Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), one of the most celebrated and quotable aphorists in English history, earned a living as a journalist and critic whilst working on plays, poetry, biography and producing the first English Dictionary.
His famous remark "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money," is one of the most famous, and penetrating, comments on the literary life, and (right or wrong!) remains totally 'of the moment' given the current situation regarding intellectual property and the internet.
Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, Samuel Johnson suffered much ill health as a child and throughout his life was subject to bouts of deep depression, as well as obsessive compulsive traits, such as involuntary movements and tics, that are now associated with Tourette Syndrome.
He sought to make his living as a schoolteacher but, after the failure of the school he founded, he left for London on 2nd March 1737, accompanied by one of his pupils, the 18-year-old David Garrick, who went on to become one of the most famous actors of his day.
After a difficult and penurious start in the capital, Johnson began to make his name as a writer, and in 1746 was approached by a group of publishers with a view to creating an authoritative dictionary of the English language.
The attic at 17 Gough Square today, where Johnson and his assistants worked on the Dictionary.
Johnson estimated the Dictionary would take him three years to complete. In fact, it took him nine years, working with six (mainly Scottish) assistants who laboured in the attic at 17 Gough Square, standing at their writing desks to complete the manuscript of 2,300 pages.
The Dictionary was finally published in April 1755.
The first edition of the dictionary contained a 42,773-word list, to which only a few more were added in subsequent editions.
One of Samuel Johnson's important innovations was to illustrate the meanings of his words by literary quotation, of which there are around 114,000. The authors most frequently cited by Johnson include Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden.
Unlike modern lexicographers, Johnson included a measure of humour or prejudice in quite a number of his definitions, for example:
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
Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words"
Far-fetch: A deep stratagem. A ludicrous word.
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.
Patron: One who countenances, supports or protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.
There are some which are certainly bizarre:
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.
Others which may find a nod of agreement amongst readers from his day to the present:
Politician: 1. One versed in the arts of government; one skilled in politicks. 2. A man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.
and some offensive:
Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people
There are also words which you won't find, that were in current usage in his day but he decided were not fit for the dictionary - words such as bang, budge, fuss, bang, gambler, touchy and shabby were all left out.
Built in 1700 by wool merchant Richard Gough, 17 Gough Square is one of the oldest surviving residences in the City of London (the 'square mile' and is the only one of Samuel Johnson's 18 residences to survive.
The house is full of the atmosphere of the period and contains much of interest, including a first edition of the Dictionary, Johnson's ‘gout’ chair from the Cock Tavern, engravings and paintings.
As you cross the rooms you feel and hear the creak of the floorboards beneath you.
Here Johnson not only wrote but entertained many guests, including Oliver Goldsmith, David Garrick, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Edmund Burke, Lord Orrery and, of course, James Boswell.
Statue of Hodge, Samuel Johnson's beloved cat, in the courtyard outside 17 Gough Square. In his 'Life of Johnson, Boswell writes:
I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson's breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, "why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;" and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, "but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed."
This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr. Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. "Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats." And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, "But Hodge shan't be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot."
In addition to the Dictionary, Johnson also produced The Rambler twice weekly in 1750 at 17 Gough Square.
In 1758 he moved to 1 Inner Temple Lane where, over the following two years he produced The Idler - in the first issue of which he wrote ‘Every man is, or hopes to be, an idler.’
From 1776 until his death in 1784 Samuel Johnson lived at 8 Bolt Court.
17 Gough Square, London EC4A 3DE
Open: May – Sept: Mon-Sat 11.00-17.30, Oct-Apr: Mon-Sat 11.00-17.00. Closed 24-26 Dec, 1 Jan, Good Friday and Public Holidays. (information current at time of writing, but do check before travel)
Underground: Chancery Lane (Central line), Blackfrairs and Temple (Circle & District lines).