JOHNSON, [Dr] Samuel (1709-1784). [DICTIONARY]

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. In Two Volumes.

Published: London: Printed by W. Strahan, 1755.

Date: 1755

FIRST EDITIONS. 2 volumes; Folio. Complete. Titles in red and green labels. Original speckled tan calf with marbled endpapers, all edges flecked in red, expertly respined to style by Trevor Lloyd Bindery, subtle repairs to corners. A beautiful, sympathetic binding which employs a style of decoration that is handsome and highly appropriate. Vol 1: internally clean with neat ink initials 'JH' [Sir Joseph Hawley] to first blank, soft horizontal crease and tiny (3mm) edgetear to title; Vol 2: internally clean but for faint spotting to first and final leaves, some soft folds to corners, neat soft vertical crease to title, minute repair to very tips of corners of same, marginal (later) ownership also. This is an attractive and complete copy of this cornerstone of the English language. Dr. Johnson performed with his dictionary the most amazing, enduring and endearing one-man feat in the field of lexicography. Provenance: Sir Joseph Henry Hawley (1814-1875), High Sheriff of Kent and race horse breeder, with the armorial bookplate of the Hawley Baronets to each volume. Later (indistinct) ownership to volume II, dated 1884. Adam Smith in one of the earliest reviews of the book in the 'Edinburgh Review' 1755, compared it favourably with the best international dictionaries of modern languages then available, those of the French Academy and those of the Accademiadella Crusca, both of which 'were composed by a numerous society of learned men and took up a longer time in the composition than the life of a single person could have well afforded'; whereas the English dictionary was 'the work of a single person and composed in a period of time very inconsiderable when compared with the extent of the work'. In fact, it took Johnson less than ten years from writing his first prospectus in 1746 to publication day, 14th June 1755, when the two folios went on sale at £4.10s. The dictionary was originally the project of a group of publishers and booksellers and the great Scottish printer William Strahan. They recognised that the time was ripe to bring to fruition the idea of a standard English dictionary which the Royal Society had entertained as far back as 1644. In that year it appointed a committee for the improvement of the English language, for which John Evelyn, after a visit to Florence, wrote a report on the activities of the Crusca in 1655. Johnson's Dictionary is divided into four parts: the preface, in which he expounds the aims and problems of lexicography; a history and a grammar of the English language, both sections being of interest only in that they show the vast ignorance of eighteenth century philologists before Sir William Jones and his successors in this field; and finally the dictionary proper. The preface ranks among Johnson's finest writings; the history and the grammar, which did not interest him in the least, are dull rehashes of older compilations. It is the dictionary itself which justifies Noah Webster's statement that 'Johnson's writing 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 which 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 coloured by his High Church and Tory propensities); and he adduced extensive and apt illustrations from a wide range of authoritative writers. In the field of English lexicography Johnson's greatest followers were the American, Webster, and the compilers of the 'Oxford English Dictionary'' but despite the progress of the past two centuries in historical and comparative philology, Johnson's book may still be consulted for instruction as well as pleasure. [ From: PRINTING IN THE MIND OF MAN 201] The words which Johnson included in his dictionary were mostly obtained from the dictionaries of his predecessors. Others were added 'by fortuitous and unguided excursions into books, and gleaned as industry should find, or chance should offer it, in the boundless chaos of a living speech'. Many words 'stand supported only by the name of Bailey, Ainsworth, Philips or the contracted Dict.'. But he omitted a great number of words given in these dictionaries and never found by him in any book. Others he inserted upon his own attestation, claiming the same privilege with his predecessors 'of being sometimes credited without proof'. Johnson 's purpose was to exclude the testimony of living authors, and he had omitted them save when 'some performance of uncommon excellence excited my veneration, when my memory supplied me from late books with an example that was wanting, or when my heart, in the tenderness of friendship, solicited admission for a favourite name'. He had studiously endeavoured to collect his examples from writers before the Restoration, as after that date 'the original Teutonick character' had been 'deviating towards the Gallick structure and phraseology'. [From: COURTNEY & SMITH: A Bibliography of Samuel Johnson]

Courtney & Nicol Smith pp.39-72


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