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Samuel Johnson and the First English Dictionary

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over readingtheoed.jpgthe next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, will be published by Perigee in July. In the post below Ammon, an expert dictionary reader, wonders who wrote the first English Dictionary.

Was Samuel Johnson the first man to write an English dictionary? Given that most scholars agree that this title belongs to Robert Cawdrey, whose 1604 work predates Johnson by more than 150 years, the answer would have to be that he did not. And yet the notion that Johnson, in 1755, was the first has persisted stubbornly. This is curious, given all the evidence to the contrary, and it raises the question of why so many people feel comfortable with the vague knowledge that English lexicography somehow originated with Johnson.

It is easy to see why many people might not associate Cawdrey with being the first dictionary – his book did not have the word ‘dictionary’ in its title, nor did he define it. Titled A Table Alphabeticall, it was the first of what came to be known as hard-word dictionaries – his list of approximately 2,500 entries is almost entirely devoted to defining words which were considered difficult. It also made no attempt to provide any information about etymology, pronunciation, or usage – characteristics that we often assume are a standard part of a dictionary.

Even if one thinks that a dictionary must be called a dictionary, Johnson was beaten to that punch by well over a hundred years, by Henry Cockeram’s The English Dictionarie, in 1623. Dictionaries gradually increased in size as the 17th century progressed, but they continued to be specialized, dealing with obscure words or some specific branch of knowledge.

I have on occasion read that Johnson wrote the first ‘real’ dictionary, a choice of words that I find confusing, for it raises the question of what makes a dictionary ‘real’. Does it mean that his was the first to include such features as we have come to expect in a modern dictionary? Or that he was the first to attempt to catalogue the entirety of the language?

John Kersey (in 1702) and Nathan Bailey (in 1721) both made the attempt to fully define the English vocabulary well before Johnson. In fact, the book that Johnson used to guide him in compiling his word list, Bailey’s 1730 Dictionarium Britannicum, had approximately 6,000 more words than Johnson’s did. So it is difficult to regard Johnson as more comprehensive or ‘real’ than his predecessors.

Did Johnson perhaps predate other lexicographers in his treatment of words? He was not the first to provide usage labels. Johnson’s critical treatment of certain words is occasionally amusing (he refers to hundreds of words as ‘low’ or ‘barbarous’), but Edward Phillips had already begun marking words that he thought were spurious in his 18th century work, The New World of English Words.

In 1656 Thomas Blount became the first English lexicographer to provide both etymologies and citations for the words he defined. Thomas Dyche and William Pardon’s dictionary of 1735 was the first to give grammatical information about its words. And depending on who you ask, the first dictionary to distinguish between the various senses that a single word can have was either the Benjamin Martin’s of 1749, or the one published by John Wilkins and William Lloyd in 1668.

So what did Johnson do first? It would appear that he was not the first in any technical aspect of his work – every lexicographic quality in his dictionary had already been introduced. This is not an attempt to detract from Johnson’s accomplishments; one does not have to be the first to do something in order to be great at it. After all, the fact that Charles Richardson’s dictionary of 1837 made extensive use of examples from literature to illustrate the meanings of words did not in any way diminish the accomplishments of the OED when it did this later. Richardson may have done it earlier, but the OED did it better.

And that is how I choose to view Johnson: others may have done these things before him, but he did them better. He did not create the first English dictionary, or any part of it, but he did improve it immeasurably.

If I had my druthers I would much rather be better than first.

Recent Comments

  1. Grant Barrett

    A thorough examination of this topic can be found in Jack Lynch’s 2005 paper How Johnson’s Dictionary Became the First Dictionary.

  2. Harry

    During the time of the American Revolution, what dictionary would have the Founding Fathers refered to as they were writing the Bill of Rights, Constitution and The Declaration of Independence. It seems to me they were very specific and careful about how they worded these documents. Is there any historical information on what dictionary they used. I think this would be important since everybody wants to interperet the meanings of these documents to their own best interest instead of what the words really ment to the people who wrote them. Any information you can give me will be greatly appriciated. Thank you, Harry

  3. Nathan

    What about Sir Thomas Elyot’s “The Dictionary of syr Thomas Eliot Knyght” (1538), a copy of which exists in the British Library? And the revised edition of 1552, which is hundreds of pages long?

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