A Birthday Card for Dr. Johnson

Today, September 18th, is Samuel Johnson's 300th birthday. The English essayist, poet, novelist, and witty conversationalist whom we know mostly through the anecdotes recorded by his friend and biographer, James Boswell, and his other friends, became famous in his day for his two-volume Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755.

Dennis Baron in Behind the Dictionary, at the Visual Thesaurus:

ScreenHunter_02 Sep. 18 10.49 It may have been Noah Webster, who was half a century younger, whose name would become synonymous with dictionary, but no lexicographer rivaled Samuel Johnson in turning out elegant, opaque, intricate, and occasionally witty definitions for words both familiar and obscure.

Johnson defined lexicographer as “a harmless drudge” (s.v.) and dictionary-making as “dull work” (s.v. dull, sense 8), but he surely enjoyed cranking out definitions for odd words like dandiprat, “an urchin,” fopdoodle, “a fool,” giglet, “a wanton,” and jobbernowl, “a block head.”

Besides the occasional definitional joke, like Johnson's often-repeated definition of oats, we also find in his dictionary words whose meaning has changed: fireman, “a man of violent passions,” pedant, “a schoolmaster,” and jogger, which Johnson characterizes as movement that is far from aerobic, and he liberally illustrates his definitions with citations from well-known literary and scientific sources…

More here.