The Plan of an English Dictionary (1747)

By Samuel Johnson

Edited by Jack Lynch

In this Plan, Johnson approaches Lord Chesterfield, hoping he would be the patron for his newly contracted Dictionary and spelling out the kind of dictionary he intended to write. It’s the first systematic attempt to describe the challenges that face any lexicographer of English.

After eight years’s work on the Dictionary, many of the principles Johnson spelled out here came to seem naive: firsthand experience in compiling a dictionary convinced him that his hopes of “fixing” the English language were idle dreams. The curious may want to compare this Plan with the preface Johnson published in the Dictionary in 1755.

The text comes from the first edition of 1747. A few obvious errors have been corrected. I’ve indented extract quotations and added paragraph numbers. Please send suggestions and corrections to Jack Lynch.

To the Right Honourable Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, One of his Majesty’s principal Secretaries of State.

My Lord,

[1] When first I undertook to write an English Dictionary, I had no expectation of any higher patronage than that of the proprietors of the copy, nor prospect of any other advantage than the price of my labour; I knew, that the work in which I engaged is generally considered as drudgery for the blind, as the proper toil of artless industry, a task that requires neither the light of learning, nor the activity of genius, but may be successfully performed without any greater quality than that of bearing burthens with dull patience, and beating the track of the alphabet with sluggish resolution.

proprietors of the copy = commissioning booksellers
artless = unskillful
burtens = burdens

[2] Whether this opinion, so long transmitted and so widely propagated, had its beginning from truth and nature, or from accident and prejudice, whether it be decreed by the authority of reason, or the tyranny of ignorance, that of all the candidates for literary praise, the unhappy lexicographer holds the lowest place, neither vanity nor interest incited me to enquire. It appeared that the province allotted me was of all the regions of learning generally confessed to be the least delightful, that it was believed to produce neither fruits nor flowers, and that after a long and laborious cultivation, not even the barren laurel had been found upon it.

accident = chance
incited = prompted

[3] Yet on this province, my Lord, I enter’d with the pleasing hope, that as it was low, it likewise would be safe. I was drawn forward with the prospect of employment, which, tho’ not splendid, would be useful, and which tho’ it could not make my life envied, would keep it innocent; which would awaken no passion, engage me in no contention, nor throw in my way any temptation to disturb the quiet of others by censure, or my own by flattery.

contention = competition
censure = criticism

[4] I had read indeed of times, in which princes and statesmen thought it part of their honour to promote the improvement of their native tongues, and in which dictionaries were written under the protection of greatness. To the patrons of such undertakings, I willingly paid the homage of believing that they, who were thus solicitous for the perpetuity of their language, had reason to expect that their actions would be celebrated by posterity, and that the eloquence which they promoted would be employed in their praise. But I considered such acts of beneficence as prodigies, recorded rather to raise wonder than expectation; and content with the terms that I had stipulated, had not suffered my imagination to flatter me with any other encouragement, when I found that my design had been thought by your Lordship of importance sufficient to attract your favour.

solicitous for = concerned about
prodigies = freaks of nature
suffered = permitted

[5] How far this unexpected distinction can be rated among the happy incidents of life, I am not yet able to determine. Its first effect has been to make me anxious lest it should fix the attention of the public too much upon me, and as it once happened to an epic poet of France, by raising the reputation of the attempt, obstruct the reception of the work. I imagine what the world will expect from a scheme, prosecuted under your Lordship’s influence, and I know that expectation, when her wings are once expanded, easily reaches heights which performance never will attain, and when she has mounted the summit of perfection, derides her follower, who dies in the pursuit.

[6] Not therefore, to raise expectation, but to repress it, I here lay before your Lordship the plan of my undertaking, that more may not be demanded than I intend, and that before it is too far advanced to be thrown into a new method, I may be advertised of its defects or superfluities. Such informations I may justly hope from the emulation with which those who desire the praise of elegance and discernment must contend in the promotion of a design that you, my Lord, have not thought unworthy to share your attention with treaties and with wars.

advertised = informed
superfluities = unnecessary parts

[7] In the first attempt to methodise my ideas, I found a difficulty which extended itself to the whole work. It was not easy to determine by what rule of distinction the words of this dictionary were to be chosen. The chief intent of it is to preserve the purity and ascertain the meaning of the English idiom; and this seems to require nothing more than that our language be considered so far as it is our own; that the words and phrases used in the general intercourse of life, or found in the works of those whom we commonly stile polite writers, be selected, without including the terms of particular professions, since, with the arts to which they relate, they are generally derived from other nations, and are very often the same in all the languages of this part of the world. This is perhaps the exact and pure idea of a grammatical dictionary; but in lexicography, as in other arts, naked science is too delicate for the purposes of life. The value of a work must be estimated by its use: It is not enough that a dictionary delights the critic, unless at the same time it instructs the learner; as it is to little purpose, that an engine amuses the philosopher by the subtilty of its mechanism, if it requires so much knowledge in its application, as to beg of no advantage to the common workman.

