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Dr Johnson's House, London

Samuel Johnson was an eighteenth century author, critic, and compiler of the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language. This huge project was commissioned by a syndicate of publishers in 1746. Johnson said he would deliver the book in three years, an ambitious target when a dictionary of French compiled by the Academie Francaise took forty years to finish. Premises had to be obtained for the dictionary project, and a house was leased in Gough Square, just off Fleet Street in London. This was the property now known as Dr Johnson's House. Johnson worked here for nine years, compiling the dictionary in a garret room with the help of a team of clerks who wrote out entries Johnson produced.

The garret room where the dictionary was compiled is a light and airy space with a few of Johnson's possessions on display. It is all neat and tidy, though according to biographers in Johnson's day books and papers would have been strewn everywhere. The library on the floor below is another interesting room, where visitors can look through the two enormous volumes of Johnson's dictionary. To sit in the library and flick through the dictionary's pages is to see the work of a man with an extraordinary obsessive energy.

Johnson's Dictionary was to become the basic English language reference book for over a century. Dictionaries seem to fix language, but one of the most beguiling things about Johnson's dictionary is its liveliness, the feeling that words cannot be pinned down. The Preface to the Dictionary gives a sense of language as something ultimately indefinable, a brave claim for a dictionary to make:

"To explain, requires the use of terms less abstruse than that which is to be explained, and such terms cannot always be found. For as nothing can be proved but by supposing something intuitively known, and evident without proof, so nothing can be defined but by the use of words too plain to admit to definition. Sometimes easier words are changed into harder; as burial, into sepulture or internment; dry, into desiccative; dryness into siccity or aridity; fit into paroxysm; for the easiest word, whatever it be, can never be translated into one more easy."

Johnson accepted that words are never going to be fixed in their definition, when the only tools available are other words. It seems allowable then that Johnson should have a little fun, some of his definitions showing what biographer James Boswell calls "a capricious and humourous indulgence". In Boswell's opinion the definitions for "Tory, Whig, Pension, Oats, Excise, and a few more cannot be fully defended" (Life Of Johnson P212). The definitions might not be defensible as cold and objective definitions, but they can be hilarious. Excise for example is defined as: "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." The Commissioners of Excise even considered prosecuting Johnson for the way he described their business, before backing off, mindful perhaps of the popularity of the Dictionary. Besides Johnson also poked fun at his own profession. Grub Street is defined as "the name of a street in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poem". As for a lexicographer, he is "a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge". Johnson's fun is an admittance that there is no infallible source for language. He also admitted that he himself was not infallible. There were a number of mistakes in the dictionary, which Johnson made no effort to deny. Windward and Leeward, though opposite in meaning, have the same definition. And during a talk in Plymouth in 1762, a lady in the audience asked why Johnson had defined Pastern as the knee of a horse, when it would be better described as the ankle. Johnson answered: "Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance". As Boswell says Johnson's answer was: "no small surprise of the Lady who put the question to him; who having the most profound reverence for his character, so as almost to suppose him endowed with infallibility, expected to hear an explanation... dawn from some deep-learned source with which she was unacquainted" (Life of Johnson P268). There was no deep source, just someone doing his best to define words with other words.

I looked up Johnson's definition for the word "language". Language is defined as "Human Speech", and one of the quotations demonstrating the word in use comes from Act III of Shakespeare's play Henry VIII. Queen Katherine is objecting to Cardinal Wolsey's use of Latin in talking to her: "Oh, good my lord, no Latin. I am not such a truant since my coming, as not to know the language I have lived in" (Henry VIII, Act III, Scene 1). People live in language like they live in a house, changing it, redecorating it, and maybe in the end moving to an entirely new house. So it is rather fitting that you can visit the house where Johnson wrote this monumental book.

Opening Times: Please use contact details below.

Directions: Dr Johnson's House is just north of Fleet Street in Gough Square. The nearest Underground stations are Chancery Lane, Temple and Holborn. Click here for an interactive map centred on Dr Johnson's House.

Address: 17 Gough Square, London, EC4A 3DE.

Access: Access for those with mobility problems is difficult. There are steps to the front entrance, and staircases inside the house.


telephone: 020 7353 3745

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