“Dictionary: The universe in alphabetical order.” ― Anatole France

We have received a fascinating item at Adrian Harrington Rare Books – the FIRST EDITION two-volume folio complete set of Johnson’s Dictionary, from 1755. Or rather, 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. 

With this book, Dr. Johnson performed the most amazing, enduring and endearing one-man feat in the field of lexicography.

Johnson's dictionary in first edition (1755).

Johnson’s dictionary in first edition (1755).

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. A committee was appointed in that year for the improvement of the English language.

Pink edges, exquisite gilt detailing

Pink edges, exquisite gilt detailing

Johnson’s Dictionary is divided into four parts. In the preface, Johnson expounds the aims and problems of lexicography. The second and third sections detail a history and a grammar of the English language; indeed, both are of interest if only in that they show the vast ignorance of eighteenth century philologists before Sir William Jones and his successors in this field. Section four encompasses 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. [ From: PRINTING IN THE MIND OF MAN 201]

Title page

Title page

Johnson’s dictionary was mostly derived from the dictionaries of his predecessors. Other definitions 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’. Nevertheless, Johnson omitted a great number of the words supplied by 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’. [From: COURTNEY & SMITH: A Bibliography of Samuel Johnson].

Detail and materials

Detail and materials

Our online listing is as follows: Item #44506, £12,500Titles 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. Internally clean, some marginal wear to prelims volume I, a few light spots here and there and the armorial bookplate of the Graham of Gartmore to the verso of both title pages. An impressive set.

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