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Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language: A Narrative?

Smacholdt's picture


Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language: A Narrative?


The publication of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language in 1977 was surely one of the most momentous events in the evolution of the English language. After nearly nine years of work Johnson produced a dictionary that included the etymology of words and their definitions. In a Serendip blog post, one student said, “What fascinates me about Johnson’s work is that because he was the first to [write a comprehensive English dictionary], how much of his dictionary did he report as existed, and how much of it did he write into being?” (/exchange/node/8154) When one imagines narrative prose on a spectrum from least narrative to most, many would likely argue that the dictionary is the least narrative, as far way from traditional narratives as possible. However, A Dictionary of the English Language proves this assumption false. The dictionary shows how individual words can form a complex narrative of meaning and change. Samuel Johnson himself defines narrative as “a relation, an account, or a story” and his dictionary is a clear a story of how language changes. This is invaluable to the study of non-fictional prose (defined by the encyclopedia Britannica as “writing intended to instruct, to persuade, to convert, or to convey experience or reality…” (Nonfictional prose). As we struggle to contextualize the world around us through the study of non-fiction, A Dictionary of the English Language can aid us in this endeavor.

Samuel Johnson’s aim in writing A Dictionary of the English Language is clearly expressed in his introduction. “…only to remove rubbish and clear obstructions from paths of learning and genius” (Johnson). He goes on to say that he found the English language “copious without order.” Johnson wished to make the language more uniform by correcting “improprieties and absurdities.” By writing one of the first dictionaries providing the origin and scholarly use of English words, Johnson indeed added to the articulateness of the academic world. Through the appropriate use of words come clear and articulate ideas. Johnson’s work was more far-reaching than just defining English words. His dictionary allowed knowledge to be spread more easily from person to person through the newly standardized language.

Johnson also attempted to pin down the meanings of specific words, while still understanding that not all words can be pined down to precise meanings. He says, “the explanation and the word explained should always be reciprocal.” He also explains that words are rarely exact synonymous of each other. In addition, “the deficiency of certain terms can very seldom by supplied by circumlocutions.” He points out that other words almost don’t need definitions because their meanings can be inferred simply from their contexts. Although, some words are difficult to pin down at all. Some examples he gives of this are “bear, break, come, cast, full, get, give, do, put, set, go, run, make, take, turn, and throw.”

The class had differing opinions on the idea of pinning words to fixed and rigid definitions. One member of the class felt that, “we shouldn't be looking for words but rather have senses of the words so they are shaped by their context rather than something more specific” (/exchange/node/8277). If words are given precise definitions, this takes away their freedom to develop. In fact, if words are not allowed to change in this narrative way, the English language might not even exist, or if it did, it would be vastly different from the language we speak today. Ckosarek adds, that a better way of allowing language to evolve narratively is to treat word as the Greeks and Latins did, by giving them “senses” and defining them by their framework rather than by set a definition (/exchange/node/8262).

Languages by nature are malleable and undergo significant change through time. This is one aspect of A Dictionary of the English Language that gives it a narrative structure. The form of the entries include the language from which the word originally derives, and the meaning(s) of the word, each followed by an example sentence, poem, or prose to exemplify the meaning of the word. For example,

Etymology- n [etymologia, Latin]

1. The descent or deviation of a word from its original; the deduction of formations from the radical word; the analysis of compound words into primitives.

Consumption is generally taken for any universal diminution and colliquation of the body, which acception its etymology implies. Harvey on Consumptions.

When words are restrained, by common usage, to a particular sense, to run up to etymology, and construe them by dictionary, it is wretchedly ridiculous. Collier’s View of the Stage.

Pelvis is used by comic writers for a good looking-glass, by which means the etymology of the words is visible, and pelvidera will signify a lady who looks in her glass. Addison’s Spectator.

If the meaning of a word could be learned by its deviation or etymology, yet the original deviation of words is oftentimes very dark. Watt’s Logick.

