Step inside the home where the first English Dictionary was written
The sign in front filled me with reassurance. “Welcome to Dr. Johnson’s house.” We’d found the towering four story brick building tucked away in an alcove off a busy street in downtown London.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, London’s Literary OG, is described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.”
Johnson’s home is in an alley off of Fleet Street, a business center of London since the middle ages. On the street, the atmosphere was frenetic. Be ready to have people whirling around you looking sad and stressed in expensive suits before you retreat to writer’s paradise.
A few clues lead first time travelers along the way. The alley births a courtyard. “Johnson’s Court” a sign reads as you step off the street.
A placard around the corner lists the dates Johnson lived here. Six of those eleven years spent in the attic of his home, writing.
A few twists and turns between old office buildings lead you to where, over 250 years ago, the sickly son of a broke bookseller wrote a dictionary of the English language.
Johnson is still celebrated today, and for much more than his dictionary alone — his poetry, satire, literary critiques, and sermons (he was a devout Anglican) capture readers.
He worked alone in this house, impoverished, and weighed down by his poor health, including what professionals believe to have been Tourettes syndrome.
Born into an indebted family, Johnson continued to live in poverty after he moved to London in 1737.
Struggling to get work after being kicked out of university over tuition, he was so broke some nights he and his friend, poet Richard Savage (who died in debtors prison), would wander the streets until morning because they had nowhere to sleep.
Then a band of book publishers offered him £1,500 (then in guineas) to write an authoritative dictionary. Johnson struggled to deliver A Dictionary of the English Language on deadline. Promising to finish it in three years time, he took seven.
He was paid what would be about £220,000 ($285,000) today.
Assuming a full time work week with six weeks vacation (unlikely), that comes out to about $150 an hour.
It wasn’t for 173 years that another English dictionary could hold a match to Old Sam’s, and his was possibly the last to be written so independently.
The Oxford Dictionary was published in 1884 by a group of intellectuals who found existing dictionaries, including his, to have the following shortcomings:
Incomplete coverage of obsolete words
Inconsistent coverage of families of related words
Incorrect dates for earliest use of words
History of obsolete senses of words often omitted
Inadequate distinction among synonyms
Insufficient use of good illustrative quotations
Space wasted on inappropriate or redundant content.
Johnson completed the dictionary single handedly, except for some clerical assistance with the countless quotes that were used, many of them biblical.
He did have a manservant who was given to him as a slave. From a moral standpoint, Johnson was strongly anti-slavery. He was sent Francis Barber, an enslaved Jamaican, after his wife’s death in 1752.
Johnson insisted on Barber’s education. After his death, he made Barber his heir.
At times, though, Johnson was misogynistic. Paradoxically, he did surround himself with intellectual English women — many of them members of the Bluestocking Circle.
A room on the second floor of his home was dedicated to their company. Among his guests, writer Elizabeth Carter, often called “the most successful eighteenth-century classicist.”
Carter worked with Johnson at The Gentlemen’s Magazine, where both of them published some of their work. Her call to fame was the first English translation of the Discourses of Epictetus, an ancient Greek philosopher.
In case you work up un appetite at Johnson’s (the tiny kitchen in the basement won’t be of much help), off Johnson’s Court you’ll find Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which has been serving food and drink since 1538.
It was rebuilt in 1667 after the Great Fire of London. Dr. Johnson and Charles Dickens were both patrons of this old tavern, and you can be too.
That’s it for today. I’m looking forward to reading Epictetus’ On Human Freedom, which I bought in the gift shop at the front of Johnson’s home — a purchase maybe even Banksy could understand.