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Dr Samuel Johnson: A Harmless Drudge

One of the highlights of our recent Fifty Fine Items catalogue, the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary, is a landmark publication in the history of the English language. Tom Elliott examines Johnson’s approach towards his greatest literary labour. 

Lexicographer. n. s. A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

~ Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755

Towards the middle of the eighteenth century, respectable Englishmen and women faced two problems: their language and the people using it. In times gone by, writing and publishing had been the province of a privileged few, but recent revolutions in printing and education had led to a rise in literacy: more people than ever before were engaged in the production and consumption of books, newspapers, pamphlets, and more. Print culture had created a new society of letters that existed not just in England but across its empire. As a most unfortunate result, English had “spread, under the direction of chance, into wild exuberance.”

That was the diagnosis of Samuel Johnson who, in 1746, had been tasked with creating A Dictionary of the English Language to help document the “boundless chaos of living speech.” Johnson’s monumental undertaking would eventually go down as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship,” earning him his reputation as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.” The Dictionary’s impressive size and weight (two volumes, in folio) signalled its significance—on a par with the King James Bible and the First Folio of Shakespeare. It was a source of national pride; as the author Christopher Smart put it: “I look upon [it] with equal amazement as I do upon St Paul’s Cathedral; each the work of one man, each the work of an Englishman.”

Doctor Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

At the time Johnson was undertaking his work, however, he was not the titan of letters he would later become. He was languishing before his gargantuan task. Although he had envisioned the project taking him just three years, it ended up lasting more than eight.

The problem was the unruliness of English. “When I took the first survey of my undertaking,” Johnson wrote, “I found our speech copious without order and energetick without rules, wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated.” There was so much confusion, in fact, that Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield and the Dictionary’s patron, declared that Johnson should be given the emergency powers of a dictator to bring English into line: “We must have recourse to the old Roman expedient in times of confusion, and choose a dictator. Upon this principle, I give my vote for Mr Johnson to fill that great and arduous post.”

Johnson, for his part, received Chesterfield’s vote of approval with distaste: “the notice which you have been pleased to take of my labours, had it been early, had been kind, but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it.” Moreover, far from presenting himself as the noble saviour of a linguistic empire, Johnson viewed himself as a menial labourer. His amusing definition of a “lexicographer” as a “harmless drudge” says as much, as do the opening lines of the Dictionary’s “Preface”:

It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise… Among those unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries; whom mankind have considered, not as the pupil, but the slave of science, the pioneer of literature, doomed only to remove paths of Learning and Genius, who press on forward to conquest and glory, without bestowing a smile on the humble drudge that facilitates their progress.

The fact that Johnson viewed lexicographers not as emperors but as labourers—linguistic rubbish collectors—is significant. Johnson was the grammar-school-educated son of a humble bookseller from the midlands. He had attended Pembroke College, Oxford, but had been forced to drop out when he couldn’t pay his bills. He turned to lexicography to stave off the debts that afflicted both himself and his family.

Moreover, his admittedly dramatic claim that he was a “slave to science” seems to point to an even more important part of his political history. Throughout his life, Johnson was forcefully opposed to what he called the “dreadful wickedness” of slavery, denouncing it publicly many times. In 1752, during his work on the Dictionary, Johnson employed a black Jamaican former slave named Francis Barber as his manservant. Barber would go on not only to help revise later editions of the Dictionary but also to become Johnson’s residual heir, much to the consternation of London society. If a lexicographer, in Johnson’s mind, was a “harmless drudge,” then it is noteworthy that his Dictionary defined a “drudge” as “one employed in mean labour; a slave; one doomed to servile occupation.” While Johnson’s drudge was “harmless” (and in no way comparable with what he called “the toil and torture” of slavery), he nonetheless aligned himself with the plight of servile work, befitting of someone far beneath the “dictator” that Chesterfield described him as.

Portrait thought to be of Francis Barber, attributed either to James Northcote or Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1770s.

If Johnson grappled with a wild and unruly English language, therefore, it wasn’t necessarily because he wanted, like many of his day, to rule over all who used it. At the dawn of the radical Enlightenment, his Dictionary seems to have been written both by and for “those who toil at the lower employments of life.” If it sought to regulate the English language, it did so to allow nobody and everybody to claim dominion over it, to be its master.

The first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary features in our Fifty Fine Items catalogue, which brings together fifty standout collectibles from the 13th to the 21st century.

View catalogue PDF.