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Today is the birthday of Samuel Johnson (1708-1784), the writer of the first scholarly researched English dictionary. His work A Dictionary of the English Language was published in two volumes on April 15, 1755. Johnson’s dictionary was not the first dictionary in English, but what made it special was its use of illustrative quotations by the best writers in English.
A lexicographer is a writer of dictionaries, and Johnson set the standard for the basic principle that lexicographers use even today, that is deducing the meaning of a word based on how it is used by accomplished, published writers. Instead of creating meanings of words, the lexicographer reads prodigiously, gathering examples of words used in context in published works. Only after gathering these examples does the lexicographer write a definition of a word. Thus, instead of prescribing the definitions of words, the work of a lexicographer is descriptive. Working objectively, like a scientist, a lexicographer observes (describes) the way words are actually used in the real world by real writers, rather than declaring by fiat (prescribing) what words mean.
In Johnson’s Dictionary he defines his job as follows:
Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
In his preface to his dictionary, Johnson stated his purpose: not to fix the language by defining its words in print, but to display its power by arranging it for easy alphabetical access:
When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation. (1)
Today’s Challenge: Lexicographer for a Day
What are the key elements of writing a definition? The act of writing the definitions of words allows you to see the many facets of language that often go unnoticed. Begin your definition with your word and its part of speech. Then, identify a general category or class that the word fits into. Finally, provide details that show what differentiates the word from the other words in its class — in other words, details that show how it is distinct from other words in its general category.
Here’s an example:
Pencil (Noun): a type of writing or drawing instrument that consists of a thin stick of graphite enclosed in a thin piece of wood or fixed in a case made of metal or plastic.
Open a dictionary to a random page, and write down the first four words you find. Then, without looking at the definitions, write your own. Then, compare your definitions to the ones published in the dictionary. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
1-British Library. 1755: Johnson’s Dictionary. Public Domain.