The Development of Johnson's Dictionary

Topics: English language, Oxford English Dictionary, Dictionary Pages: 9 (2995 words) Published: June 19, 2013
The Development of Johnson’s Dictionary and its Consequences

In 1755 Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (DEL) was published and with it a change in language was brought about. It contained 40,000 entries, each with etymology, pronunciation keys, definitions and example quotes to demonstrate the word in use. All of this was compiled by one man over seven years, a feat in itself. Although not the first ever dictionary; Bailey released the Universal Etymological English Dictionary in 1721 and Cawdrey published the first dictionary of hard words in 1604, it soon became the arbitrator on English language (Willinsky, 1994). This paper will look at why The Dictionary was developed, focusing upon social issues regarding language during this period; Johnson’s personal motivation in writing The Dictionary; the authors he chose to use as sources in his writing and the words that Johnson thought to be vulgar. It will then further look at the consequences The Dictionary had upon language at that time and in future years.

Towards the end of the seventeenth century there was a feeling of unease about the direction that the English language was moving. The lack of a standard for people to adhere to was thought to have caused a corruption in the language and that for some time it had been steadily going down (Baugh, 1993). It was felt that there was a need to ‘fix’ the language, to stabilise it and to create a form that would in some sense be permanent which Swift, an active commentator on the English language, further agreed with in his Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue. Here he stated that the English tongue needed the most improvement, that the corruptions that had appeared in our language had not equalled its refinements. This prescriptive approach was centred on one word: ‘ascertainment’, which was defined by Dr Johnson as ‘a settled rule; an established standard’ (DEL, 1773). This demonstrates how in some ways the dictionary was required to act as an authority on language to avoid further decay.

The decay and corruptions that were causing societal unease were due to the English language altering too fast. Crystal (2002) discusses how there was no order to the language and words that seemed to be barbarous and unrefined were slipping into everyday speech. Writers and poets were creating new contractions and abbreviations and there appeared to be no order in the way that Elizabethan dramatists creatively used language. Alongside this, McKnight (1956) also expresses the new ways that people were spelling in the way that they spoke, adding in extra letters, and having no standard form of punctuation or spelling. In a time when foreign words were uncontrollably coming into the English language, it is not hard to understand where the prescriptive approach came from. Swift wished to clean up the language and he was not alone in this desire; Dafoe, Pope, Dryden and other men of many political and literary persuasions cried out for some form of authority to ‘fix’ the language (Hedrick, 1988). They wished for an end to the downward spiral in language and looked for solutions to control and establish a standard; although this may possibly be due to the fact that they were most concerned about their own work not being understood by future generations more than wishing to improve the English language. As a result of this chaos surrounding English language, several ideas came to the forefront to try and control it before The Dictionary was finally decided upon.

In 1662 The Royal Society was founded and they sought to have the language ‘improved’ with one of their major debates being whether the English language should be placed into the hands of an Academy. In Italy, the Accademia della Crusca was formed in around 1582 and they produced their first dictionary in 1612 with the hope of purifying the Italian language, this was shortly followed by the French whose...

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[ 2 ]. All references to Johnson’s The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language come from within Johnson, S. & Rivington, A. (1823) The works of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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