Johnsons Dictionary is to English lexicography what the King James Bible is to the English church. No dictionary so vast and comprehensive is so thoroughly permeated with the individuality of its compiler. What required an academy in other nations was performed in eighteenth-century England by a single self-styled “harmless drudge” over a period of a mere nine years. Many of Johnsons definitions (like that for “lexicographer” just quoted) have in themselves passed into the language to become proverbial. His work is the first to provide comprehensive guidance we now take for granted in a dictionary, as well as some things that we no longer expect to find, such as practical or moral instruction through example. The abundant quotations that illustrate usage and establish spelling form are in themselves an anthology of the finest passages of English verse and prose, reflecting the taste and judgment of the leading essayist and critic of his age.
Samuel Johnsons accomplishment can be fairly expressed in superlatives. He
compiled the best dictionary: the most authoritative, the most consistent,
the most transparent in technique and intent. He did this by the clarity of
his definitions, and above all by the careful selection and systematic use
of demonstrative extracts: well-judged citations from what he termed “polite
authors.” Johnson, with his capacious memory and precise discrimination,
offered not the arbitrary prescription of the correct form, but numerous
examples of varying usage from the best authors of the age. The sources on which to draw were thus familiar: all that was needed was to mark passages and have them transcribed.
Johnsons Dictionary, completed in under ten years and essentially a
one-man enterprise, stands in dramatic contrast to other monumental works of
reference, which were by and large created by committee over decades or even
centuries. The product of an Academy of One, Johnsons folios supplied both
authority and opinion, as befitted the work of an individual who was to
become an institution. The work reflects Johnsons conviction that a
lexicographer must impose an authority on his materials – fortified by
history, taste, and convention – yet throughout it bears the idiosyncratic
yet pleasing impress of its creators distinctive individuality. Here, as in
Shakespeare, we are given the peculiarly intimate embodiment of an era.
The name stamp “Richd. Warren” appears on the title pages and elsewhere in
this copy of Johnsons Dictionary. This has been identified as belonging
to Richard Warren, the eminent eighteenth-century physician who attended
both Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell, on their deathbeds. Warren
had other eminent patients: he was physician to several members of the
British royal family, including the Prince of Wales, his aunt Princess
Amelia, and to the king himself, George III (Dr. Warren in fact appears as a
character in the 1994 motion picture The Madness of King George).