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09 18 samuel johnsonToday is the birthday of Samuel Johnson, of dictionary fame, who was born in Lichfield in 1709. He was a very intelligent child, blessed with an excellent memory and a gift for Latin. He came from a poor background and though he began a degree at Oxford University, he was forced to give it up due to lack of funds.

In fact he had a lot of disadvantages. He wasn’t a well child. He suffered from scrofula, horrible swellings of the lymph nodes. Oddly, people at the time thought that the best cure for this was to be touched by the reigning monarch and, at the age of two, he was taken to Queen Anne. Sadly, it didn’t work and instead he suffered surgery which left him with disfiguring scars on his face and body. When he was around seven he began to develop a series of tics that have led to a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome. People remarked that he was inclined to make odd noises, a sort of whistle or clucking like a hen. He had a habit when drinking tea of holding the cup out at arms length in every direction, which was rather alarming. When approaching a doorway, he would whirl and twist about before making an exaggerated step over the threshold. When a little girl asked him why he did this, he replied that it was because of bad habit. Johnson also seems to have suffered from bouts of depression, which he refers to as a black dog. His way of combating his depression was to keep himself so busy that he couldn’t dwell on dark thoughts. He advocated sleeping with a lamp burning and always keeping a book by the bed.

After leaving university, he tried very hard to get employment as a teacher, but his lack of a degree made it difficult. His involuntary tics and gesticulations didn’t help him much either. The directors of the school in Solihull would not employ him because: ‘he has such a way of distorting his face (which though he can’t help) the gents think it may affect some lads.’ He even ran his own school for a while with the help of his wife’s money. It wasn’t very successful, but one of his students was David Garrick, who would grow up to be a famous actor.

After moving to London in 1737 he managed to scratch a living writing for a magazine. In 1746, he was asked by a group of publishers if he would write a dictionary of the English language. At the time, the French were producing a similar dictionary of their own language. Forty scholars were working on it for forty years. Johnson was sure that he could finish his in only three years. He suggested that, as forty multiplied by forty was sixteen hundred, a proportion of three to sixteen hundred was how much better as Englishman was than a Frenchman. He really wasn’t at all keen on the French. Many French words are omitted from his dictionary. He does not include the words ‘champagne’ or ‘bourgeois’, but does include the word ‘escargatoire’, which he describes as a nursery for snails. Fair enough, it’s a good word. Johnson seems to have felt a similar animosity towards the Scots. He defines oats as: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people. He later became friends with a man from Edinburgh called James Boswell, with whom he travelled the Western Isles. Boswell was also Johnson’s first major biographer.

Samuel Johnson’s famous dictionary actually took him eight years to complete and was published in 1755. Although it isn’t the first dictionary of the English language, it was the first to use citations, examples of uses of each word from famous works of literature, to make the meaning more clear. It was a massive undertaking and he needed several assistants to help him. It isn’t really a comprehensive dictionary, it contains 42,773 entries while at the time there were around 250,000 words in the English language. Still, for 150 years it remained the best dictionary of the English Language. Some of his definitions are lovely and show us that he had a sense of humour. He defines the word ‘dull’ as: ‘Not exhilirating, not delightful: as, ‘to make dictionaries is dull work’. Also ‘to worm’ means: ‘To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.’ There were no entries under the letter ‘X’ because: ‘X begins no word in the English language.’

After his dictionary was published he was congratulated by several society ladies for having left out all the indecent words. His reply to them was: ‘Ah, ladies, so you have been looking for them?’ While it is true that he left out any words with a sexual connotation, penis and vagina are not there at all, he did include the words bum, fart, arse, piss and turd. So the ladies must have been fine with those.