Sep 182013


Today is the birthday (1709) of Samuel Johnson, English writer who made lasting contributions to English literature as a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor, and dictionary writer.

Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire and attended Pembroke College, Oxford for just over a year, before his lack of funds forced him to leave. After working as a teacher he moved to London, where he began to write for The Gentleman’s Magazine. His early works include the biography The Life of Richard Savage, the poems “London” and “The Vanity of Human Wishes”, and the play Irene. After nine years of work, Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755. It had a far-reaching effect on Modern English and has been described as “one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.” This work brought Johnson popularity and success. Until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary 150 years later, Johnson’s was viewed as the pre-eminent British dictionary.


Johnson’s later works included essays, an influential annotated edition of William Shakespeare’s plays, and the widely read tale Rasselas. In 1763, he befriended James Boswell, with whom he later traveled to Scotland, which he described in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland. Towards the end of his life, he produced the massive and influential Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, a collection of biographies and evaluations of 17th- and 18th-century poets.

Johnson had a tall and robust figure. His odd gestures and tics were confusing to some on their first encounter with him. Boswell’s biography, Life of Samuel Johnson, documented Johnson’s behavior and mannerisms in such detail that they have led to a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome, a condition not recognized in the 18th century. After a series of illnesses he died on the evening of 13 December 1784, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. In the years following his death, Johnson began to be recognized as having had a lasting effect on English literature and language.

Young Johnson's odd gestures

Young Johnson’s odd gestures

I’d like to focus on two aspects of Johnson’s life. First, his time at Pembroke College for no other reason than that I went to Pembroke as an undergraduate where he was lionized.  His tea mug sat on a plinth in the senior common room.  Second, I’d like to ramble on a bit about his dictionary.

Outside my old rooms at Pembroke.

Outside my old rooms at Pembroke.

On 31 October 1728, a few weeks after he turned 19, Johnson entered Pembroke College, arriving on horseback from Lichfield with over 100 books. He had a small inheritance from one of his mother’s cousins  that covered part of his expenses for the first year. Andrew Corbet, a friend and fellow student at Pembroke, offered to make up the deficit. Even so, after 13 months lack of funds led him to leave and seek work.  His limited time at the college was the source of a great many stories when I was an undergraduate.  His uneven study habits were well known, for example, and his former room, a garret in the entrance tower, was still being used by undergraduates. Even in the 1970’s it was considered an undesirable location. The photograph below shows the location (top floor).


Professor Lynda Mugglestone , fellow and tutor in English at Pembroke (the same position held by J.R.R. Tolkein), gave a speech at the college concerning Johnson’s undergraduate years, at a celebration to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth in 2009. The following paragraphs are excerpted from her remarks.  The complete version can be found at this link

. . . the success of Johnson’s scholarship – even by the age of nineteen – was apparently evident within the first few hours of him being in the college. Here his weight of learning was confirmed not only by the consignment of books he had brought with him (which all had to be deposited in the garret-like room at the top of a tower where he would live), but also by his willingness to introduce the subject of Macrobius into conversation when in the rooms of his tutor, William Jordan, together with a number of other undergraduates and Fellows in October 1728. Familiarity with Macrobius, a 5th C Latin writer and philosopher, was by no means part of the expected intellectual background of a student who was about to begin a degree. It was, as Robert Adams (later master of Pembroke but then a young Fellow of the College), a defining moment which clearly – and very swiftly – established Johnson as, ‘the best qualified of any undergraduate to be admitted to the university’.

A glorious academic career seemed about to materialise. Why it didn’t – and why Johnson was being fined within his first week in the college (for truanting from his tutor’s lectures who was ‘no scholar’ as Johnson promptly judged him) is a different – and perhaps a more interesting story. To study, as Johnson later revealingly noted, is both ‘to think with very close application’, as well as ‘to muse’ -while one definition suggests diligence and industry, the other conveys something less focussed, if equally thoughtful in other ways. The life of a commoner student at Pembroke, very definitely required the former – discipline, rigour, consistent application and performance. Modern students might indeed be appalled at the requirements Johnson had to meet, beginning with compulsory prayers at six in the morning (and a fine if you were absent), and followed immediately by classes and study until breakfast at eight; on Monday, Wednesdays, and Fridays, this was followed by compulsory classes in Natural Philosophy.

One of the essay titles set during Johnson’s time at Pembroke was the undoubtedly improving one – at least in precept and intention — of ‘Get up early if you want to write a good essay’ – the good essay in question moreover had to be written in fluent and impeccable Latin, and publicly declaimed in the college hall, in front of all the other undergraduates and fellows. Weekend is not a word recorded in Johnson’s dictionary – indeed, a weekday, in the customs of the 18thC is, as Johnson does note ‘any day except Sunday’. True to form here then, the working week in Pembroke in fact began on Saturday, and it was on this day when the declamations of the week’s essays took place – in Latin, and in the Hall. It was to be something which could torment Johnson’s sense of academic worth. For example, he always had to make sure he was out of ear-shot when the highly able Meeke – later a Fellow of the College – declaimed. The sense that Meeke excelled more than he did could provoke the torments of rivalry – and the depressing sense of failure (and in turn the ‘melancholy’ which Johnson would of course suffer at times throughout his life).

