dr-johnson Dr. Johnson At The Cheshire Cheese

To be honest, the first time I saw this plate hanging on the wall of my mother-in-law’s breakfast room, I thought what a glutton Dr. Johnson must have been, whoever he was. After all, how much cheese could anyone eat? And everyone knows that Cheshire, of course, was a cat.

As years passed, I became intimately acquainted with Dr. Johnson, in a literary way that is, and learned that Cheshire was the cheese we Americans call cheddar. Traipsing around the streets of London later on with Dr. A. , it all came clear; and further investigation showed that Johnson spent a good deal of time writing his dictionary whilst sitting comfortably inside the pub named Cheshire Cheese. And we found it a cozy pub to this day.

Now Johnson’s was not the first dictionary by any means, but it became his crowning achievement; it is more famous than his one novel Rasselas and, although he was also a gicfted poet, it is for his lexicography above all else that Samuel Johnson is remembered. First published in two large volumes in 1755, the book’s full title was A dictionary of the English Language; in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different English grammar. It’s no surprise that it is usually just known as ‘Johnson’s Dictionary”.

Johnson’s wasn’t the first English dictionary; before his, there had been several such works. Richard Mulcaster had compiled a list of English words in the sixteenth century, but without definitions. Lexicography was as much about borrowing and improving as about creating from scratch. Johnson’s dictionary drew heavily from Nathan Bailey’s which in turn had relied on John Kersey’s Dictionary, which had borrowed generously from John Harris’s 1704 dictionary. But none of these were on the scale of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary. A far greater size and scope would be what Johnson, in 1755 brought to the table. It would take him nine years to complete, working with several assistants.

Johnson was the first lexicographer to use quotations from Shakespeare, Spencer, and other literary sources. In fact, his intention in writing the dictionary was partly to acquaint people with the language of the literary greats.

Johnson included no words beginning with X, on the bases that no words in the English language began with ‘X’. Xylophone, in case you were wondering, has only been in print since since 1866, and X-rays were another 30 years away from xylophones. Still, this was an improvement over Cawdrey’s dictionary of 150 years earlier, which had failed to include any words beginning with W, X or Y.

The famous definition supplied by Johnson for ‘oats—a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’–may have been borrowed from Pliny, who made a similar remark about the ancient Germans.

The oft-repeated exchange between Johnson and the ladies searching for improper or indecent words in Johnson’s dictionary says that when several cultivated ladies of English society congratulated him for leaving out such words he replied “Ah ladies, you were searching for them?” For one thing, Johnson did include a number of words which would have offended the proprieties of prim eighteenth century ladies, among them bum,fart, arse, piss, and turd although sexually suggestive words were left out, including penis and vagina. He defined a boghouse as a house of office, and ‘to lie with’ as ‘to converse in bed’.

He also left out aardvark, something which Blackadder would later observe. But, in fairness to Johnson, he could hardly be blamed for this either; the earliest defination for the word is 1785, the year after Johnson died.

One of Johnson’s more confusing suggestions: Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.

Author: kaytisweetlandrasmussen83

I am a retired fine arts teacher, sculptor/painter, writer, and a native Californian. I love my family,dogs, horses, movies, reading and music, probably in that order. I have been married forever to a very nice man who is nice to old ladies, dogs and children.

14 thoughts on “JOHNSON’S DICTIONARY”

  1. It is never too late to learn something. I thought the Oxford dictionary to be about the only dictionary. However, digging a bit deeper in the mixture of my memory, Dr Johnson does strike a chord. Next time with friends, I will try and sneak in the word Lexicography. “How’s you lexicography going today, Mrs Murphy?” 😉


    1. The old plate now hangs in my breakfast room. I always liked it, but one of my daughters was frightened of Dr. Johnson’s look. Apparently he spent a lot of time in the pub eating and drinking. Maybe that was his secret for inventing words. I must try it.


  2. That last suggestion of Johnson’s reminds me of this, attributed to Mark Twain (and others): “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

    I had no idea that Cheshire and cheddar were related. I’ve always associated Cheshire with the cat: period. Now that I think about it, I realize that it belongs with Shropshire, Yorkshire, and so on.

    One of the things that makes me nervous today, dictionary-wise, is the number and sort of words that are being removed. Granted, size matters, especially when you’re trying to keep publication costs down, but for the Oxford folks to be doing this still grates. A lot. Even the Cheshire Cat doesn’t approve.


    1. I wrote a post a couple of years ago about the complete languages disappearing today. In some cases only a handful of people still speak them.
      Interesting how Johnson ,
      as well as many others, including our own Hemingway, spent so much time in pubs. Maybe there’s some magic in the air we should explore. I like Mark Twain’s suggestion though.


  3. Fascinating stuff, language. As I work on the daily crossword puzzle in our local newspaper, I often exclaim, “Oh, that’s a good word!” It’s as if I’ve forgotten and then rediscovered them.


  4. Yes, I’m also confused about the last sentence. Unless he means, “If you are comfortable with something, it’s a sign you have to raise your standards.” As for me, I’m grateful for Google, and the myriad of choices it gives me for each word!


  5. Dear Kayti,

    I rarely comment on your blog, but I read it regularly and take much pleasure from it.

    The Cheshire Cheese pub was first licensed in the 1660s. The cellars of the old town house of the Bishop of Peterborough are still under the pub. It was the haunt of Dickens and Conan Doyle and many other famous names as well as Dr Johnson. I have passed it many times, but in the face of such eminence have never ventured inside. There are many pubs in and around Fleet Street that thrived on the journalist population.

    Cheddar and Cheshire are different cheeses, one originating from the village of Cheddar in Somerset in the south-west and the other from Cheshire, a county in the north. I am no buff, but my favourite cheese is a well-matured cheddar. I find cheshire too crumbly for my fumbling fingers.

    The Oxford English Dictionary owes much to Johnson’s. The story of its creation is a remarkable one. Contributions were gathered together from everywhere over a number of years and edited according to a strict format and provenance – a stupendous task. New words are added continually to this day, much aided by computers.


    1. Thank you Richard. I so appreciate your comments, and your knowledge of English history. I’m fascinated with learning about the cellars beneath the Cheshire Cheese Pub. It piques my inquisitive nature to know what might still reside there. More cheese? Or perhaps well aged ale?
      It was interesting to learn the difference between the cheeses, I simply assumed they were the same.

      I love learning about words, and to know that we are still adding and borrowing just as they were in Johnson’s day and before.


    1. So nice to hear from you Charlotte. We have not traveled to Cheshire, but it stands to reason there would be a Cheshire Cheese pub! Our New Year is doing well now that the rain has returned, I wish you the same, though perhaps without so much rain! Thanks for your good wishes.

      Liked by 1 person

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