Time and Dr. Johnson

Samuel Johnson wrote, “He that hopes to look back hereafter with satisfaction upon past years must learn to know the present value of single minutes, and endeavor to let no particle of time fall useless to the ground.”—Rambler 108, March 30, 1751

Dr. Johnson was 41 in March of 1751 and several years into his work on his most lasting project, his Dictionary. Unlike most of the dictionaries developed for any language, and all dictionaries in English, Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language” was written by one man. An entire dictionary, with more than 40,000 word entries and over 100,000 literary quotations to back up and explain Johnson’s definitions and create an etymology (the study of the origin of words). It took Johnson nine years to complete it; 75 years later, Noah Webster published his own dictionary, which had 70,000 entries, took 25 years to complete, and cites Johnson throughout. The first completed edition of the Oxford English Dictionary took 75 years and dozens of scholars to compile its first edition, published in 1928.

Johnson’s Dictionary is not the best one written for or in the English language—the dictionary that sits forgotten on your shelf is probably named Webster and not Johnson, and the website that you use instead of a book is also not named “Johnson.com” or something like that. Johnson’s definitions are often complete sentences and are sometimes essays on the topic inspired by the word under consideration. His treatment of the word “time,” for instance, offers fourteen different meanings for the word: “1. The measure of duration. 2. Space of time. 3. Interval. 4. Season; proper time. 5. A considerable space of duration; continuance; process of time. 6. Age; particular part of time. 7. Past time. 8. Early time. 9. Time considered as affording opportunity. 10. Particular quality of the present. 11. Particular time. 12. Hour of childbirth. 13. Repetition of any thing, or mention with reference to repetition. 14. Musical measure.” (“Time,” Johnson’s Dictionary)

Johnson offers a quote from English literature, usually the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, or Dryden, as a pertinent example for each particular definition. Sometimes he offers as many as seven quotes. For his fourteen definitions of “Time,” he uses forty-six quotes.


Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds

This project would be difficult enough to produce in our era of desktop publishing (is there an app for dictionary creation?); Johnson put together his Dictionary in his house, with workmen appearing every so often to assemble a printing press and run off some pages. He paid them out of his own pocket. His personal library, large but not comprehensive, was supplemented by books borrowed from friends. The books were so covered with his markings that they were not worth being returned, the friends remembered.

It took him nine years to complete the Dictionary, yet he had promised it in three. For the rest of his career, Johnson was ridiculed as a slow worker; he proposed to work up an edition of Shakespeare’s plays (the first ever single source, authoritative edition that would be created) in 1756 and started attracting subscribers, but by 1762 another writer took a public jibe at him: “He for subscribers baits his hook/and takes your cash, but where’s the book?” His Shakespeare was published in 1765.

While working on his Dictionary, he published a self-written, twice-weekly periodical, The Rambler, to earn a living. (In other words, he wrote a blog while working on his big project.) Then, while working on his edition of Shakespeare, he published a weekly blog, um, magazine, called The Idler.

Samuel Johnson visited the topic of time over a dozen times in those two journals, and perhaps for understandable reasons: For someone so productive and yet considered a slow worker (The Idler was so named as a joke about his avoiding the long slow work on his Shakespeare), it is likely that few writers had considered time in so many facets. Any waking hour not spent earning a living was indeed “a particle of time (dropped) useless to the ground.”

Johnson had many health issues, ranging from regular bouts with a bleak depression, which he was the first to name the “black dog”; nearsightedness that glasses did not aid (or vanity made him avoid them); a disfiguring skin condition; and Tourette syndrome, a condition that did not have a name until the late 1800s and was not considered a medical condition in Johnson’s lifetime. The tics made him seem an odd character, and he felt he had to win people over with his wit. (Asked once why he made noises, he said it was a bad habit.) His many tics and violent gesticulations are described in every contemporary account about him written by his friends, so the posthumous diagnosis seems a trustworthy one.

A year and a half before his death, he described time and its slowness in old age thus:

The black dog I hope always to resist, and in time to drive, though I am deprived of almost all those that used to help me. … When I rise my breakfast is solitary, the black dog waits to share it, from breakfast to dinner he continues barking, […] After dinner, what remains but to count the clock, and hope for that sleep which I can scarce expect. Night comes at last, and some hours of restlessness and confusion bring me again to a day of solitude. What shall exclude the black dog from an habitation like this?

The WordPress Daily Prompt for February 25 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 1 asks, “If you could slow down an action that usually zooms by, or speed up an event that normally drags on, which would you choose, and why?”

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  1. joatmon14 · November 1, 2014

    Interesting story. To be honest I had never heard of Samuel Johnson and his dictionary. I could not fathom doing all that work over a 9 year period in that era (no computers). Amazing!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. wscottling · November 1, 2014

    I downloaded his A Grammar of the English Tongue a while ago (sue me, I like grammars), but haven’t gotten to it. I don’t know if I can find his dictionary — the preface is on Project Gutenberg, but not the dictionary, but it might be an interesting read. Yeah, I like dictionaries too, esp old ones. ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

  3. genusrosa · November 1, 2014

    You’ve got to love a man who loved words that much! We dictionary lovers may not be ‘Johnsonians’ but due to Johnson’s faithful sidekick, we have another useful term: Boswellian. Enjoyed this post, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dixie Copeland · November 2, 2014

    I speed up the time needed to get over a cold, I would speed up the time between family outings,
    Excellent post – I truly enjoyed this.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Swoosieque · November 2, 2014

    I never knew of this fellow, nor had I ever thought about how Webster, much less anyone else, might have actually put together the first dictionary – with a computer! What an undertaking and what a sad life it sounds like Mr. Johnson endured. Thank you for the knowledge!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. abodyofhope · November 4, 2014

    This was so interesting! Did you know something about this or was this all research? I’m a fan of the thesaurus myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · November 4, 2014

      I worked on Samuel Johnson in grad school. I couldn’t think of what to say for myself about the prompt and wanted to come close to a month of posts every day … and I thought that Johnson’s definition of “Time” might be a start. A couple encyclopedia sources were combined for this one.

      The creation stories about the dictionaries, the thesauruseseses, are actually exciting and sometimes heroic like Johnson’s story.


  7. abodyofhope · November 4, 2014

    Oh that’s right! Many bloggers are writing every day this month.
    November is also National Novel Writing Month where writers are trying to write a book in one month, and people in the chronic pain/CRPS community are blogging about their journeys every day in November. Not to mention gratitude writing challenges, of course.
    So much creative energy this month 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Leigh W. Smith · November 13, 2014

    There’s a funny Blackadder episode on Dr. Johnson (“Ink and Incapability,” I think it’s called), too, Mark. When I first read your post, going on two weeks ago, one comment sprung instantly to mind: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand.” That’s how I feel when I peer through the lens you provide, Mark, and that’s a special place indeed. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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