intercourse = business
stile = call
naked science = pure knowledge
engine = invention
philosopher = scientist

[8] The title which I prefix to my work has long conveyed a very miscellaneous idea, and they that take a dictionary into their hands have been accustomed to expect from it, a solution of almost every difficulty. If foreign words therefore were rejected, it could be little regarded, except by critics, or those who aspire to criticism; and however it might enlighten those that write, would be all darkness to them that only read. The unlearned much oftner consult their dictionaries, for the meaning of words, than for their structures or formations; and the words that most want explanation, are generally terms of art, which therefore experience has taught my predecessors to spread with a kind of pompous luxuriance over their productions.

want explanation = need to be explained

[9] The academicians of France, indeed, rejected terms of science in their first essay, but found afterwards a necessity of relaxing the rigour of their determination; and, tho’ they would not naturalize them at once by a single act, permitted them by degrees to settle themselves among the natives, with little opposition, and it would surely be no proof of judgment to imitate them in an error which they have now retracted, and deprive the book of its chief use by scrupulous distinctions.

terms of science = specialized jargon
essay = attempt
scrupulous = picky

[10] Of such words however, all are not equally to be considered as parts of our language, for some of them are naturalized and incorporated, but others still continue aliens, and are rather auxiliaries than subjects. This naturalization is produced either by an admission into common speech in some metaphorical signification, which is the acquisition of a kind of property among us, as we say the zenith of advancement, the meridian of life, the cynosure of neighbouring eyes; or it is the consequence of long intermixture and frequent use, by which the ear is accustomed to the sound of words till their original is forgotten, as in equator, satellites; or of the change of a foreign to an English termination, and a conformity to the laws of the speech into which they are adopted, as in category, cachexy, peripneumony.

zenith = high point
meridian = midpoint
cynosure = person or thing observed
cachexy = disease
peripneumony = pneumonia

[11] Of those which yet continue in the state of aliens, and have made no approaches towards assimilation, some seem necessary to be retained, because the purchasers of the dictionary will expect to find them. Such are many words in the common law, as capias, habeas corpus, præmunire, nisi prius: such are some terms of controversial divinity, as hypostasis; and of physick, as the names of diseases; and in general all terms which can be found in books not written professedly upon particular arts, or can be supposed necessary to those who do not regularly study them. Thus when a reader not skilled in physick happens in Milton upon this line,

    ——pining atrophy,
Marasmus, and wide-wasting pestilence,

he will with equal expectation look into his dictionary for the word marasmus, as for atrophy, or pestilence, and will have reason to complain if he does not find it.

physick = medicine
atrophy = wasting away
marasmus = severe weight loss

[12] It seems necessary to the completion of a dictionary design’d not merely for critics but for popular use, that it should comprise, in some degree, the peculiar words of every profession; that the terms of war and navigation should be inserted so far as they can be required by readers of travels, and of history; and those of law, merchandise and mechanical trades, so far as they can be supposed useful in the occurrences of common life.

peculiar words = technical terms

[13] But there ought, however, to be some distinction made between the different classes of words, and therefore it will be proper to print those which are incorporated into the language in the usual character, and those which are still to be considered as foreign, in the italick letter.

[14] Another question may arise, with regard to appellatives, or the names of species. It seems of no great use to set down the words, horse, dog, cat, willow, alder, dasy, rose, and a thousand others, of which it will be hard to give an explanation not more obscure than the word itself. Yet it is to be considered, that if the names of animals be inserted, we must admit those which are more known, as well as those with which we are, by accident, less acquainted; and if they are all rejected, how will the reader be relieved from difficulties produced by allusions to the crocodile, the chamæleon, the ichneumon, and the hyæna? If no plants are to be mentioned, the most pleasing part of nature will be excluded, and many beautiful epithets be unexplained. If only those which are less known are to be mentioned, who shall fix the limits of the reader’s learning? The importance of such explications appears from the mistakes which the want of them has occasioned. Had Shakespear had a dictionary of this kind, he had not made the woodbine entwine the honeysuckle; nor would Milton, with such assistance, have disposed so improperly of his ellops and his scorpion.

