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Tuesday, December 1, 1992

A Tale of Two Dictionaries

With the advent of the Enlightenment, attempts were made to end linguistic anarchy.

John Finneran is a writer from Marshfield, Massachusetts.

For many centuries, the English and the French languages, lacking formally binding rules, evolved spontaneously, inconsistently, and idiosyncratically. With the advent of the Enlightenment, attempts were made to end this state of linguistic anarchy by standardizing grammar and spelling, most notably through the creation of grammar books and dictionaries. This article deals with two of the most notable of the early dictionaries; the French dictionary created by the French Academy (l’Académie française) and the English dictionary created by Samuel Johnson.

The two dictionaries were completed in different ways and at different speeds: the English dictionary was composed by a single man in seven years; whereas the French dictionary was composed by a body of 40 members in an agonizingly slow 55 years. This fact seems bizarre at first; many people, by dividing the work amongst themselves, surely should have been able to complete roughly the same task that one man was engaged in in less time than it took that one man. Yes, Samuel Johnson was a genius, but the French Academy also had its share of geniuses; even if we were to make the wild assumption that Samuel Johnson had the mental powers of ten Academicians, Johnson would still have been outnumbered by four to one; so surely genius alone cannot explain the vast anomaly. I suggest that much of the contrast can be explained by the ineluctable differences inherent in a collective, government-sponsored effort and in one that is individual and profit-making.


The French Dictionary

The French Academy was established in 1635 by King Louis XIII. The charter of the Academy stated: “There will be composed a dictionary, a grammar, a rhetoric, and a poetics under the observation of the Academy.”[1] Thus officially began the project for the French dictionary. Work began in earnest in 1639 under the direction of Claude Favre de Vaugelas. Work was extremely slow and problematic. Indeed, the Academy spent six years (i.e., almost as long as it took Johnson to complete his entire dictionary) working solely on the letter “G.” The dictionary appeared at last in 1694.

The 55 years were characterized by, in the words of W. L. Wiley, “ponderous slowness . . . empty pomposity, and . . . wasted formalistic interchanges.”[2] This atmosphere was best captured by Antoine Furetière in the following satiric depiction of the workings of a committee of Academicians, which, alas, sounds all too true:

The one who shouts the loudest is the one who is right; each person gives forth with a long harangue on the slightest trifle. The second man repeats like an echo everything that the first has said, and most frequently three or four of them talk at the same time. In the commission composed of five or six persons, there is one of them who reads, one who offers his opinion, two who chat, one who sleeps, and one who spends his time perusing some dictionary which is on the table. When it is the turn of the second to express his views, the article has to be read to him again because of his distraction during the first reading . . . . No two lines are accepted without long digressions, without somebody telling a funny story or a tidbit of news, or without somebody else talking about conditions in the country and about reforming the government.[3]

Antoine Furetière was a member of the Academy who was expelled from that body for working on a rival dictionary. He produced his dictionary in 1690, four years ahead of the Academy. According to Wiley, Furetière’s dictionary “has in general been regarded by posterity as a fuller and more usable instrument than the Academy’s dictionary.”[4] The Academy accused Furetière of plagiarism and of infringing on the Academy’s monopoly on the production of a French dictionary. Furetière vigorously denied both charges, claiming that he had been working independently on his dictionary for 20 years and that he had a rival monopoly. After completing his dictionary, Furetière spent his remaining days writing stinging satires that excoriated the inefficiencies of the Academy.


The English Dictionary

Samuel Johnson had his own problems in producing his dictionary, most notably concerning patronage, or, rather, the lack thereof. Johnson dedicated the plan of his dictionary to Philip Dormer, Lord Chesterfield, in the hope of enticing the latter’s financial support. But, save for the negligible sum of ten pounds, such hope was in vain. Lord Chesterfield offered substantial help only when the project was virtually completed. Johnson haughtily refused the belated offer.

Johnson, who, among his other talents, was an accomplished poet, had produced the following couplet in imitation of Juvenal:

Yet think what ills the scholar’s life assail,

      Pride, envy, want, the garret, and the jail.

