Sunday, 8 June 2014

Dr Samuel Johnson

Many things have been written about this most famous of Lichfield’s sons, indeed much more has been written than he ever wrote himself. One of the most-often quoted ‘facts’ is how this lexicographer wrote the first dictionary. However his A Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755 was merely a milestone, albeit a significant one – indeed the most significant dictionary until the first copy of the Oxford English Dictionary appeared 173 years later.

The very first dictionary of the English language appeared in 1604, although whether we would see it as a dictionary in the modern sense is doubtful. Written by schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey, the only surviving copy of A Table Alphabeticall is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This dictionary numbered just 120 pages and 2,543 words, some definitions of which were just a single word. Those included were seemingly chosen at random and many are highly obscure.

Of course no early 17th century book had a title of just three words, this was released as A table alphabeticall conteyning and teaching the true writing and understanding of hard usuall English words, borrowed from the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine, or French etc. With the interpretation thereof by plaine English words, gathered for the benefit and helpe of ladies, gentlewomen, or any other unskilfull persons. Whereby they may the more easily and better understand many hard English words, which they shall heare or read in scriptures, sermons, or elsewhere, and also be made able to use the same aptly themselves. (Personally I am delighted today’s titles are no longer effectively the blurb.) The book appeared in the form of a table where the reader was given some idea of how to use the word in context. What follows is a selection of entries listed alphabetically. Many will spot there are only 19 examples owing to there being no listings for words beginning with the letters J, K, U, W, X, or Y (how on earth he managed to omit every word beginning with ‘W’ is beyond me!)

ABBA – father

BISKET – bread

CIRCUMLOCUTION – a speaking of that in many words, which may be said in few

DECOCTION – liquor, wherein things are sod for phisicke

EMBLEM – a picture shadowing out some thing to be learned

FASTIDIOUSNESs – loathsomeness or disdainfullness

GLOBE – any thing very round

HECTIC – inflaming the heart and soundest parts of the body.


LETHARGY – a drowsy and forgetful disease

METEORS – elementary bodies or moist things engendered of vapours in the air above.

NICE – slow, lazy

OFFICIAL – belonging to an office

POEM – verses of a poet (he then defines POET as ‘a verse maker’)

QUEACH – thick heap

RECEPTACLE – a place to receive things in

SEX – kind

TABLET – a little table

VENTRICLE – the stomach which receives the meat

ZODIAC – a circle in the heaven wherein be placed the twelve signs and in which the Sun is moved.

The Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum in Lichfield. Informative, friendly staff, an excellent literary experience and it's all free, too.

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