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Samuel Johnson: Life and Quotations

Samuel Johnson wrote one of the most important English dictionaries of all time, and was so famous during his lifetime that the years are sometimes referred to as the Age of Johnson. This is his story.

By
Mignon Fogarty,

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson was the author of the two-volume book A Dictionary of the English Language, which was the most influential English dictionary from its publication in 1755 until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928.

A Dictionary of the English Language

It took Johnson and his assistants nine years to write the nearly forty-three thousand entries. Dictionaries published before Johnson's didn't regularly include illustrative quotations, were often organized by topic instead of alphabetically, and were generally considered unreliable. Also, many earlier dictionaries focused on unusual words or difficult words, rather than attempting to be comprehensive and cover all the words a reader might use. Nevertheless, although Johnson's dictionary was groundbreaking, it also had biases and humor. For example, the definition for lexicographer included "a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge," and Johnson defined distiller as "One who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits." A quirk of the dictionary is that there are fewer example sentences for words near the end of the alphabet—Johnson was running out of space and needed to be more frugal with his quotations. 

Samuel Johnson's Other Works

Johnson was not rich during his lifetime—he struggled with debts—but he did achieve great fame as a literary figure while he was alive. Johnson was born the son of a bookseller in 1709 in England and the second half of the 1700s, and era leading up to the Romantic period, is sometimes referred to as the Age of Johnson or the Age of Sensibility. In addition to the dictionary, he also wrote fiction, poetry, biographies, sermons, essays, and an eight-volume version of Shakespeare's plays which had added notes and annotations to help the reader understand the meaning. 

Samuel Johnson's Quotations

Perhaps because of his fame and certainly because of a famous biography written by James Boswell shortly after Johnson's death, there are many famous quotations attributed to Johnson. One, which seems suited to his nine-year dictionary undertaking, is

Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.

Another specifically about dictionaries is

Dictionaries are like watches; the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.

But perhaps the most famous quotation attributed to him was not actually created by him. He is often cited as the originator of the sentiment that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but in truth, there are others who said it before him, and his version has nothing to do with roads. It only reads "hell is paved with good intentions."

Image of Samuel Johnson (right) with his biographer, James Boswell, courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images.

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