Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-84) is one of the 18th century’s most famous writers, best known for his Dictionary of the English Language. Compiling the dictionary took eight years even with the help of six assistants who worked from his house just off Fleet Street.
Although Dr Johnson's dictionary had 42,773 entries, it was far from comprehensive: at the time the English language contained between 250,000 and 300,000 words. The word anus is not included despite being used in two definitions. Johnson disapproved of French words and left out cutlet, bourgeois and champagne. However, he seemed to have no problem with the word escargatoire, which he defined as 'a nursery of snails'.
There were also no entries for the letter X. He wrote: ‘X is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.’
The complete Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1928, 44 years after the first volume was published.
Kindness is in one’s power: fondness is not.
A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out as good for nothing.
Dr Johnson was not the first person to write an English dictionary; that honour goes to Richard Mulcaster, a 16th-century teacher who also came up with the name 'football' as well as inventing referees and the idea of football teams.
Mulcaster’s book did not contain definitions, unlike Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall, of 1604, which also pre-dated Johnson and listed around 3,000 'Hard Words' defining each one with a simple and brief description.
Johnson was a bit of mess physically. Childhood scrofula left him half-blind and scarred. As well as the usual array of 18th-century maladies - palsy, dropsy, gout, flatulence, he also suffered from depression, OCD and probably Tourette’s syndrome, as he was prey to uncontrollable ‘antic gesticulations’ and explosive verbal outbursts.
For almost 20 years after his wife’s death in 1765, Johnson had a room in the household of Mr and Mrs Thrale in Streatham. Johnson had asked Mrs Thrale to keep a padlock and chains handy, just in case his seizures became too violent. When she died, ‘Johnson’s padlock’ was one of the items in her will.
Johnson fell in love with the small, sparky Hester Thrale, and she seems to have loved him back. Her husband was cold and distant, embroiled in affairs of his own. But letters uncovered in recent years suggest that their relationship was even more intimate than it appeared.
Johnson would write to Hester in French (the language of erotic sophistication, then as now) ‘Keep me in that form of slavery which you know so well how to make blissful, ’ he writes to her. She would refer to these services as ‘my Attention to your Complaint’. Years later in her Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson, she made it perfectly plain what these attentions had been. ‘Says Johnson a Woman has such power between the Ages of twenty five and forty five, that She may tye a Man to a post and whip him if She will,’ and added the footnote: ‘This he knew of him self was literally and strictly true.’
When her husband died in 1781 everyone expected the odd couple to marry. They didn’t: Hester disappeared to Venice to enjoy a blissfully happy marriage to her virile young music teacher, Gabriel Piozzi. Johnson, heartbroken, only lived another five months. But Hester kept Johnson’s padlock until she died.
From A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755
Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.
Samuel Johnson's first dictionary gave 134 different senses of ‘to take’ which occupied five pages and about 8,000 words.
Jeremy Bentham once met Dr Johnson but declared him to be 'a pompous vamper of commonplace morality'.
Dr Johnson rarely got up before noon.
Dr Johnson had a pet cat called Hodge that he fed with fresh oysters.
Samuel Johnson was blind in one eye.