An A-Z of English (without the X)

What made Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary so good? Henry Hitchings writes in The Guardian:

One of its most important features was the use of illustrative quotations to buttress the definitions. Johnson saw that it was not enough to say what words meant; he had to show them in use. To make this possible, he scoured the literature of the previous 200 years for suitable passages. In fact, this was where he began. Rather than dreaming up a colossal wordlist and then looking for examples of each word, he began with the illustrations and worked backwards from there. So, for instance, he came across a sentence of John Locke’s in which Locke wrote of the “bugbear thoughts” which “once got into the tender minds of children, sink deep, so as not easily, if ever, to be got out again”. Drawing on this – and on five other quotations, from four other authors – Johnson could distil the essence of the word and conclude that a “bugbear” was “a frightful object; a walking spectre, imagined to be seen; generally now used for a false terror to frighten babes”.

Johnson’s definitions

Astrology The practice of foretelling things by the knowledge of the stars; an art now generally exploded, as without reason

Brain That collection of vessels and organs in the head, from which sense and motion arise

Cough A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity. It is pronounced coff

Dunce A dullard; a dolt; a thickskull; a stupid indocile animal

Excise A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid

Fart Wind from behind

Grimace A distortion of the countenance from habit, affectation, or insolence

Hope Expectation of some good; expectation indulged with pleasure

Illiterate Unlettered; untaught; unlearned; unenlightened by science

Junket A stolen entertainment

Kiss Salute given by joining lips

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

Mouse The smallest of all beasts; a little animal haunting houses and corn fields, destroyed by cats

Nightmare A morbid oppression in the night, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast

Oats A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people

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