My understanding is that Johnson embarked upon his dictionary precisely because he found others useless or archaic, and that his work was very well received within his own time. But I wanted to ask if historians have a more concrete idea of how closely his English resembled the language as it was spoken in England during his lifetime, and how unevenly that may apply to speakers of different classes?

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    Wow, this is a tough one. It might be a better fit for EL&U. – Spencer Apr 29 '18 at 15:33
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a better fit for EL&U. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 29 '18 at 15:33
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    While I can see why someone might conclude that at first glance, I think this question is definitely something I would ask an historian of English before going to an English professor. Doing a quick search and skim on the English stack exchange for several related terms ("history", "archaic", "spoken", "dictionary", etc.) also showed that they're by-and-large concerned with modern English. The few historical questions I did see were very targeted (i.e. what is the origin of X specific word). Still, if I have no luck here EL&U might be a good fallback. – Era Apr 29 '18 at 15:44
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    Is there any way of telling from a dictionary how a language is spoken? Modern English dictionaries run to hundreds of thousands of words (or more) but most people use a tiny subset of those words in their everyday spoken language. – KillingTime Apr 29 '18 at 16:28
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    @KillingTime: Besides - a dictionary records the meaning of words, in this case illustrated by usage from various masters. How everyday, or even literate, folk of an age speak is a matter more of style and usage than meaning – Pieter Geerkens Apr 29 '18 at 17:08

Johnson's dictionary is simply massive, and was completed in a really short time. It's a very influential work, being quoted by other dictionaries to this day. However, it does have some flaws.

It's missing a lot of cant words, even ones that had been in use for centuries. He also classifies a number of words as "low" when they were really just colloquial:

Johnson especially condemned “cant,” the perpetually flourishing but generally unstable language of the underworld, regarding it as “unworthy of preservation” (McAdam 1963, 23). He himself defined cant as both “(1) a corrupt dialect used by beggars and vagabonds” and “(2) a particular form of speaking peculiar to some certain class or body of men.” The first is the historical sense, while the second conforms more to modern “jargon” or “in-group vocabulary” and fashionable nonsensical exaggeration. He simply omitted a number of words in the first category, like cove for a man, beak for a judge, and fence for a receiver of stolen property, even though they had been in the language for centuries and survive to this day. In the second category he noted that frightful was “a cant word among women for anything unpleasing,” that horrid was similarly so used to mean “shocking; offensive; unpleasing,” that monstrous was a “a cant term” for “exceedingly” or “very much,” and that Billingsgate was “a cant word.” Another of his usage markers was the phrase “a low word”: among terms so categorized are cajole, fuss, job, sham, plaguy, plaguily, mishmash, swop, tiff, touchy, and uppish, which are really “colloquial” rather than “low.” His hostility was thus more toward the imprecise or affected use of words than simply to their low class or to foul language.
An Encyclopedia of Swearing

In addition, certain "bad" words are missing from his dictionary and some of the ones that are in there aren't marked as "vulgar" (warning: profanity):

In keeping with the sense of decorum of the time, Johnson did not include the grossest of the “four-letter” words (although his contemporary Nathaniel Bailey had). This omission is ironically acknowledged in the contemporary anecdote of two society ladies who “very much commended the omission of all naughty words. ‘What! my dears!’ Johnson mischievously enquired, ‘then you have been looking for them?’” (Beste, Memorials, cited in Sutherland 1975, 84). Although he excluded shit, cundum [i.e. condom], frig, swive, and bugger, he included and had direct definitions of fart (“wind from behind”), piss (“to make water”), bum and arse, simply defined as “the buttocks; the part on which we sit.” None carried any usage label such as “vulgar” or “low.” He likewise defined piddle unexpectedly in the context of eating as “to pick at table; to feed squeamishly and without appetite” and defined job as “petty, piddling work.” Lousy was given an interesting class gloss: “mean; low born; bred on the dunghill,” while bitch was simply “a name of reproach for a woman.”

He also omitted the words fuck and cunt (which were and still are two of the most offensive words in the English language).

We know that the omitted words were used in English at that time because other written sources use them (Johnson himself apparently liked using the f word). The one resource I tend to use to get an idea of how a word was used at a certain point in time is the (subscription-only) Oxford English Dictionary.


To some degree, but as a guess it probably was not more than that. Per the dictionary's wiki page:

One of 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.

I think we can all agree that literary quotes - particularly when they're from the likes of Shakespeare - don't necessarily reflect how people speak day in day out.

The same page has some interesting passages on how it was received and on its critic, too.

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    Ever read any quotes by Falstaff and Mercutio, just to name two? How about Lady Macabeth? Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time without good reason – Pieter Geerkens Apr 29 '18 at 16:54
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    @PieterGeerkens: Shakespeare knew and used over 30k words in his writings (and possibly knew double that), whereas the typical English native knows 10-20k depending on education. You can downvote this all you want, but the truth is he didn't write like his contemporaries spoke. It's great reading full of crisp and insightful quotes but, like more recent sophisticated authors, the way he writes is not what you'll encounter in chats at work, at a bar, or at home. – Denis de Bernardy Apr 29 '18 at 17:01
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    @PieterGeerkens: Respectfully, I suspect your high education level is blinding you. You might make perfect sense of every word in "O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile in loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch a watch-case or a common ’larum bell?" but in all honesty I do not and I feel comfortable suggesting that a lot of readers who run into this comment won't either. – Denis de Bernardy Apr 29 '18 at 17:36
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    @DenisdeBernardy I don't doubt that you are right - as regards many modern readers. However, it wasn't written for a 21st century audience. Audiences in the late 15th century seem to have understood & appreciated it (after all, Henry IV Pt 2 is actually the sequel!). Now, it may be true that the language was more that of a London "Metropolitan elite", and that rural audiences would have had more difficulty with the language, (we really can't know for certain) but that doesn't invalidate Pieter's point. – sempaiscuba Apr 29 '18 at 17:54
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    Shakespeare continues to be used in this way in dictionaries today. There are a great many words that Shakespeare uses exactly as we do today, some time after Johnson. We don't need people to speak to each other in particularly witty iambic pentameter for Shakespeare to be a good example of a particular meaning. – Jon Hanna Apr 29 '18 at 22:00

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