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.