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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VIII. Johnson and Boswell

§ 16. A Dictionary of the English Language; new features of its design; distinctive merits of the work: the Definitions

In concluding The Rambler, he stated that he had laboured “to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations.” At this time he was in the midst of a similar and greater task in his Dictionary of the English Language. Most of the earlier English dictionaries, to the beginning of the eighteenth century, had been dictionaries of “hard words.” Then, Nathan Bailey, in his Universal Etymological English Dictionary (1721), had aimed at a record of all English words, irrespective of their vogue or repute. Johnson purposely omitted “many terms appropriated to particular occupations,” and thought not so much of the reader as of the writer and the purity of the language. His Plan clearly states his objects, and it is cleverly supplemented in Chesterfield’s two papers in The World. He set out to perform, singlehanded, for the English language what the French Academy, a century before, had undertaken for French. It was to be “a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.” So Johnson hoped; and Chesterfield was ready to acknowledge him as a dictator who would free the language from its anarchy. But, when he came to write the preface, he had found that “no dictionary of a living tongue can ever be perfect, since, while it is hastening to publication, some words are budding, and some falling away.” None the less, the mistaken hope gave the Dictionary its peculiar value. By aiming at fixing the language, he succeeded in giving the standard of reputable use.

Though there are many words in Bailey’s dictionary which Johnson omitted, a hasty comparison will show that he added a large number. He held that the golden age of our language began with the reign of Elizabeth, and that the writers in the century before the restoration were “the pure sources of genuine diction.” As his earliest authorities, he chose Sidney and Spenser. When he avowedly included obsolete words, they were to be found in wellknown authors, or appeared to deserve revival. “Cant words,” as he called them, were occasionally admitted, because of their vogue; others were described as “low.” But the most interesting departure from the rigid exclusiveness of an academic dictionary is his treatment of dialect. There is a much larger infusion of provincialisms than might have been expected. The great majority of these are Scottish, no doubt because five of his six amanuenses, as Boswell has proudly recorded, were “natives of North Britain”; but he was also affectionately disposed to words with which he had been familiar in his native county. With all his care for current reputable use, he had too great respect for the native stock to ignore its humbler members, and his selection and description of these have a clear historical value. His main fear for the language was that it would be corrupted by French. It seemed to him to have been, since the restoration, “deviating towards a Gallick structure and phraseology,” and to be threatening to “reduce us to babble a dialect of France.” So he set himself to denounce “the folly of naturalising useless foreigners to the injury of the natives.” It was no vain boast that the book was devoted to the honour of his country. “We have long preserved our constitution, let us make some struggles for our language.”

It appears from Spence’s Anecdotes that Pope had discussed the plan of a dictionary, and had drawn up a list of authors, beginning with Hooker and Spenser, from whom words should be collected. The list is referred to in Johnson’s Plan; and in terms which suggest a closer relationship than is now known to have existed. But there is nothing to show that Pope had favoured the inclusion of quotations. This was Johnson’s most notable innovation in English lexicography. He had hoped that every quotation would serve a further purpose than that of illustrating the use of a word; but he found, as he proceeded, that he had to abandon the idea of combining a dictionary with an anthology. The quotations were frequently from memory and are seldom accompanied with exact references; but, considering the slightness of the assistance which he received, they supply a remarkable proof of the range of his knowledge, and they have a different kind of interest from those in other dictionaries, which, based on more scientific principles, record the use of a word with no attention to the quality of the writer. But the chief worth of the Dictionary lies where it should. Johnson had a supreme talent for definition. When it is remembered that the definitions are his own, that he was the first to attempt a thorough distinction of the different meanings (such words as come and go being each subdivided into more than fifty sections), and that the highest praises he has received have been paid by his successors, the extent of his services to the survey of the language will readily be estimated. The few explanations in which he gave play to his prejudice or indulged his humour were only a remission of the continued exercise of his keen and muscular intellect. Occasionally, he obscured a simple meaning; and no better statement is to be found than in his preface, of the difficulties of defining the obvious. He had, like every one in his century, little etymological knowledge to help him. But his common sense often kept him right in giving the original meaning of a word and distinguishing its later uses, where his successors, previously to the much later advance in philological science, by aiming at refinement introduced confusion and error.