18 March 2023

A journey through Lent 2023
with Samuel Johnson (25)

Samuel Johnson’s ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ remained the standard English dictionary for 150 years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

The house in Lichfield where Johnson was born is now the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and Bookshop.

A work placement student in the Museum and Bookshop observed some years ago how it ‘is truly remarkable how the evolution of the dictionary parallels the changes of our society, and also the adaptations of our language.’

He pointed out that the Dictionary compiled by Johnson is substantially different to the dictionaries we use today, and how we use a dictionary in very different ways.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary aimed to convey meanings of words in a literary context. As an example, he looked at the word ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus,’ which is a hapax legomenon from William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. This particular word means ‘the state of being able to achieve honours,’ and it is the longest word in the English language that features only alternating consonants and vowels.

Today, we use a dictionary simply as a collection of words and their meanings. Many different types of dictionaries are published today, such as bilingual, specialist and etymological dictionaries.

Imagine how our lives would be very different without Johnson, and how games of Scrabble would cause many more arguments.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The sign above the ‘Dictionary Room’ in the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum and Bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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