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On this day in history in 1709, was born Samuel Johnson.
Doctor Johnson was a literary scholar who created the first dictionary and laid down the rules of English grammar.
Samuel Johnson was born on 7th September 1709, at Litchfield, the son of a bookseller. He was a sickly child, by his own account born ‘almost dead’. He suffered from a number of ailments, particularly scrofula, a form of tuberculosis. At the age of 2, he was taken to London, to be touched by Queen Anne, on account of a popular superstition that alleged that the touch of the sovereign could cure illnesses. His many ailments and the unsuccessful attempts at treatment, left him with disfiguring scars and nearly blind in one eye.
In 1717, Johnson entered Lichfield Grammar School, where he learned the Classics. In 1728, he went up to Pembroke College, Oxford, but after a year was obliged to leave without a degree, due to shortage of funds. At Oxford, he was noted for his ability to write poetry, and his skill in translating English verse into Latin. He was well acquainted with several poets at Oxford, including Alexander Pope. Johnson would later refer to the poets at Oxford as a ‘nest of singing birds.’
Johnson took up a position as a school master at Market Bosworth, but when his father died, leaving him a small inheritance, he hurriedly left to take up a career as a writer. In 1732, he published several essays, none of which survive, and later translated several Classical works into English verse. In 1735, he married Elizabeth Porter, a widow 20 years his senior, but a woman of some learning, and with a dowry which enabled him to open a school in Edial, near Lichfield. One of his students was David Garrick, later to become the greatest actor of the time. Sadly, the school proved a failure, and in 1737, Johnson and Garrick left for London.
At London, Johnson began to contribute to The Gentleman's Magazine, the first magazine, which published poetry and political essays. Johnson contributed several pieces, satirising the Prime Minister, Walpole, and the Hanoverian monarchy.
In 1745, Johnson proposed the publication of a complete edition of Shakespeare, including critical essays. As an example as to what should be included, he wrote Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth, the first recorded Shakespeare criticism. In 1746, he assisted an old Lichfield schoolfellow, Dr. Robert James, to publish a medicinal dictionary. This gave him the idea of publishing a complete dictionary of the English language, and in 1746, he wrote The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, and obtained a contract for publication.
To compile the dictionary, Johnson wrote definitions of every word he could think of. He then filed the definitions on separate sheets in boxes, under their initial letter. Due to insufficient planning, some of the boxes became over-brimmed, necessitating their being refilled in an adjacent box of another letter. It was only when Johnson felt that he had completed all the words, that he was able to handwrite the dictionary from A to Z. A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, six years later than planned. It earned Johnson the degree of Master of Arts, conferred on him by Oxford, and a doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin.
Johnson’s dictionary was not the first to be published, but it was the first to contain definitions, which were often soundly based but occasionally whimsical. The word ‘Oats’ was defined as ‘a cereal which in England is fed to horses, but in Scotland sustains the population. ‘Patron’ is classified as ‘a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.’ A ‘lexicographer is ‘a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.’
In 1763, Johnson met James Boswell, son of a Scottish laird, who became his constant companion, and often the target of his sarcasm. Boswell kept detailed journals on Johnson’s quotes and activities, which provided the basis for his biography of Johnson.
Johnson was noted for his wit. Here is a selection of his quotes as recorded by Boswell.
Boswell: I do come from Scotland, Sir, but I cannot help that.
Johnson: That, Sir, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help doing!
Haughty Lady (sneering at Johnson’s unkempt clothing). Sir, your penis is sticking out.
Johnson: Madam. You flatter yourself. It is only hanging out.
No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. A man in a jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company.
Wickedness is always easier than virtue, for it takes the short cut to everything.
A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.
Fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.
He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
It is commonly observed, that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather. They are in haste to tell each other, what each must already know, that it is hot or cold, bright or cloudy, windy or calm.
Johnson died on 13th December 1784, and was given premier position in Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey.
Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Paperback.
Crystal, David. A Dictionary of the English Language: An Anthology. Penguin Classics.
Lynch, Jack. Samuel Johnson's Insults: A Compendium of His Finest Snubs, Slights and Effronteries.
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