The English Language and Sam’s Dictionary

Sam published his Dictionary of the English Language on April 15, 1755. It has been called the first dictionary of English (which is not true) or the first modern dictionary of English (which is closer to the truth). A couple of interesting facts about it:

  • The full title is A Dictionary of the English Language, in Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, to Which Are Prefixed, A History of the Language, and An English Grammar.
  • Sam published a Plan for the Dictionary in 1747 after he had signed a contract with the publishers.
  • The published Dictionary includes a Preface, which is often held out as a significant work in itself in the history of lexicography.
  • One of the main differences between the Plan and the Preface — and it’s an important one — is that Sam’s experience of actually compiling the Dictionary had converted him from someone who wanted to regularize the language to someone who wanted to record the real language as it is used. In lexicographical terms, he started off a prescriptivist and ended up a descriptivist. Most modern dictionaries are descriptive.
  • The first edition is rare and expensive. The highest price on AbeBooks, for a first edition “in entirely unrestored contemporary condition,” costs over $80,000 USD.

Title page of the first of two volumes of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755

There is much lore that has built up about the Dictionary over the years — various humorous or political definitions, or “in” references, or words he defined incorrectly, and so on.

I want to focus in this blog post though on some of the unusual or arcane words and definitions, which I divide into five categories:

Words with Personal or Opinionated Definitions

· dedica’tion. A servile address to a patron.

· fo’rtuneteller. One who cheats common people by pretending to the knowledge of futurity.

Words That Sam Doesn’t Know the Meaning Of

· bu’tterfly. A beautiful insect, so named because it first appears at the beginning of the season for butter.

· sta’mmel. Of this word I know not the meaning.

Words with Highly Specific Meanings

· ca’lenture. A distemper peculiar to sailors, in hot climates; wherein they imagine the sea to be green fields, and will throw themselves into it, if not restrained.

· discalcea’tion. The act of pulling off the shoes.

Words Showing How Meaning or Spelling Has Changed

· co’mpliment. An act, or expression of civility, usually understood to include some hypocrisy, and to mean less than it declares.

· no’cent. Guilty; criminal.

Funny or Unusual Words and Definitions

· a’sshead. One slow of apprehension; a blockhead.

· ne’twork. Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

I’m feeling a little desidiose, so I think I’ll leave it there. In my podcast this week, I talk more about the dictionary.

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