ichneumon = Egyptian mongoose
ellops = kind of snake

[15] Besides, as such words, like others, require that their accents should be settled, their sounds ascertained, and their etymologies deduced, they cannot be properly omitted in the dictionary. And though the explanations of some may be censured as trivial, because they are almost universally understood, and those of others as unnecessary, because they will seldom occur, yet it seems not proper to omit them, since it is rather to be wished that many readers should find more than they expect, than that one should miss what he might hope to find.

deduced = spelled out
censured = criticized

[16] When all the words are selected and arranged, the first part of the work to be considered is the ORTHOGRAPHY, which was long vague and uncertain, which at last, when its fluctuation ceased, was in many cases settled but by accident, and in which, according to your Lordship’s observation, there is still great uncertainty among the best critics; nor is it easy to state a rule by which we may decide between custom and reason, or between the equiponderant authorities of writers alike eminent for judgment and accuracy.

orthography = proper spelling
equiponderant = equally weighty

[17] The great orthographical contest has long subsisted between etymology and pronunciation. It has been demanded, on one hand, that men should write as they speak; but as it has been shewn that this conformity never was attained in any language, and that it is not more easy to perswade men to agree exactly in speaking than in writing, it may be asked with equal propriety, why men do not rather speak as they write. In France, where this controversy was at its greatest height, neither party, however ardent, durst adhere steadily to their own rule; the etymologist was often forced to spell with the people; and the advocate for the authority of pronunciation, found it sometimes deviating so capriciously from the received use of writing, that he was constrained to comply with the rule of his adversaries, lest he should lose the end by the means, and be left alone by following the croud.

shewn = shown
durst = dared

[18] When a question of orthography is dubious, that practice has, in my opinion, a claim to preference, which preserves the greatest number of radical letters, or seems most to comply with the general custom of our language. But the chief rule which I propose to follow, is to make no innovation, without a reason sufficient to balance the inconvenience of change; and such reasons I do not expect often to find. All change is of itself an evil, which ought not to be hazarded but for evident advantage; and as inconstancy is in every case a mark of weakness, it will add nothing to the reputation of our tongue. There are, indeed, some who despise the inconveniencies of confusion, who seem to take pleasure in departing from custom, and to think alteration desirable for its own sake, and the reformation of our orthography, which these writers have attempted, should not pass without its due honours, but that I suppose they hold singularity its own reward, or may dread the fascination of lavish praise.

dubious = questionable
radical = root
hazarded = risked

[19] The present usage of spelling, where the present usage can be distinguished, will therefore in this work be generally followed, yet there will be often occasion to observe, that it is in itself inaccurate, and tolerated rather than chosen; particularly, when by a change of one letter, or more, the meaning of a word is obscured, as in farrier, for ferrier, as it was formerly written, from ferrum or fer; in gibberish for gebrish, the jargon of Geber, and his chymical followers, understood by none but their own tribe. It will be likewise sometimes proper to trace back the orthography of different ages, and shew by what gradations the word departed from its original.

shew = show
gradations = steps

[20] Closely connected with orthography is Pronunciation, the stability of which is of great importance to the duration of a language, because the first change will naturally begin by corruptions in the living speech. The want of certain rules for the pronunciation of former ages, has made us wholly ignorant of the metrical art of our ancient poets; and since those who study their sentiments regret the loss of their numbers, it is surely time to provide that the harmony of the moderns may be more permanent.

want = lack
numbers = poetic meter

[21] A new pronunciation will make almost a new speech, and therefore since one great end of this undertaking is to fix the English language, care will be taken to determine the accentuation of all polysyllables by proper authorities, as it is one of those capricious phænomena which cannot be easily reduced to rules. Thus there is no antecedent reason for difference of accent in the two words dolorous and sonorous, yet of the one Milton gives the sound in this line,

He pass’d o’er many a region dolorous;

and that of the other in this,

Sonorous metal blowing martial sounds.

It may be likewise proper to remark metrical licences, such as contractions, generous, gen’rous; reverend, rev’rend; and coalitions, as region, question.

polysyllables = long words
capricious = changeable
antecedent = prior
licences = shortcuts

[22] But it is still more necessary to fix the pronunciation of monosyllables, by placing with them words of correspondent sound, that one may guard the other against the danger of that variation, which to some of the most common, has already happened, so that the words wound, and wind, as they are now frequently pronounced, will not rhyme to sound, and mind. It is to be remarked that many words written alike are differently pronounced, as flow, and brow, which may be thus registred, flow, woe, brow, now, or of which the exemplification may be generally given by a distich. Thus the words tear or lacerate, and tear the water of the eye, have the same letters, but may be distinguished thus, tear, dare; tear, peer.

