Restoration and Neoclassical Miscellanea

The Book of English

Posted by Diana Esquivel

 A page from Johnson's Dictonary

A page from Johnson’s Dictonary

Think of a moment when you have experienced acute memory loss while spelling a word, or a time you weren’t sure of the correct definition of a word. Those moments of panic were short lived because you have access to a handy dandy dictionary that holds knowledge of a plethora of words. Today’s dictionary, whether it is online or a physical book, contains information such as: pronunciation, spelling, origins, definition, and occasionally an illustration of each word.

Before the creation of the dictionary, there were no boundaries on the English language. There were also no set definitions, nor were there set spellings of words. Many eighteenth century English authors feared that their language would disappear because of the constant changes that the English language experienced from generation to generation. As a result of that fear, the first modern dictionary was commissioned to an unknown author – Dr. Samuel Johnson. It took Dr. Johnson nine (1749-1755) years to complete his dictionary.  According to the British Library, his dictionary consisted of forty thousand words each with detailed definitions, illustrations and quotations. He would often take words from famous works of literature such as William Shakespeare and John Milton and gave them a place in his dictionary. Johnson also took the liberty to add his own words and definitions to his dictionary.

 “WORD” (Johnson’s Dictionary Online)

“WORD” (Johnson’s Dictionary Online)

The reason I point out the creation of new words is because Johnson’s dictionary was created during the Enlightenment era. During this era, there was a constant influx of new ideas traveling back and forth among people from newly discovered regions of the world. Yet, the English wanted a book that preserved the English language. It seemed to be an impossible task because there was new information was constantly printed. This created a need for new words and definitions so that others could learn about the new discoveries and new ideas. Because of this, the English might have overlooked the fact that dictionary could be used as a form of consistency to be able to communicate amongst themselves.

Johnson knew that the dictionary couldn't control English language.

Johnson knew that the dictionary couldn’t control English language.

Within Johnson’s Dictionary, he directly comments on the concern of the constant change of the English language. He states in the Preface of his dictionary that “…who with equal justice may imagine that his dictionary can emblem his language and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affection” (Norton 2930). Even though he made this massive book to control the English language it is absurd to think that other forces cannot contribute any more words to the language. The dictionary was a stepping stone to revolutionize the English language because it developed a structure that laid out the rules for words in the English language. Yet Johnson was right, the creation of the dictionary did not stop the creation of new words. Even to this day there are arguments about whether or not a particular word should be added to the dictionary, because it might affect the English language in a negative way. However, states that words are added by how frequent a word is spoken and used. This modern day rule has moved away from a strict regulation of the English words but is still a guide for the addition of new words in the dictionary.

The dictionary did not stop with Johnson’s edition. Below is a video on the rest of the evolution of the dictionary:


“1755-Johnson’s Dictionary.” 1755-Johnson’s Dictionary. Web.14 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Nov. 2015.

Johnson, Samuel. “Oats.” A Dictionary of the English Language: A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson. Edited by Brandi Besalke. Last modified: November 10, 2012.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ninth Edition edition. New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. Print.


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This entry was posted on December 7, 2015 by in Samuel Johnson.
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