Samuel Johnson, the English writer best known for his “Dictionary of the English Language,” is being celebrated with a Google Doodle on what would have been his 308th birthday.
Along with his work compiling dictionaries as a lexicographer, Johnson, often called “Dr. Johnson,” was a poet, essayist, critic, biographer and editor.
“Johnson’s dictionary was more than just a word list: his work provided a vast understanding of 18th century’s language and culture. His lasting contributions guaranteed him a place in literary history,” Google says. “Today we pay homage to this pioneer lexicographer who dedicated years to his craft.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Samuel Johnson Was Born in Staffordshire & Attended Pembroke College for a Year, Before a Lack of Funds Forced Him to Leave
Samuel Johnson was born September 18, 1709, in Lichfield, Staffordshire, according to the BBC. His father, Michael Johnson, was a bookseller, and his mother, Sarah Ford, raised the family above his father’s store.
With easy access to books in his father’s store, Johnson began reading at a young age and quickly began to show above average intelligence, according to a biography on a website dedicated to his life. He attended Lichfield Grammar School, according to the BBC.
“He took refuge from a difficult childhood in his father’s bookstore. His mother taught him to read at a the age three and was fond of showing off her precocious son’s talent for memorizing and reciting chapters from The Book of Common Prayer,” Brown University’s Krysta Ryzewski writes. “Three years later, Johnson began studying at the Lichfield Grammar School, where he learned Greek and Latin. Although he excelled in his formal studies, he took no relish in them. He recalls his teachers as strict and violent. In his Dictionary, he defined ‘school’ as a ‘house of discipline and instruction.’ It is interesting to note the order in which he chose to offer these designations.”
After grammar school, he spent a year with his cousin, where a new world opened to him.
“At seventeen, Johnson was liberated from the oppressive Lichfield and invited to spend nine months with his cousin Cornelius Ford. Ford was fourteen years Johnson’s senior and a well-learned scholar, having served a fellowship at Cambridge,” Ryzewksi wrote. “Unsurprisingly, Johnson found his academic pursuits far more engaging under the tutorage of his worldly cousin. During his time with Ford, he was exposed to the poets Samuel Garth and Matthew Prior and the playwright William Congreve. These writers would prove deeply influential to Johnson and can be found quoted frequently in his Dictionary.”
He briefly attended Pembroke College at Oxford, “but was forced to leave due to lack of money,” after one year there, according to the BBC. He would later be honored with an honorary degree after publishing his dictionary.
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Johnson then returned home to Lichfield, and sought work as a teacher, but did not like the work. Then 25, he married a 45-year-old wealthy widow, Elizabeth Porter, according to the BBC. He began writing, producing his first work, a tragedy called Irene, and then moved to London to continue his career.
2. He Spent Nearly 9 Years Working on His Dictionary Before Publishing It in 1755
After moving to London, Johnson began to work on what would become one of the most famous dictionaries in history. One that would be used for more than 150 years, when it was replaced by the Oxford English Dictionary. It was called A Dictionary of the English Language.
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“First published in 1755, the dictionary took just over eight years to compile, required six helpers, and listed 40,000 words. Each word was defined in detail, the definitions illustrated with quotations covering every branch of learning. It was a huge scholarly achievement, a more extensive and complex dictionary than any of its predecessors – and the comparable French Dictionnarre had taken 55 years to compile and required the dedication of 40 scholars,” according to the British Library.
The library explains how it came to be:
A group of London book-sellers had commissioned Johnson’s dictionary, hoping that a book of this kind would help stabilise the rules governing the English language. In the preface to the book Johnson writes of the ‘energetic’ unruliness of the English tongue. In his view, the language was in a mess, and was in desperate need of some discipline: ‘wherever I turned my view’, he wrote, ‘there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.’ However, in the process of compiling the dictionary, Johnson recognised that language is impossible to fix, because of its constantly changing nature, and that his role was to record the language of the day, rather than to form it.
There are more than 114,000 literary quotations in the dictionary, according to the British Library. He scoured books and works he considered to be great, like Shakespeare and Milton, and the dictionary shows his taste. It also reveals his rightwing politics, according to the British Library. Mixed in, was some humor:
Even so, many of Johnson’s definitions bear the mark of a rather pompous man (but also quite a humorous one). Many of the words he included were incomprehensible to the average reader – long words such as ‘deosculation’, ‘odontalgick’. He is even believed to have made up some words. His definition of oats is very rude to the Scots. He defines the word as ‘A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.’ Johnson was criticised for imposing his personality on to the book. However, his dictionary was enormously popular and highly respected for its epic sense of scholarship.