[23] Some words have two sounds, which may be equally admitted, as being equally defensible by authority. Thus great is differently used.

For Swift and him despis’d the farce of state,
The sober follies of the wise and great. Pope.

As if misfortune made the throne her seat,
And none could be unhappy but the great. Rowe.

The care of such minute particulars may be censured as trifling, but these particulars have not been thought unworthy of attention in more polished languages.

censured = criticized

[24] The accuracy of the French, in stating the sounds of their letters, is well known; and, among the Italians, Crescembeni has not thought it unnecessary to inform his countrymen of the words, which, in compliance with different rhymes, are allowed to be differently spelt, and of which the number is now so fix’d, that no modern poet is suffered to encrease it.

suffered = allowed

[25] When the orthography and pronunciation are adjusted, the ETYMOLOGY or DERIVATION is next to be considered, and the words are to be distinguished according to their different classes, whether simple, as day, light, or compound as day-light; whether primitive, as, to act, or derivative, as action, actionable, active, activity. This will much facilitate the attainment of our language, which now stands in our dictionaries a confused heap of words without dependence, and without relation.

etymology = word origin
facilitate the attainment = make teaching easier

[26] When this part of the work is performed, it will be necessary to inquire how our primitives are to be deduced from foreign languages, which may be often very successfully performed by the assistance of our own etymologists. This search will give occasion to many curious disquisitions, and sometimes perhaps to conjectures, which, to readers unacquainted with this kind of study, cannot but appear improbable and capricious. But it may be reasonably imagined, that what is so much in the power of men as language, will very often be capriciously conducted. Nor are these disquisitions and conjectures to be considered altogether as wanton sports of wit, or vain shews of learning; our language is well known not to be primitive or self-originated, but to have adopted words of every generation, and either for the supply of its necessities, or the encrease of its copiousness, to have received additions from very distant regions; so that in search of the progenitors of our speech, we may wander from the tropic to the frozen zone, and find some in the vallies of Palestine and some upon the rocks of Norway.

primitives = root words
disquisitions = investigations
capricious = arbitrary
wanton = indiscriminate
sports of wit = mental games
shews = shows

[27] Beside the derivation of particular words, there is likewise an etymology of phrases. Expressions are often taken from other languages, some apparently, as to run a risque, courir un risque; and some even when we do not seem to borrow their words; thus, to bring about or accomplish, appears an English phrase, but in reality our native word about has no such import, and it is only a French expression, of which we have an example in the common phrase, venir à bout d’une affaire.

[28] In exhibiting the descent of our language, our etymologists seem to have been too lavish of their learning, having traced almost every word through various tongues, only to shew what was shewn sufficiently by the first derivation. This practice is of great use in synoptical lexicons, where mutilated and doubtful languages are explained by their affinity to others more certain and extensive, but is generally superfluous in English etymologies. When the word is easily deduced from a Saxon original, I shall not often enquire further, since we know not the parent of the Saxon dialect, but when it is borrowed from the French, I shall shew whence the French is apparently derived. Where a Saxon root cannot be found, the defect may be supplied from kindred languages, which will be generally furnished with much liberality by the writers of our glossaries; writers who deserve often the highest praise, both of judgment and industry, and may expect at least to be mentioned with honour by me, whom they have freed from the greatest part of a very laborious work, and on whom they have imposed, at worst, only the easy task of rejecting superfluities.

shew = show
synoptical lexicons = dictionaries of multiple languages
superfluous = more than necessary
Saxon = Old English (pre-1100)
shew = show
whence = from where

[29] By tracing in this manner every word to its original, and not admitting, but with great caution, any of which no original can be found, we shall secure our language from being overrun with cant, from being crouded with low terms, the spawn of folly or affectation, which arise from no just principles of speech, and of which therefore no legitimate derivation can be shewn.

cant = “barbarous jargon” (Johnson’s own definition)

[30] When the etymology is thus adjusted, the ANALOGY of our language is next to be considered; when we have discovered whence our words are derived, we are to examine by what rules they are governed, and how they are inflected through their various terminations. The terminations of the English are few, but those few have hitherto remained unregarded by the writers of our dictionaries. Our substantives are declined only by the plural termination, our adjectives admit no variation but in the degrees of comparison, and our verbs are conjugated by auxiliary words, and are only changed in the preter tense.

analogy = adherence to patterns
terminations = word endings
substantives = nouns
declined = changed in form
preter = past

[31] To our language may be with great justness applied the observation of Quintilian, that speech was not formed by an analogy sent from heaven. It did not descend to us in a state of uniformity and perfection, but was produced by necessity and enlarged by accident, and is therefore composed of dissimilar parts, thrown together by negligence, by affectation, by learning, or by ignorance.

