JOHNSON, Samuel (1709-1784)
A Dictionary of the English Language: in which the words are deduced from their originals, and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. To which are prefixed, a history of the language, and an English grammar
London: Printed by W. Strahan for J. & P. Knapton, T. & T. Longman, C. Hitch & L. Hawes, A. Millar, and R. & J. Dodsley, 1755. 2 volumes, folio. (16 x 10 inches). Titles in red and black, all but the preface set in two columns.
Contemporary mottled calf, expertly rebacked to style
Provenance: John Broadley (armorial bookplate); Charles Bouryan Luard (signature on title)
First edition of Johnson's Dictionary. This work has at various times been called "the most important British cultural monument of the eighteenth century" (Hitchings); "the only dictionary [of the English language] compiled by a writer of the first rank " (Robert Burchfield) and first genuinely descriptive dictionary in any language. "Johnson's writings had, in philology, the effect which Newton's discoveries had in mathematics" (Webster).
"It is the fate of those that 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 ... punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward. Among these unhappy mortals is the writer of dictionaries ... Every other author may aspire to praise; the lexicographer can only hope to escape reproach" (Johnson, preface to the present work).
Samuel Johnson's monumental work, which drew on all the best ideas and aspects of earlier dictionaries, was published on April 15, 1755 in an edition of 2000 copies. The price was a high one £4 10s, or £3 10s to the trade. The group of publishers whose names appear in the imprint were joint proprietors, having paid Johnson £1575 in installments for copy which took him eight years to complete, although in the final months publication was held back for the granting of his Oxford M.A. (Feb. 20, 1755). Some of Johnson's advance was used to rent the well-known house in 17 Gough Square, where the garret became his "dictionary work-shop." He called on the assistance of six amanuenses, five of whom, Boswell proudly records, were Scotsmen, and who were almost derelict when he hired them. "With no real library at hand, Johnson wrote the definitions of over 40,000 words...illustrating the senses in which these words could be used by including about 114,000 quotations drawn from English writing in every field of learning during the two centuries from the middle of the Elizabethan period down to his own time" (W. Jackson Bate, Samuel Johnson (New York, 1977), p.247. "It is the dictionary itself which justifies Noah Webster's statement that Johnson's writings had, in philology, the effect which Newton's discoveries had in mathematics. Johnson introduced into English lexicography principles which had already been accepted in Europe but were quite novel in mid-eighteenth-century England. He codified the spelling of English words; he gave full and lucid definitions of their meanings (often entertainingly colored by his High Church and Tory propensities); and he adduced extensive and apt illustrations from a wide range of authoritative writers...but despite the progress made during the past two centuries in historical and comparative philology, Johnson's book may still be consulted for instruction as well as pleasure" (PMM).
The Dictionary was issued with two titlepages, identifying the volumes as "I" and "II," and is usually divided between the letters "K" and "L," as here. Although Fleeman estimates that "more than half" of the 2000 copies survive, their condition is extremely variable. The great weight of the work ensured that when standing upright and even when stoutly bound, the covers were likely to detach with time. Once the covers were loose, damage to the titles and the other outer leaves was almost inevitable. This example in lovely condition internally.
Courtney & Smith p. 54; Chapman & Hazen p. 137; Fleeman Bibliography I, p.410; Grolier English 50; cf. H. Hitchings Defining the World (ref.); PMM 201; Rothschild 1237; Slade & Kolb Johnson's Dictionary pp.105-113; cf. William B. Todd 'Variants in Johnson's Dictionary, 1755', pp.212-3 in The Book Collector vol.14, number 2, summer 1965.