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Peculiar words

Dr Johnson wrote a dictionary to teach people to use English well, but also to record how they spoke it. It remains both authoritative and personal

By Richard Jenkyns   May 2005

Dr Johnson’s Dictionary by Henry Hitchings (John Murray, £14.99)

Every schoolboy knows, or used to know, that Dr Johnson wrote the first dictionary of the English language. Every schoolboy was wrong. There were some 20 English dictionaries before Johnson, and though Johnson’s was larger in scope than its predecessors, it was very far from being a complete survey of the language: the first edition included 42,773 words at a time when English comprised between 250,000 and 300,000. His dictionary was nevertheless an extraordinary achievement, and Henry Hitchings’s engaging book helps to show why.

A dictionary has several purposes. There is…

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