Quintilian, ancient Roman writer on language

[32] Our inflections therefore are by no means constant, but admit of numberless irregularities, which in this dictionary will be diligently noted. Thus fox makes in the plural foxes, but ox makes oxen. Sheep is the same in both numbers. Adjectives are sometimes compared by changing the last syllable, as proud, prouder, proudest; and sometimes by particles prefixed, as ambitious, more ambitious, most ambitious. The forms of our verbs are subject to great variety; some end their preter tense in ed, as I love, I loved, I have loved, which may be called the regular form, and is followed by most of our verbs of southern original. But many depart from this rule, without agreeing in any other, as I shake, I shook, I have shaken, or shook as it is sometimes written in poetry; I make, I made, I have made; I bring, I brought; I wring, I wrung, and many others, which, as they cannot be reduced to rules, must be learned from the dictionary rather than the grammar.

inflections = word forms
preter = past
southern original = used in southern England

[33] The verbs are likewise to be distinguished according to their qualities, as actives from neuters; the neglect of which has already introduced some barbarities in our conversation, which, if not obviated by just animadversions, may in time creep into our writings.

actives = transitive verbs
neuters = intransitive verbs
animadversions = warnings

[34] Thus, my Lord, will our language be laid down, distinct in its minutest subdivisions, and resolved into its elemental principles. And who upon this survey can forbear to wish, that these fundamental atoms of our speech might obtain the firmness and immutability of the primogenial and constituent particles of matter, that they might retain their substance while they alter their appearance, and be varied and compounded, yet not destroyed.

atoms = smallest parts

[35] But this is a privilege which words are scarcely to expect; for, like their author, when they are not gaining strength, they are generally losing it. Though art may sometimes prolong their duration, it will rarely give them perpetuity, and their changes will be almost always informing us, that language is the work of man, of a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived.

art = skill

[36] Words having been hitherto considered as separate and unconnected, are now to be likewise examined as they are ranged in their various relations to others by the rules of SYNTAX or construction, to which I do not know that any regard has been yet shewn in English dictionaries, and in which the grammarians can give little assistance. The syntax of this language is too inconstant to be reduced to rules, and can be only learned by the distinct consideration of particular words as they are used by the best authors. Thus, we say, according to the present modes of speech, the soldier died of his wounds, and the sailor perished with hunger; and every man acquainted with our language would be offended by a change of these particles, which yet seem originally assigned by chance, there being no reason to be drawn from grammar why a man may not, with equal propriety, be said to dye with a wound or perish of hunger.

shewn = shown
syntax = rules for forming meaningful sentences

[37] Our syntax therefore is not to be taught by general rules, but by special precedents; and in examining whether Addison has been with justice accused of a solecism in this passage,

solecism = misuse of a word

The poor inhabitant —————
Starves in the midst of nature’s bounty curst,
And in the loaden vineyard dies for thirst.

it is not in our power to have recourse to any established laws of speech, but we must remark how the writers of former ages have used the same word, and consider whether he can be acquitted of impropriety, upon the testimony of Davies, given in his favour by a similar passage.

She loaths the wat’ry glass wherein she gaz’d,
And shuns it still, although for thirst she dye.

[39] When the construction of a word is explained, it is necessary to pursue it through its train of PHRASEOLOGY, through those forms where it is used in a manner peculiar to our language, or in senses not to be comprised in the general explanations; as from the verb make, arise these phrases, to make love, to make an end, to make way, as he made way for his followers, the ship made way before the wind; to make a bed, to make merry, to make a mock, to make presents, to make a doubt, to make out an assertion, to make good a breach, to make good a cause, to make nothing of an attempt, to make lamentation, to make a merit, and many others which will occur in reading with that view, and which only their frequency hinders from being generally remarked.