Johnson’s life at Pembroke was something of an enigma.  On the one hand, he clearly read widely and produced brilliant work. For example, he was asked by his tutor to produce a Latin translation of Alexander Pope’s Messiah as a Christmas exercise. Johnson completed half of the translation in one afternoon and the rest the following morning. It later appeared in Miscellany of Poems (1731), edited by John Husbands, a Pembroke tutor, and is the earliest surviving publication of any of Johnson’s writings. On the other hand, he was frequently fined for not attending compulsory lectures, and was known for reading just about everything except the assigned readings.  He could also be found often in the college gate entertaining other “loungers” with his wit instead of studying.

The Hall, where Johnson (and I) ate.

The Hall, where Johnson (and I) ate

It is usually remarked that Johnson left the college after 13 months, penniless, with broken shoes and shabby clothes.  But this is not really the whole story.  The college battel books, accounts of student expenditures on food and drink (still keep in ledgers by hand in my day), show that Johnson constantly lived well above the average means, with no apparent concern for his dwindling funds.  Furthermore, he need not have left when the money ran out.  There were menial positions that he could have accepted, such as servitor, which would have required him to shave and dress the richer students and wait on them at meal times, but which would have paid his way.  Johnson’s pride, however, coupled with his embarrassment at his social position would not allow him to do this, and so he left, leaving behind most of his books as a sign that he intended to return.  He was eventually awarded a degree after the publication of his dictionary.


His dictionary may be his most widely known work.  In 1746, a group of publishers approached Johnson about creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language; a contract with William Strahan and associates, worth 1,500 guineas, a substantial sum, was signed on the morning of 18 June 1746. Johnson claimed that he could finish the project in three years. In comparison, the Académie Française had forty scholars spending forty years to complete its dictionary, which prompted Johnson to claim, “This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.” Although he did not succeed in completing the work in three years, he did manage to finish it in nine, justifying his boast.


Johnson’s dictionary was not the first, nor was it unique. It was, however, the most commonly used and imitated for the 150 years between its first publication and the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928. Other dictionaries, such as Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum, included more words, and in the 150 years preceding Johnson’s dictionary about twenty other general-purpose monolingual English dictionaries had been produced. However, there was open dissatisfaction with the dictionaries of the period. In 1741, David Hume claimed: “The Elegance and Propriety of Stile have been very much neglected among us. We have no Dictionary of our Language, and scarce a tolerable Grammar.” Johnson’s became the definitive English dictionary.

Generally the dictionary is sober and measured in tone and scholarship.  But once in a while Johnson let his wit get the better of him in his definitions.  Here are some of the more well known of these:

Cough: A convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity.

Distiller: One who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits.

Dull: Not exhilaterating (sic); not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.

Excise: A hateful tax levied upon commodities, and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.

Far-fetch: A deep stratagem. A ludicrous word.

Jobbernowl: Loggerhead; blockhead.

Kickshaw: A dish so changed by the cookery that it can scarcely be known.

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

Network: Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections. (See how he defined ‘reticulated,’ below.)

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

Pastern: The knee of a horse. (This is actually incorrect. When Johnson was once asked how he came to make such a mistake, Boswell tells us he replied, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.”)

Patron: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.

Pension: An allowance made 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.

Politician: 1. One versed in the arts of government; one skilled in politicks. 2. A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.

Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities. (See “network” above)

Tory: One who adheres to the ancient constitution of the state, and the apostolical hierarchy of the church of England, opposed to a Whig. (Johnson was a confirmed Tory and Anglican)

Whig: The name of a faction.

To worm: To deprive a dog of something, nobody knows what, under his tongue, which is said to prevent him, nobody knows why, from running mad.


[In case you are under the false impression that Johnson was the only humorous lexicographer (a term he coined, by the way), consider Chambers Dictionary definition of “éclair” (“a cake, long in shape but short in duration”)]

Because of his universally well known definition of oats I have decided to include a recipe that features oats: apple crumble.  This is a “pudding” that my mother made often on Sundays when I was a boy, and which I loved. It is great hot served with hot custard, and equally wonderful cold the next day with lashings of heavy cream.  It has become very popular in England in recent years, but restaurants tend to make it much too fancy with, what I consider, unnecessary ingredients. A perfect apple crumble is nothing more than baked, sliced, sweetened apples topped with a generous layer of crisply browned oats, flour, sugar, and butter.  You can use brown sugar for the apples and toppings, but I find that white sugar produces a cleaner taste, with no added spices or seasonings of any sort.

I am going to give you my, tried and true, recipe from memory, and so it will not be in conventional recipe form, but in basic ratios.  I use a 12x6x6 inch rectangular casserole (given to me on my 21st birthday by my best friend when I was at Pembroke). I stack layers of peeled, cored, and sliced baking apples in the casserole until it is ¾ full, sprinkling a small amount of sugar on each layer as I go.  The topping I make in a food processor using a ratio of two parts oats, two parts all purpose flour, 1 part white sugar, and 1 part butter (chilled and coarsely diced).  I pulse the mix until it is evenly mixed (maybe 8 to 10 pulses). I use enough so that the topping will spread evenly over the apples and mound slightly higher than then top of the casserole (it will shrink in baking). Dot the top with butter. Put on the middle rack of a pre-heated 375°F oven until the apples are merrily bubbling and the topping is browned evenly. I have no idea how long this takes – maybe 40 minutes.

Serves 1 in my house.

I do not have my own picture but this one comes close.  My topping is a little browner and coarser.