Letter D is for Dictionary

The title page of Johnson's Dictionary

The title page of Johnson’s Dictionary

It might strike speakers of languages other than English as puzzling, even remiss, that there exists no Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Real Academia Española, the Académie françaiseThe Academy of the Arabic Language in Cairo, the National Institute of the Korean Language, or any other of the hundred or so institutions set up to study, regulate and oversee the use of the languages with which they have been entrusted. On the whole, these esteemed institutions take a prescriptive approach to their work, laying down the rules of acceptable usage and deciding which new words may be allowed official existence in the lexicon. However, while other countries chose to establish national language-planning bodies, Great Britain in the 18th century, and the USA not long afterwards, opted instead for one-man endeavours. 1755 saw the publication on Samuel Johnson’s groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language, while across the pond in 1828 Noah Webster brought out his famous American Dictionary of the English Language. Both were masterpieces of scholarship and laid the foundations of what was to become an Anglosphere tradition of preferring to describe the language as it is actually used rather than attempt to dictate how it should be used.

Poet, essayist and critic, Johnson, who had been contracted by a group of London booksellers to write a dictionary to replace the inadequate ones then in existence, took nearly a decade to complete his masterwork, which on first publication included 42,773 entries, and he did so single-handedly (his triumph was satirised brilliantly in an episode of the BBC TV series Blackadder). The finished work was not without its shortcomings; Johnson often guessed at etymologies and gave little guide to pronunciation. Nor was it without its detractors, who either found fault with the author’s decisions as to what to include or else considered the task unsuitable for a single man to undertake. Nevertheless, it was an enormous achievement that was overwhelmingly well-received and which firmly established a methodology for how future dictionaries should be compiled and entries laid out, including quotes to illustrate meaning.

Webster, a textbook pioneer and lifelong advocate for spelling reform, took over two decades to complete his dictionary. In order to properly derive the etymologies of words, he learned 26 languages, from Greek to Sanskrit, and he made sure to include native American words such as moose and skunk. He also opted for more logical spellings of certain words, such as color, center and check, which are now distinctly American. Of the 70,000 entries, 12,000 had never appeared in a dictionary before. Sadly, Webster did not live to see his masterpiece achieve the honour it so richly deserved. The first edition sold only 2,500 copies. A second edition was published in 1840, but Webster died just three years later, plagued by debt and with his achievements still largely unrecognised.

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

At first, neither Johnson nor Webster was a true descriptivist – both had wanted to standardise the language in some way – but both came to understand that language change is impossible to arrest. Johnson, in his preface, says, “may the lexicographer be derided who… shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language”, while Webster, in a public letter regarding his work, acknowledged that “the force of common usage cannot be resisted”.

Johnson also included some playful definitions in his famous book. A lexicographer, he says, is ‘a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge’  – and if you don’t know what that last phrase means, you know where to look it up.

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