[39] The great labour is yet to come, the labour of interpreting these words and phrases with brevity, fulness and perspicuity; a task of which the extent and intricacy is sufficiently shewn by the miscarriage of those who have generally attempted it. This difficulty is encreased by the necessity of explaining the words in the same language, for there is often only one word for one idea; and though it be easy to translate the words bright, sweet, salt, bitter, into another language, it is not easy to explain them.

interpreting = defining
perspicuity = clarity
shewn = shown
miscarriage = failure

[40] With regard to the INTERPRETATION many other questions have required consideration. It was some time doubted whether it be necessary to explain the things implied by particular words. As under the term baronet, whether instead of this explanation, a title of honour next in degree to that of baron, it would be better to mention more particularly the creation, privileges and rank of baronets; and whether under the word barometer, instead of being satisfied with observing that it is an instrument to discover the weight of the air, it would be fit to spend a few lines upon its invention, construction and principles. It is not to be expected that with the explanation of the one the herald should be satisfied, or the philosopher with that of the other; but since it will be required by common readers, that the explications should be sufficient for common use, and since without some attention to such demands the dictionary cannot become generally valuable, I have determined to consult the best writers for explanations real as well as verbal, and perhaps I may at last have reason to say, after one of the augmenters of Furetier, that my book is more learned than its author.

interpretation = definition
herald = expert in noble families
philosopher = scientist
Furetier, compiler of a French dictionary

[41] In explaining the general and popular language, it seems necessary to sort the several senses of each word, and to exhibit first its natural and primitive signification, as

To arrive, to reach the shore in a voyage. He arrived at a safe harbour.

[42] Then to give its consequential meaning, to arrive, to reach any place whether by land or sea; as, he arrived at his country seat.

[43] Then its metaphorical sense, to obtain any thing desired; as, he arrived at a peerage.

peerage = noble title

[44] Then to mention any observation that arises from the comparison of one meaning with another; as, it may be remarked of the word arrive, that in consequence of its original and etymological sense, it cannot be properly applied but to words signifying something desirable; thus we say, a man arrived at happiness, but cannot say without a mixture of irony, he arrived at misery.

[45] Ground, the earth, generally as opposed to the air or water. He swam till he reached ground. The bird fell to the ground.

[46] Then follows the accidental or consequential signification, in which ground implies any thing that lies under another; as, he laid colours upon a rough ground. The silk had blue flowers on a red ground.

[47] Then the remoter or metaphorical signification; as, the ground of his opinion was a false computation. The ground of his work was his father’s manuscript.

[48] After having gone through the natural and figurative senses, it will be proper to subjoin the poetical sense of each word, where it differs from that which is in common use; as, wanton applied to any thing of which the motion is irregular without terror, as

subjoin = add

In wanton ringlets curl’d her hair.

[49] To the poetical sense may succeed the familiar; as of toast, used to imply the person whose health is drunk.

The wise man’s passion, and the vain man’s toast. Pope.

[50] The familiar may be followed by the burlesque; as of mellow, applied to good fellowship.

burlesque = comic writing

In all thy humours whether grave, or mellow. Addison.

Or of bite used for cheat.

    ——More a dupe than wit,
Sappho can tell you, how this man was bit. Pope.

[51] And lastly, may be produced the peculiar sense, in which a word is found in any great author. As faculties in Shakespeare signifies the powers of authority.

    — This Duncan
Has born his faculties so meek, has been
So clear in his great office, that &c.

[52] The signification of adjectives, may be often ascertained by uniting them to substantives, as simple swain, simple sheep; sometimes the sense of a substantive may be elucidated by the epithets annexed to it in good authors, as the boundless ocean, the open lawns, and where such advantage can be gained by a short quotation it is not to be omitted.

substantives = nouns
elucidated = made clear
epithets = fixed phrases

[53] The difference of signification in words generally accounted synonimous, ought to be carefully observed; as in pride, haughtiness, arrogance; and the strict and critical meaning ought to be distinguished from that which is loose and popular; as in the word perfection, which though in its philosophical and exact sense, it can be of little use among human beings, is often so much degraded from its original signification, that the academicians have inserted in their work the perfection of a language, and with a little more licentiousness might have prevailed on themselves to have added the perfection of a dictionary.

signification = meaning

[54] There are many other characters of words which it will be of use to mention. Some have both an active and passive signification, as fearful, that which gives or which feels terror, a fearful prodigy, a fearful hare. Some have a personal, some a real meaning, as in opposition to old we use the adjective young of animated beings, and new of other things. Some are restrained to the sense of praise, and others to that of disapprobation, so commonly, though not always, we exhort to good actions, we instigate to ill; we animate, incite and encourage indifferently to good or bad. So we usually ascribe good, but impute evil; yet neither the use of these words, nor perhaps of any other in our licentious language, is so established as not to be often reversed by the correctest writers. I shall therefore, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies on both sides, and endeavour to discover and promulgate the decrees of custom, who has so long possessed, whether by right or by usurpation, the sovereignty of words.