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You can find his dictionary online here.
3. He Is Also Known for His Critical Examination of Poets & His Biographies About Their Lives
Johnson’s dictionary is not the only work he is known for. He also published several of his own poems and plays, along with essays. His critical examination of poets and his biographies about their lives are also among his best known works.
“Johnson wrote poetry throughout his life, from the time he was a schoolboy until eight days before his death, composing in Latin and Greek as well as English. His works include a verse drama, some longer serious poems, several prologues, many translations, and much light occasional poetry, impromptu compositions or jeux d’esprit. Johnson is a poet of limited range, but within that range he is a poet of substantial talent and ability,” according to the Poetry Foundation.
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He would become the “leader of the London literary world, and a friend of notable artists and writers such as Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Oliver Goldsmith and David Garrick. Another important friendship for Johnson was with Henry Thrale, a wealthy brewer and member of parliament, and his wife Hester. Johnson became part of their family, treating their London houses as second homes,” according to the BBC.
According to the Poetry Foundation:
His poetry was generally disliked and disregarded during the nineteenth century, but in the next century interest in it began to revive, and the reaction became much more positive. … More generally Johnson’s overall stature as a poet depends on the amount of emphasis the individual critic places on poetic range and scope and on uniformity of excellence over many works. T.S. Eliot, for example, wrote in ‘Johnson as Critic and Poet’ that the claim of an author to be a major poet “may, of course, be established by one long poem, and when that long poem is good enough, when it has within itself the proper unity and variety, we do not need to know, or if we know we do not need to value highly, the poet’s other works. I should myself regard Samuel Johnson as a major poet by the single testimony of The Vanity of Human Wishes. …” But however Johnson is finally ranked, the importance of his poetry both in the context of his own literary output and in the larger context of his age is unquestionable.
4. Johnson, Who Struggled With Health Issues Throughout His Life, Died in 1784 at the Age of 75 & Was Buried at Westminster Abbey
Johnson dealt with illness throughout his life, starting at his birth, according to a biography on the Brown University website.
“Under the care of a wet nurse whose breast milk was infected with tuberculosis, Johnson contracted a painful glandular disease known as scrofula that left him blind in one eye and partially deaf,” the biography explains. “Throughout his life he would harbor resentment; in his dictionary entry for ‘nurse,’ Johnson quoted Sir Walter Raleigh in describing the ‘unnatural curiosity (that) has taught all women, but the beggar, to find out nurses, which necessity only ought to commend.’ Around the age of eight, Johnson began to manifest symptoms of a nervous disorder similar to Tourette’s. Though he was almost entirely healthy when he entered his late teens, he would carry the physical scars of his disease for life.”
He also dealt with poverty throughout his life. The New York Times explains the portrait of Johnson put forward in two modern biographies, by Peter Martin and Jeffrey Meyers:
Their hero is poor, sensitive, and mocked for his dirty clothes and strange mannerisms. Overwhelmed by insomnia and guilt, he was also plagued (according to the medical diary he kept in Latin) by flatulence, rheumatism, asthma, palsy, dropsy and gout. This stress on the starving artist and mad genius gives only half the story, however, for in his writing life, Johnson did the opposite of what the Romantics, a generation later, taught us to expect of an author. He emphasized perspiration over inspiration, and he understood writing less as an outpouring of solitary genius than as a social transaction. Driven by ‘the want of money, which is the only motive to writing that I know of,’ he turned his hand to whatever genre would sell: verse satires, parliamentary reports, political essays, sermons, biographies.
Johnson died on December 13, 1784, at the age of 75.
He was buried in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, near the foot of Shakespeare’s monument, according to the Poetry Foundation.
5. Along With His Own Work, His Legacy Includes the Famed Biography of Him, ‘Life of Johnson’
While his own works, especially his dictionary, make up the most of his legacy, his story is also well known through a biography written after his death by his friend, James Boswell, called Life of Samuel Johnson. A young Scottish lawyer, Boswell met Johnson late in his life and wrote down accounts of his interactions with him, according to the BBC.
“Samuel Johnson was a fine poet, a good if solemn essayist, and an inspired critic of other people’s writing. But the Johnson we remember is the one James Boswell wrote down,” Adam Gopnik wrote in The New Yorker.
But Gopnik writes, “Boswell didn’t really know him that well, or spend that many days with him (scarcely six months over twenty-some years); he knew him only later in life, when the once hungry Johnson had been stuffed with food and fame; he underrated his poetry and overrated his piety.”