2. The part of grammar which delivers the inflections of nouns and verbs (Johnson).

Each word is in effect, a short narrative of a microcosm of the English language. The origin of the word serves as the beginning of the word’s narrative. From there the dictionary shows the different ways in which the word has evolved in meaning. The reader can even continue the narrative of the word by looking up each word used in the definition. In this way, the meaning of the word expands even more, through time in entirely different directions. When it is drawn out, this evolution of a word looks much like the branches of a tree starting from a central trunk and branching outward, with the original word as the trunk and all of its synonyms as branches. As such: A tree is a visual of the way that words grow and develop new meanings, just as tree branches develop new growth.

We can apply etymology directly to our study of non-fictional prose in that by studying this genre we have the aim of “getting to the bottom” or to the “truth” of what we are reading. We established early in class discussion that “absolute truth” does not exist, so the best that we can hope to glean from works of nonfictional prose is an understanding of what truth means to the author, as well as an understanding of the narrative flow of the writing. This understanding is impossible without the assistance of standardized reference materials that inform us of the meanings of words. The way in which the definitions of words branch out to new synonyms, also reminds us of the illusive nature of truth in works of nonfiction. While A The Dictionary of the English Language may not be a narrative in the traditional sense, it is by all means a work of non-fiction that is of infinite value in understanding narrative writing. In addition, each word defined in the dictionary has its own narrative story, beginning with the word’s place of origin and finishing with its final definition. Like all narratives, no word in A Dictionary of the English Language has a definitive starting or ending place. Since each word will undoubtedly continue to evolve, no one can discern what its meaning will be years in the future. All that we have are the definitions that Samuel Johnson and numerous others have recorded in dictionaries. We are left with the frustrating knowledge that words, while excellent narratives are insufficient tools, at best, to convey our thoughts and non-fictional works.


Works Cited


"Facing the Facts: An Exploration of Non-Fictional prose." Serendip. 2010.

     26 Oct. 2010. /


 Flickr. Yahoo Inc., 2010. 27 Oct. 2010.



Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language. New York: Arno Press,



"Nonfictional prose." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 27 Oct. 2010.





Anne Dalke's picture

On the fluidity of perception

Let's check in w/ one another before or after class about getting those pictures up for you!

That dictionary project certainly proved fruitful for us as a class (you weren't the only one who decided to write a paper inspired by that exercise). What I see you doing here is two (not entirely congruent?) things: celebrating, first, the richness of Johnson's work, the "complex narrative of meaning and change" embedded in his definitions.

His attempt to correct “improprieties and absurdities," to "remove rubbish and clear obstructions" seems to have led him (and you!) not into order, however (or rather--to move through order) into an awareness of the malleability of language, the illusiveness of synonyms, the impossibility of providing exact definitions. Although you say, on the one hand, that this narrativizing quality gives words "the freedom to develop," you also say, in conclusion, that you find the "frustrating" this "knowledge that words, while excellent narratives, are insufficient tools."

There's another, happier, way to think about the insufficiency of words, one that might fit nicely w/ the argument you were constructing, last month, about the need for social norms about intellectual property to change: perhaps it's the very insufficiency of language that keeps us in conversation w/ one another? See Where Do Stories Come From?

Ordinary language is  "designed" (by biological and cultural evolution) to perform a sophisticated, bidirectional communication function. A story is told by the sender not to simply transmit the story but also, and equally importantly, to elicit information from/about the receiver, to find out what is otherwise unknowable by the sender: what ideas/thoughts/perspectives the receiver has about the general subject of the story. An unambiguous transmission/story calls for nothing from the receiver other than what the transmitter already knows; an ambiguous transmission/story links teller/transmitter and audience/receiver in a conversation (and, ideally, in a dialectic from which new things emerge).

Not only conversation, but also language itself, is continuing to evolve in all sorts of wonderful ways; a student taught me, last year, about a new language movement called "e-prime,""e-prime," which aims to replace the English language verb form "to be" w/ phrases more descriptive of the fluidity of perception...!


Smacholdt's picture



These are the pictures which were supposed to be included in my essay but did not show up when I posted it.