Today in History: September 18

“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.”—Samuel Johnson, Rambler 108, March 30, 1751

Samuel Johnson was born on this date in 1709 in Lichfield, England.

Dr. Johnson was 41 in March 1751, when he wrote the above quote, and he was 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’s work 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 worked alone.

Johnson’s Dictionary is not the best one written for or in the English language—the dictionary that sits forgotten on your shelf probably carries the name “Webster” and not Johnson, and the website that you use instead of a book is also not named “” or something like that.

This is because Johnson’s definitions are often complete sentences and are sometimes essays on the topic inspired by the word under consideration. It is not a dictionary one uses when one is in haste. 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.”

* * * *
Nissin introduced its “Cup Noodle” in the U.S.—a single portion of ramen noodles and flavors—45 years ago today. Nissin Foods’ founder, Momofuku Ando, is credited with the invention. He said that he was inspired by a visit to America in which he saw how his previous invention, instant ramen noodles, were being consumed: diners were breaking the bricks into portions and serving them in paper cups. He thought a styrofoam cup would work better.

The company announced this week that it is revamping its Cup Noodle recipes for the first time in the product line’s forty-five year history. A spokesman said the recipes will reduce the sodium content.

* * * *
The television show I Dream of Jeannie, starring Larry Hagman and Barbara Eden, made its debut on NBC on this date in 1965.

* * * *
Each of the four members of KISS—Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss—released a solo album on this date in 1978. The band was at its height of popularity—Alive II was still atop the charts, and a TV movie was due to be aired in October—and the “four solo records in one day” marketing plan managed to not saturate a Kiss-starved public. Instead, each performer’s album went platinum.

* * * *
The first set of letters containing anthrax spores were mailed from Trenton, New Jersey, on this date in 2001. Five people were killed in the anthrax attacks.

* * * *
Jimi Hendrix died on this date in 1970.

* * * *
Eddie “Rochester” Anderson was born on this date on 1905. Greta Garbo was born in 1905 on this date, as well. Also born on this date in 1905, Agnes de Mille. Jack Warden was born on this date in 1920. James Gandolfini was born 55 years ago today.

* * * *
Scotty Bowman is 83. The hilarious Fred Willard is 77. Frankie Avalon is 76:

Rick Pitino is 64. Chris Hedges is 60 today. Ryne Sandberg is 57. Aisha Tyler is 46 today. Jada Pinkett Smith is 45 today.

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Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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