbes, Ben Jonson, Lord Clarendon, Barrow, Tillotson, Dryden, Sir William Temple, L’Estrange, Locke, Sprat, Atterbury, Congreve, Addison, Vanbrugh, Swift, Lord Bolingbroke; the poets, a smaller number, were Spenser, Shakespeare, Fletcher, Waller, Butler, Milton, Dryden, Prior, Swift (Butler and Swift were to furnish examples of ‘the burlesque style’, and ‘Fletcher was mentioned too only as an authority for familiar dialogue and the slighter kinds of writing’).

In the event, Johnson did not stick to this list very closely. He included many other additional sources, notably the Bible (not mentioned in Pope’s list), and famously excluded Hobbes (with some other authors) on the grounds that his views were immoral. Notably, about half of all his quotations were from authors dead before 1700.4

So the appearance of objective empiricism which Johnson’s use of quotation evidence might now communicate to us today is effectively specious: Johnson based his definitions on quotations gathered from carefully selected authorities to provide instructive, rather than linguistically representative, examples of usage.

In his Preface to the Dictionary, Johnson explains that he sought his examples ‘from the writers before the restoration, whose works I regard as the wells of English undefiled, as the pure sources of genuine diction’, and emphasizes once more the pedagogical aims behind his choice of quotations:

I have fixed Sidney’s work for the boundary, beyond which I make few excursions. From the authours which rose in the time of Elizabeth, a speech might be formed adequate to all the purposes of use and elegance. If the language of theology were extracted from Hooker and the translation of the Bible; the terms of natural knowledge from Bacon; the phrases of policy, war, and navigation from Raleigh; the dialect of poetry and fiction from Spenser and Sidney; and the diction of common life from Shakespeare, few ideas would be lost to mankind, for want of English words, in which they might be expressed.

Johnson 2005: 96

He could not always find the words he wanted in such sources. In actually compiling rather than just planning his dictionary, Johnson had been forced in some instances to depart from his rule of quoting only from ‘masters of elegance or models of stile’: ‘words must be sought where they are used; and in what pages, eminent for purity, can terms of manufacture or agriculture be found?’ (Johnson 2005: 94).

He was nevertheless astonishingly successful in limiting the provenance of his quotations. Just seven sources between them furnish nearly half the quotations in the Dictionary: Shakespeare (15.5%), Dryden (10% ), Milton (5.7%), and Bacon, the Bible, Addison, and Pope (under 4.5% each); just 19 authors provide 67% of the total number of quotations in the Dictionary (figures from Schreyer 2000: 67). It is particularly striking that Johnson quoted so very rarely from female authors (see Brewer 2012), despite the fact that published writing by women was well established by the time his Dictionary appeared. Many such female writers were recent or actual contemporaries, but notwithstanding Johnson’s stated preference for dead authors he quoted extensively from male contemporaries, e.g. the novelist Samuel Richardson. As commentators have noted, ‘By selecting the domain of research, Johnson limited both the kind of English and the kind of knowledge his book could contain’; ‘the very act of selecting a corpus such as Johnson’s “wells of English undefiled” is potentially prescriptive’ (DeMaria 1997: 90; Barnbrook 2005: 96).

Unlike Johnson, the early editors of OED set out to record words from all available printed sources, and not to confine themselves to authors selected for their propriety or elegance of expression. Nevertheless, it proved difficult for the main editor (1879-1915) of the Dictionary, J. A. H. Murray, to resist calls that he should choose quotations only from texts written by great writers, or found in other sources thought to be appropriate representatives of the culture and history of the nation (see Literature and the nation; Literary sources). And like Johnson’s Dictionary, the OED has always proved extremely reluctant to quote from female-authored sources in any significant proportion (see Fe/male sources).

Despite the difference in the aims and achievements of the two dictionaries, therefore, there are some striking similarities between the instructive and aesthetic role of quotations in Johnson, as discussed here, and in the OED. Does this make the OED more of a prescriptive dictionary than is usually thought?

See further Language and usage (in our section OED1 intellectual climate).

Go to next page on Johnson’s dictionary: Historical development of word.

Last updated on 1 November 2019


  1. Johnson 2005: 55. The Plan can be read online at [accessed 1 Nov 2019].
  2. Johnson 2005: 94; see [accessed 1 Nov 2019].
  3. Cf. Swift’s Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue, 1712: [accessed 20 April 2018], and for a survey of late 17th- and 18th-century attitudes to correctness and standardization, Crystal 2004: chapters 15-16. Pope’s list of the prose writers and poets whose usage would function as an authoritative model in a dictionary was made just before his death in 1744 and recorded by Joseph Spence in his collection of Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men, a copious account of Spence’s conversations with Pope and other luminaries; see Spence 1966: vol. 1, §389-90.
  4. See Schreyer 2000; Crystal 2004: 383; DeMaria 1997: 90ff.; and on Johnson’s exclusions, McDermott 1998: 61.