Happy birthday, Samuel

I missed his birthday on 7 September, but there’s a chance for more cake and 300 candles on 18 September (apparently after the change of calendar in 1752 he celebrated his birthday on 18 September).

There’s been so many wonderful Johnson features on radio and in the press, but I just wanted to comment on a couple.

First, the excellent DNB entry which is available online.  Written by Pat Rogers, ‘Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2009.


Then a particularly vociferous and spirited Johnson on Johnson, or Boris on Samuel: London’s mayor on England’s literary colossus in Great Lives.

Another snippet from the BBC website highlights the enormity of Johnson’s task:

Johnson’s dictionary was intended to be the English equivalent of volumes produced decades earlier by Italian and French academies. A group of publishers contracted him to produce it in three years. When reminded that it had taken 40 French academics 40 years to produce theirs, Johnson apparently replied: “Forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”

Having been contracted to compile the Dictionary on 18 June 1746, it in fact it took him nine years to complete this mammoth work. The effort of doing so is revealed in his definition of “dull”:  “To make dictionaries is dull work.”  The two-volume Dictionary appeared on 15 April 1755.

He reiterated this in the Preface to the Dictionary where he wrote:

Every other authour may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach, and even this negative recompense has been yet granted to very few.

His love of words was deeply felt and he writes that he “has endeavoured to proceed with a scholar’s reverence for antiquity, and a grammarian’s regard to the genius of our tongue”, especially with regard to orthography.  However, he realised that:

This recommendation of steadiness and uniformity does not proceed from an opinion, that particular combinations of letters have much influence on human happiness; or that truth may not be successfully taught by modes of spelling fanciful And erroneous: I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to I forget that WORDS ARE THE DAUGHTERS OF EARTH, AND THAT THINGS ARE THE SONS OF HEAVEN. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.

“Words are the daughters of earth… the signs of ideas”  – a wonderful turn of phrase.

But Johnson also realised that English is a living language, in constant evolution – a subject that is still hotly debated today.  He wrote:

it must be remembered, that while our language is yet living, and variable by the caprice of every one that speaks it, these words are hourly shifting their relations, and can no more be ascertained in a dictionary, than a grove, in the agitation of a storm, can be accurately delineated from its picture in the water. […]
Total and sudden transformations of a language seldom happen; conquests and migrations are now very rare: but there are other causes of change, which, though slow in their operation, and invisible in their progress, are perhaps as much superiour to human resistance, as the revolutions of the sky, or intumescence of the tide.

In an interesting comment, Johnson also adds that his Dictionary does not include many “terms of art and manufacture” because he lacked the time (and inclination) to visit mines, merchants stores, workshops, etc. to “gain the names of wares, tools and operations”.  In this he envies the lexicographers of Italy’s Accademia della Crusca who, he says, could draw on Buonaroti’s La Fiera (Michelangelo Buonaroti il Giovane was the famous Michelangelo’s nephew):

To furnish the academicians della Crusca with words of this kind, a series of comedies called la Fiera, or the Fair, was professedly written by Buonaroti; but I had no such assistant, and therefore was content to want what they must have wanted likewise, had they not luckily been so supplied.

On a subject close to my heart, because he talks of translation and translators, Johnson becomes quite vitriolic – not, as I interpret it, against the act of translation per se, but the practice of contaminating language by introducing foreign phrases and words.

There is another cause of alteration more prevalent than any other, which yet in the present state of the world cannot be obviated. A mixture of two languages will produce a third distinct from both, and they will always be mixed, where the chief part of education, and the most conspicuous accomplishment, is skill in ancient or in foreign tongues. He that has long cultivated another language, will find its words and combinations croud upon his memory; and haste and negligence, refinement and affectation, will obtrude borrowed terms and exotick expressions.

The great pest of speech is frequency of translation. No book was ever turned from one language into another, without imparting something of its native idiom; this is the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation; single words may enter by thousands, and the fabrick of the tongue continue the same, but new phraseology changes much at once; it alters not the single stones of the building, but the order of the columns. If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our stile, which I, who can never wish to see dependance multiplied, hope the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy, let them, instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavour, with all their influence, to stop the licence of translatours, whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France.

In 1773 Johnson and Boswell set off on a three-month journey to the then uncharted territory of the Scottish highlands and isles. The trip resulted in two books, Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, and A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland.

I have a book by Virginia Maclean, Much Entertainment. A Visual and Culinary Record of Johnson and Boswell’s Tour of Scotland in 1773, published in 1973 to mark the 200th anniversary of that journey.  The author retraces this journey and – as she says – sets out to disprove Johnson’s assertion that “women can spin very well, but they cannot make a good book of cookery”!!

I thought I’d just document his arrival in Edinburgh on 14 August 1773.  Boswell writes:

On Saturday the fourteenth of August, 1773, late in the evening, I received a note from him, that he was arrived at Boyd’s Inn, at the head of the Canongate.  I went to him directly.  He embraced me cordially and I exulted in the thought, that I now had him actually in Caledonia. … Dr Johnson and I walked arm-in-arm up the High Street, to my house in James’s Court: it was a dusky night: I could not prevent his being assailed by the evening effluvia of Edinburgh. I heard a late baronet, of some distinction in the political world in the beginning of the present reign, observe, that ‘walking the streets of Edinburgh at night was pretty perilous, and a good deal odoriferous’. The peril is much abated, by the care which the magistrates have taken to enforce the city laws against throwing foul water from the windows; but, from the structure of the houses in the old town, which consist of many stories, in each of which a different family lives, and there being no covered sewers, the odour still continues. A zealous Scotsman would have wished Mr Johnson to be without one of his five senses upon this occasion. As we marched slowly along, he grumbled in my ear, ‘I smell you in the dark!’


The National Library of Scotland have an excellent map collection available online.  William Edgar’s map of Edinburgh Castle and City dates from 1765. You can zoom into the map and take a closer look at it here.

edinburgh high street

One homely detail is that Johnson loved cats and Hodge, his favourite pet, is immortalised outside the house at number 17 Gough Square, London.hodge

And if you really want to celebrate Johnson’s birthday with tea and cakes, then pop inside Dr Johnson’s House where you’ll find an afternoon tea party on 13 September (you do need to book here!).


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