Dr Samuel Johnson And His Lasting Influence On The English Language


In the early 18th Century, both Swift and Defoe proposed that there should be an English Academy to regulate the English language (this was more or less the only time the two men agreed on anything).

They felt that English was changing and took this to be synonymous with deterioration. The proposal was based on the French Academy, and was more in keeping with the tradition of French dirigisme, or authoritarianism, in this case the belief that the language belonged to the government, than with English liberal traditions which allowed variants of English to coexist, both written and spoken, with mutual comprehensibility providing the force which stopped the divergence becoming too great, and allowed the language to change and develop through the collective genius of the linguistic population.

Fortunately the proposals of Swift and Defoe came to nothing and the language continued to develop freely, as before. This was especially important in the age of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, when a changing world demanded a language that would adapt flexibly and quickly.

In the 1840's a greater man than either Swift or Defoe emerged from the great mass of hack journalists and writers eking in living in ˜Grubb Street'. This man was Samuel Johnson (1709 - 1784). Ironically he started with the same intentions as Swift and Defoe and published a prospectus proposing a dictionary to ˜fix' the English language. He was successful in obtaining financial backing, from the Longman brothers amongst others, and set about his work, aided only by a handful of amanuenses, but as his work progressed he came to realise firstly, that in a changing world, a fixed language would not suffice, and secondly (and very importantly) that his task was basically one of description, not prescription. The English language existed before his dictionary, and it was not his job to petrify and prescribe it, but to do describe it as it was used, which he did, with a phenomenal number of examples of usages. This insight showed both the intellect and humility of this great man. He was equally aware that English would continue to change after the completion of his dictionary, and did not resent this.

His dictionary was excellent and the first good English dictionary ever produced. Some of his definitions showed his sense of humour e.g. ˜lexicographer - a compiler of dictionaries, a harmless drudge', his prejudices e.g. 'excise - a hateful tax levied on commodities', and his occasional tendency to describe with out defining e.g. 'net - anything reticulated or decussated at right angles, and connected at the interstices'.

However his dictionary was a work of genius, and continued as the main reference source for more than a century. Some of his definitions are still used in modern dictionaries (his copyright being long expired). It was published in 1855 and he became a 'celebrity' (hate to use that word) because of it, and received an annual pension of £300:00 from the king, George III. This freed him from the necessity of continually struggling for a living, and enabled him to undertake journeys, some of which are very entertaingly described by Johnson himself, or by Boswell, or by both.

His dismissal of the notion of an English Academy was one of the major factors which contributed to the pre-eminence of English, and (dare I say) its superiority over other languages. English has been free to assimilate words from other languages without restraint and has consequently become richer and more expressive than other languages. Many foreign Academies see there job as largely ˜defending' their language against the intrusion of foreign words, but in doing so actually weaken their language e.g. French often has to render English words with several French words, such as ˜Bonhomme de Neige' (snowman). Imagine a sentence containing a large number of such words ! Compare this with the English borrowing of ˜fresh' (as in ˜cheeky') from German/Yiddish ˜frech'. This may seem like duplication and redundancy, but in fact it is not. ˜Cheeky' has a broader application than ˜fresh', e.g. a schoolchild may be cheeky to the teacher. ˜Fresh' is normally used in a sexual context (not absolutely exclusively, admittedly), and therefore adds to the precision of the language, to the extent where ˜getting fresh' could almost always be taken to mean ˜coming on to, making a pass' or similar.

The American mix of national origins has been especially productive in this respect, and American dominance in film and TV has meant that this enrichment of the language has spread to British English and the English of other Anglophone nations.

It would be easy, and probably accurate, to compare the Johnsonian attitude to language development to the ˜laissez faire' approach of the Anglo-Saxon nations to trade, social organisation etc. (Just noticed I quite accidentally used ˜laissez faire'; not to make a point, honestly). This approach seems to work well in these areas also.

Johnson said that regulation of language by academies was ˜contrary to English notions of liberty'. I am sure he would have been happy to extend this to American, Australian, Canadian and New Zealand notions of liberty.