[55] It is necessary likewise to explain many words by their opposition to others; for contraries are best seen when they stand together. Thus the verb stand has one sense as opposed to fall, and another as opposed to fly; for want of attending to which distinction, obvious as it is, the learned Dr. Bentley has squandered his criticism to no purpose, on these lines of Paradise Lost.

     —In heaps
Chariot and charioteer lay over-turn’d,
And fiery foaming steeds. What stood, recoil’d
O’erwearied, through the faint Satanic host,
Defensive scarce, or with pale fear surpris’d,
Fled ignominious.————

“Here,” says the critic, “as the sentence is now read, we find that what stood, fled,” and therefore he proposes an alteration, which he might have spared if he had consulted a dictionary, and found that nothing more was affirmed than that those fled who did not fall.

[56] In explaining such meanings as seem accidental and adventitious, I shall endeavour to give an account of the means by which they were introduced. Thus to eke out any thing, signifies to lengthen it beyond its just dimensions by some low artifice, because the word eke was the usual refuge of our old writers when they wanted a syllable. And buxom, which means only obedient, is now made, in familiar phrases, to stand for wanton, because in an antient form of marriage, before the reformation, the bride promised complaisance and obedience in these terms, “I will be bonair and buxom in bed and at board.”

adventitious = formed by chance

[57] I know well, my Lord, how trifling many of these remarks will appear separately considered, and how easily they may give occasion to the contemptuous merriment of sportive idleness, and the gloomy censures of arrogant stupidity; but dulness it is easy to despise, and laughter it is easy to repay. I shall not be solicitous what is thought of my work by such as know not the difficulty or importance of philological studies, nor shall think those that have done nothing qualified to condemn me for doing little. It may not, however, be improper to remind them, that no terrestrial greatness is more than an aggregate of little things, and to inculcate after the Arabian proverb, that drops added to drops constitute the ocean.

censures = criticisms
solicitous = concerned with

[58] There remains yet to be considered the DISTRIBUTION of words into their proper classes, or that part of lexicography which is strictly critical.

[59] The popular part of the language, which includes all words not appropriated to particular sciences, admits of many distinctions and subdivisions; as, into words of general use; words employed chiefly in poetry; words obsolete; words which are admitted only by particular writers, yet not in themselves improper; words used only in burlesque writing; and words impure and barbarous.

appropriated = limited
sciences = fields of knowledge
burlesque = comic

[60] Words of general use will be known by having no sign of particularity, and their various senses will be supported by authorities of all ages.

[61] The words appropriated to poetry will be distinguished by some mark prefixed, or will be known by having no authorities but those of poets.

[62] Of antiquated or obsolete words, none will be inserted but such as are to be found in authors who wrote since the accession of Elizabeth, from which we date the golden age of our language; and of these many might be omitted, but that the reader may require, with an appearance of reason, that no difficulty should be left unresolved in books which he finds himself invited to read, as confessed and established models of stile. These will be likewise pointed out by some note of exclusion, but not of disgrace.

accession of Elizabeth, i.e., since 1558

[63] The words which are found only in particular books, will be known by the single name of him that has used them; but such will be omitted, unless either their propriety, elegance, or force, or the reputation of their authors affords some extraordinary reason for their reception.

[64] Words used in burlesque and familiar compositions, will be likewise mentioned with their proper authorities, such as dudgeon from Butler, and leasing from Prior, and will be diligently characterised by marks of distinction.

burlesque = comic

[65] Barbarous or impure words and expressions, may be branded with some note of infamy, as they are carefully to be eradicated wherever they are found; and they occur too frequently even in the best writers. As in Pope,

    ——in endless error hurl’d.
’Tis these that early taint the female soul.

In Addison,

Attend to what a lesser muse indites.

And in Dryden,

A dreadful quiet felt, and worser far
Than arms.———

[66] If this part of the work can be well performed, it will be equivalent to the proposal made by Boileau to the academicians, that they should review all their polite writers, and correct such impurities as might be found in them, that their authority might not contribute, at any distant time, to the depravation of the language.

depravation = coarsening

[67] With regard to questions of purity, or propriety, I was once in doubt whether I should not attribute too much to myself in attempting to decide them, and whether my province was to extend beyond the proposition of the question, and the display of the suffrages on each side; but I have been since determined by your Lordship’s opinion, to interpose my own judgment, and shall therefore endeavour to support what appears to me most consonant to grammar and reason. Ausonius thought that modesty forbad him to plead inability for a task to which Cæsar had judged him equal.

suffrages = votes
consonant to = consistent with

Cur me posse negem posse quod ille putat?

Why should I deny that I can do what he thinks I can do?

[68] And I may hope, my Lord, that since you, whose authority in our language is so generally acknowledged, have commissioned me to declare my own opinion, I shall be considered as exercising a kind of vicarious jurisdiction, and that the power which might have been denied to my own claim, will be readily allowed me as the delegate of your Lordship.

vicarious jurisdiction = power at a distance
delegate = representative

[69] In citing authorities, on which the credit of every part of this work must depend, it will be proper to observe some obvious rules, such as of preferring writers of the first reputation to those of an inferior rank, of noting the quotations with accuracy, and of selecting, when it can be conveniently done, such sentences, as, besides their immediate use, may give pleasure or instruction by conveying some elegance of language, or some precept of prudence, or piety.

[70] It has been asked, on some occasions, who shall judge the judges? And since with regard to this design, a question may arise by what authority the authorities are selected, it is necessary to obviate it, by declaring that many of the writers whose testimonies will be alleged, were selected by Mr. Pope, of whom I may be justified in affirming, that were he still alive, solicitous as he was for the success of this work, he would not be displeased that I have undertaken it.

obviate = do away with
solicitous = concerned

[71] It will be proper that the quotations be ranged according to the ages of their authors, and it will afford an agreeable amusement, if to the words and phrases which are not of our own growth, the name of the writer who first introduced them can be affixed, and if, to words which are now antiquated, the authority be subjoined of him who last admitted them. Thus for scathe and buxom, now obsolete, Milton may be cited.

———The mountain oak
Stands scath’d to heaven.———
———He with broad sails
Winnow’d the buxom air.———

By this method every word will have its history, and the reader will be informed of the gradual changes of the language, and have before his eyes the rise of some words, and the fall of others. But observations so minute and accurate are to be desired rather than expected, and if use be carefully supplied, curiosity must sometimes bear its disappointments.

[72] This, my Lord, is my idea of an English dictionary, a dictionary by which the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened. And though, perhaps, to correct the language of nations by books of grammar, and amend their manners by discourses of morality, may be tasks equally difficult; yet as it is unavoidable to wish, it is natural likewise to hope, that your Lordship’s patronage may not be wholly lost; that it may contribute to the preservation of antient, and the improvement of modern writers; that it may promote the reformation of those translators, who for want of understanding the characteristical difference of tongues, have formed a chaotic dialect of heterogeneous phrases; and awaken to the care of purer diction, some men of genius, whose attention to argument makes them negligent of stile, or whose rapid imagination, like the Peruvian torrents, when it brings down gold, mingles it with sand.

[73] When I survey the plan which I have laid before you, I cannot, my Lord, but confess, that I am frighted at its extent, and, like the soldiers of Cæsar, look on Britain as a new world, which it is almost madness to invade. But I hope, that though I should not complete the conquest, I shall at least discover the coast, civilize part of the inhabitants, and make it easy for some other adventurer to proceed farther, to reduce them wholly to subjection, and settle them under laws.

Julius Caesar invaded Britain

[74] We are taught by the great Roman orator, that every man should propose to himself the highest degree of excellence, but that he may stop with honour at the second or the third: though therefore my performance should fall below the excellence of other dictionaries, I may obtain, at least, the praise of having endeavoured well, nor shall I think it any reproach to my diligence, that I have retired without a triumph from a contest with united academies and long successions of learned compilers. I cannot hope in the warmest moments, to preserve so much caution through so long a work, as not often to sink into negligence, or to obtain so much knowledge of all its parts, as not frequently to fail by ignorance. I expect that sometimes the desire of accuracy, will urge me to superfluities, and sometimes the fear of prolixity betray me to omissions; that in the extent of such variety I shall be often bewildred, and in the mazes of such intricacy, be frequently entangled; that in one part refinement will be subtilised beyond exactness, and evidence dilated in another beyond perspicuity. Yet I do not despair of approbation from those who knowing the uncertainty of conjecture, the scantiness of knowledge, the fallibility of memory, and the unsteadiness of attention, can compare the causes of error with the means of avoiding it, and the extent of art with the capacity of man; and whatever be the event of my endeavours, I shall not easily regret an attempt which has procured me the honour of appearing thus publickly,

superfluities = unnecessary things
prolixity = longwindedness
perspicuity = clarity

My Lord,
Your Lordship’s
Most obedient,
Most Humble Servant,
Sam. Johnson.