The Documents

The Development of the American Character

*Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary

Until 1755, the English language lacked a complete and authoritative dictionary like those produced by the French and Italian Academies. Lists of words had been published such as Cockeram’s English Dictionarie: or, an Interpreter of Hard English Words (1623) but there was nothing similar to what we now have such as Webster’s Dictionary. What you see here is work of one man, Dr. Samuel Johnson, who with the help of six copyists compiled this dictionary. He did it by reading books, easily at hand from about 1580 to writers just before his contemporaries. He would underline words, put initials in the margins as cues, and then the copyists would put the words and sentences in which they occurred on slips of paper. Dr. Johnson’s dictionary is a delight to read, if not consult for word meanings of that time, for his prejudices often turn up in the definitions. For example, the word “excise” is defined as, “A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.” Dr. Johnson’s father had trouble with the commissioners of excise in the conduct of his business as a bookseller and maker of parchment. Samuel Johnson was a highly opinionated scholar with a most interesting life detailed by a contemporary, James Boswell, in his Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson.