Bureaucracy: Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language

Johnson, Samuel. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, in Miniature. To Which Are Added, an Alphabetical Account of the Heathen Deities, and a Copious Chronological Table of Remarkable Events, Discoveries, and Inventions. By the Rev. Joseph Hamilton, M. A. Second American Edition. Newburyport: Published by Thomas & Whipple; Greenough & Stebbins, Printers, [Nov.] 1806. Print.


Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) was an English writer, well known as a poet, playwright, essayist, and biographer. He has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history” (Rogers), and by the time he reached the age of 55 he presided over a literary club that included among its members many of the most influential men and women in eighteenth-century English culture. Johnson’s ride to this height was not an easy one, but it was advanced enormously by his work as an innovative lexicographer. Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was first published in 1755. It was modeled on older glossaries and dictionaries, but undertook the task of capturing words and their meanings in a new way and with an uncommon scope. The production of the book was funded by a consortium of London publishers who contracted Johnson, a poor pamphleteer and journalist at the time. After nine years of work by Johnson and six assistants the work listed more than 40,000 words with detailed definitions and illustrative quotations.The Dictionary proceeded steadily through common words as well as the new-fangled jargons employed by science and other ascendant professions. Beyond its comprehensiveness, the Dictionary also broke ground by being the first to illustrate the meaning of words through quotations drawn from printed books to show already extant instances of usage. Johnson’s methods capture language made lively and multi-dimensional by its historical development even as he seeks to control and fix both spelling and usage.

Johnson’s efforts eventually earned him the Master of Arts degree from Oxford that he had pursued for many years, and the title page of the first edition acknowledged that fact (Lane 128-129). Although there was criticism at the time, it has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship…ever performed by one individual who laboured under anything like the disadvantages in a comparable length of time” (Bate 240). For nearly 150 years, it was used as a model for countless other dictionaries but was eventually superseded by the publication of The Oxford English Dictionary (Lynch 1).

Johnson’s original version was a immense book, with pages that were almost 18 inches tall and 10 inches wide—20 inches across when opened. It contained 42,773 entries. It sold for £4 10s—about $6.51—which is currently equivalent to approximately £350, or more than $555 in 2014 currency. Miniature versions—the equivalent of the paperback format—were much more affordable and sold vigorously. The example on display is an early United States printing based on the 14th English edition. The first American printing of this edition appeared in Boston in 1804. This 1806 volume measures 3.5 x 5.5 inches, and contains 276 pages of 2-column text along with an engraved frontispiece of Dr. Johnson, signed “Edwin sc,” for David Edwin (1776-1841), the engraver. Bound in brown leather, it features stamped gold accents and lettering, with a maroon accented title area on the spine; the text was published by Thomas & Whipple and printed in by Newburyport by Greenough & Stebbins, Nov 1806. This book repackages Johnson’s monumental project of setting the standards of the English language into a portable, affordable, pocket edition marketed to New England audiences. What it relinquishes of the breadth of Johnson’s original it makes up for by using Johnson’s authority as a platform for making two other less illustrious reference works—concerned with heathen deities and important historical events—by one now-forgotten Reverend Joseph Hamilton available to its readers.

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