Happy birthday Samuel Johnson! Google celebrates the most bizarre entries in his Dictionary of the English Language
Pissburnt. Bubby. Slubberdegullion.
These may not be words many of us are aware of but in 1755 they featured in one of the most pivotal publications of our time – Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.
Born in Staffordshire in 1709, Dr Samuel Johnson was a poet, editor and lexicographer who worked as a teacher before becoming a respected biographer, essayist and editor. During his time at The Gentleman’s Magazine in London, Dr Johnson wrote poems as well as plays, his most famous being Irene.
He spent much of his time as a lexicographer studying the English language and the etymology of words, compiling them all in what would later become A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755 after nine years of work.
Its title page reads: “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.” The words “Samuel Johnson” and “English Language” were printed in red with the rest in black.
The pages in A Dictionary of the English Language were 18 inches tall and almost 20 inches wide and its paper cost £1,600, reportedly more than Johnson was paid to write the book.
Today (18 September), would have been Samuel Johnson’s 308th birthday and, to commemorate the impact the Dr had on the English language, Google has designed an animated Doodle in his honour.
Although Johnson’s dictionary was not the first English dictionary – Richard Mulcaster’s list of English words was published in the 16th century – Google explains Johnson’s work “was definitely the most comprehensive and well-known variant,” and was only knocked off the top spot by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884, which used Johnson’s literary work as inspiration.
In fact, the publishing of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language has been referred to as “the most important cultural moment of the 18th century.”
In the Google Doodle, the dictionary opens and the definition of the word lexicographer is shown as: “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge who busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.” This definition has, more recently, been shortened for modern versions of the dictionary but featured in full in Samuel Johnson’s publication.
As part of its Arts and Culture program, Google has also highlighted 25 of the funniest and most bizarre entries in Samuel Johnson’s original dictionary in a blog post on the Culture Institute. Below is our pick of five of the best, but you can see the full list here.
Fart: Wind from behind.
Love is the fart Of every heart; It pains a man when ‘tis kept close; And others doth offend, when ‘tis let loose
Mouth-friend, noun: One who professes friendship without intending it.
Pissburnt, adjective: Stained with urine.
Bubby: A woman’s breast
Slubberdegullion, noun: A paltry, dirty, sorry wretch.
After suffering from gout and various illnesses, and being afflicted with a condition that has been likened to modern-day Tourettes, Johnson fell into a coma and died on 13 December, 1784, his final words said to have been “Iam Moriturus”, or “I who am about to die.” He left his estate to his manservant, freed slave, Francis Barber from Jamaica. As a result, Johnson is also celebrated in the Black Culture Archives.