Johnson’s unhappy experience with patrons caused him to change the second line to:

Toil, envy, want, the Patron, and the jail.[5]

The financing of Johnson’s dictionary came from local booksellers—and here we have one of the great factors speeding Johnson along: Johnson’s need to pay back the booksellers, who would profit from the sale of the completed dictionary. Johnson had spent entirely the booksellers’ money before he completed the project and, as an affair of honor, he felt compelled to prevent his financiers from suffering a loss. The sheer immensity of the work caused Johnson to take seven years at the task instead of the expected three, but, by working by himself, Johnson was able to avoid all of the “wasted formalistic interchanges” that so bedeviled the Academy. The fact that Johnson worked alone also gave the dictionary a distinctly individual flavor. (To be punctilious: Although, for all practical purposes, it is fair to say that Johnson worked alone, he did have six mechanical assistants, and 20 etymologies were provided by Zachary Pierce, the bishop of Rochester.) Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was completed in 1755.

Johnson’s dictionary had its share of blunders and omissions, but can still be read profitably today as much for its sparklings of personality and wit as for its formal applications. Here are some examples of Johnson’s definitions: network: “Anything reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections;”[6] oats: “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”[7] (A Scotsman is said to have replied, “Yes, which is why England has the best horses in the world, and Scotland the best people.”); abbey-lubber: “A slothful loiterer in a religious house, under pretense of retirement and austerity;”[8] pension: “An allowance given to any one without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country;”[9] and, my favorite, to fishify: “To turn to fish: a cant phrase.”[10]


A Poetic Summation

The history of the two dictionaries can be summed up by two verses. The first is Furetière’s suggested epigram for the French Academy’s dictionary:


I am this big dictionary,

Which was for half a century in the belly of my mother;

When I was born I had a beard and some teeth:

This fact should not be considered very unusual;

Since I was at the time fifty years old.[11]


The second is David Garrick’s reaction to the publication of Johnson’s dictionary (although the difference he attributes to national character, I suggest really should be attributed to the difference between individuals and collective bodies):


Talk of war with a Briton, he’ll boldly advance,

That one English soldier will beat ten of France,

Would we alter the boast from the sword to the pen,

Our odds are still greater, still greater our men . . .

[after citing Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Pope]

And Johnson, well arm’d like a hero of yore,

Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more![12] []

  1.   W. L. Wiley, The Formal French (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), p. 89.
  2.   Ibid, p. 93.
  3.   Ibid, pp. 93-94. Wiley comments (p. 94), “With due ‘allowance for Furretière’s likely bias, it sounds as though he might have attended such a committee meeting.”
  4.   Ibid., p. 94.
  5.   James Boswell, Life of Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), pp. 186-1.87.
  6.   Samuel Johnson, Johnson’s Dictionary: A Modern Selection, edited by E. L. McAdam, Jr., and George Milne (New York: Pantheon Books, 1963), p. 263.
  7.   Ibid., p. 268.
  8.   Ibid., p. 33.
  9.   Ibid., p. 288.
  10.   Ibid., p. 181.
  11.   Wiley, p. 94.
  12.   Boswell, pp. 214-215.

From the Preface to the Dictionary

In this work, when it shall be found that much is omitted, let it not be forgotten that much likewise is performed, and though no book was ever spared out of tenderness to the author, and the world is little solicitous to know whence proceeded the faults of that which it condemns; yet it may gratify curiosity to inform it, that the English Dictionary was written with little assistance of the learned, and without any patronage of the great; not in the soft obscurities of retirement, or under the shelter of academic bowers, but amidst inconvenience and distraction, in sickness and in sorrow: and it may repress the triumph of malignant criticism to observe, that if our language is not here fully displayed, I have only failed in an attempt which no human powers have hitherto completed. If the lexicons of ancient tongues, now immutably fixed, and comprised in a few volumes, be yet, after the toil of successive ages, inadequate and delusive; . . . if the embodied criticks of France, when fifty years had been spent upon their work, were obliged to change its economy, and give their second edition another form, I may surely be contented without the praise of perfection, which, if I could obtain, in this gloom of solitude, what would it avail me? I have protracted my work till most of those whom I wished to please, have sunk into the grave, and success and miscarriage are empty sounds: I therefore dismiss it with frigid tranquility, having little to fear or hope from censure or from praise.

—Samuel Johnson