EDITORIAL FEATURE

25 Weird and Wonderful Entries in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary

Some of Samuel Johnson's more characterful definitions

Dr. Samuel Johnson, creator of the Dictionary of Modern English, would often visit two sisters in 18th-century London – Mrs Digby and Mrs Brooke. On one of these visits, the two ladies were paying Johnson many compliments about his recently published dictionary, particularly commending him for not including any ‘ghastly’ rude words. Johnson responded, “What! my dears! then you have been looking for them?”. Embarrassed, the ladies immediately dropped the subject.

This story shows the wry wit and humour of the legendary Dr Samuel Johnson. Johnson was an interesting character – feeding his cat Hodge with fresh oysters, penning poems to dead ducklings, and convulsing and contorting his face with an unknown condition, which meant that he sometimes chose to lock himself up with chains and a padlock. In many ways, Johnson was a man of his times, but some aspects of his life are more surprising, including his friendship with his valet, the freed slave Francis Barber, who would become Johnson’s great friend and heir.

Francis Barber, Joshua Reynolds (From the collection of Black Cultural Archives)

Johnson’s humorous and surprising spirit seeped into his dictionary. With the tongue-twisting full title of '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', Johnson’s dictionary took the lexicographer only 9 years, while it took a team of 40 people a total of 55 years to complete the French equivalent of the era.

Johnson’s dictionary wasn’t the first English dictionary – that title goes to Richard Mulcaster's list of English words that was published in the 16th century, or to Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall published in 1604. However, it was definitely the most comprehensive and well-known variant, only knocked off the top spot with the arrival of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1884. The publishing of Johnson’s dictionary is often said to be the most important cultural moment of the 18th century.

Samuel Johnson, Joshua Reynolds (From the collection of Black Cultural Archives)

Whether they’re witty definitions from Johnson himself, or simply hilarious words that sound strange to modern ears, there are some pretty LOL-worthy entries in Johnson’s well-loved Dictionary of Modern English. Here are 25 favorites.

Dr. Johnson's Dictionary - New Haven Conn., 1955, Walter Sanders (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

1. "Anatiferous, adjective: Producing ducks."

2. "Backfriend, noun: A friend backwards; that is, an enemy in secret."

3. "Camelopard, noun: An Abyssinian animal, taller than an elephant, but not so thick. He is so named, because he has a neck and head like a camel; he is spotted like a pard, but his spots are white upon a red ground. The Italians call him giaraffa."

4. "Cynanthropy, noun: A species of madness in which men have the qualities of dogs."

5. "Dull, adjective: Not exhilarating; not delightful: as, to make dictionaries is dull work."

6. "Fart, noun: 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
"

Dr. Johnson's Dictionary - New Haven Conn., 1955, Walter Sanders (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

7. "Gynecocracy, noun: Petticoat government; female power."

8. "Hotcockles, noun: A play [game] in which one covers his eyes, and guesses who strikes him."

9. "Jiggumbob, noun: A trinket; a knick-knack; a slight contrivance in machinery.
He rifled all his pokes and fobs
Of gimcracks, whims, and jiggumbobs. Hudibras, p. iii.
"

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

11. "Monsieur, noun [French]: A term of reproach for a Frenchman."

12. "Mouth-friend, noun: One who professes friendship without intending it."

13. "Oats, noun: A Grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

Dr. Johnson's Dictionary - New Haven Conn., 1955, Walter Sanders (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

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

15. "Pension, noun: An allowance made to anyone without an equivalent. In England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country."

16. "Pissburnt, adjective: Stained with urine."

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

18. "Shapesmith, noun: One who undertakes to improve the form of the body" – aka. a personal trainer.

Dr. Johnson's Dictionary - New Haven Conn., 1955, Walter Sanders (From the LIFE Photo Collection)

19. "Slubberdegullion, noun: A paltry, dirty, sorry wretch.
Quoth she, although thou hast deserv'd,
Base slubberdegullion, to be serv'd
As thou did'st vow to deal with me,
If thou had'st got the victory. Hudibras
"

20. "Sock, noun: Something put between the foot and shoe."

21. "Tarantula, noun: An insect whose bite is only cured by musick."

22. "Trolmydames, noun: Of this word I know not the meaning."

23. "Twittletwattle, noun: (A ludicrous reduplication of twattle.) Tattle; gabble. A vile word."

24. "Watermelon, noun: A plant. It hath trailing branches, as the cucumber or melon, and is distinguished from other cucurbitaceous plants, by its leaf deeply cut and jagged, and by its producing uneatable fruit."

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


Explore more about the life and work of Samuel Johnson.

Words by Leonie Shinn-Morris
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