Posts Tagged ‘History of Dictionaries in England’

By Brenda S. Cox


“. . . we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.” –Northanger Abbey, when Henry Tilney is criticizing Catherine’s modern usage of the word “nice.”

“. . . like my dear Dr. Johnson, I believe I have dealt more in notions than facts.”—Letter from Jane Austen to Cassandra, Feb. 8, 1807, quoting from a letter from Johnson to Boswell.


Nowadays, we take dictionaries for granted. When an author is writing a book, she can access all kinds of dictionaries online. Even before the internet, we had a wide variety of reference books, and any author would have at least one dictionary.

However, in Jane Austen’s England, dictionaries were still relatively rare and expensive. Jane Austen may not have owned one. However, she had access, at least some of the time, to her brother Edward’s library at Godmersham Park and his library at Chawton House. The Godmersham library has been recreated online, so we can see some of the books she might have used. The 1818 library catalog lists twenty dictionaries. Most are for specialized categories. For example, the Knights owned a dictionary of heraldry, a farming dictionary, a law dictionary, and a classical dictionary.

Early Dictionaries

It took time for our modern style of dictionary to develop.

In the 1500s, some bilingual dictionaries were produced, translating from Latin, French, or Italian into English. The Knights owned a Latin dictionary published much later, in 1816.

In 1604, the first English-to-English dictionary was published, by Robert Cawdrey. However, his dictionary and later dictionaries of that century focused only on difficult, unusual words; slang expressions; or words from certain fields of study or regions of the country. They listed such words and explained them in simpler English. Some of these dictionaries were rather pretentious, including rare words like abequitate and commotrix. Cawdrey intended his dictionary to “benefit & help” “Ladies, gentlewomen or any other unskillful persons” to better understand difficult English words they might hear or read in the Bible or in sermons, and to use those words themselves. Everyday words were not defined.

The Knight Collection included one such dictionary, by Edward Phillips, published in 1678. It listed “Terms that conduce to the understanding of any of the Arts or Sciences.” Sciences at that time were simply areas of knowledge. (Austen calls dancing a science, for example.) The areas listed for this dictionary range from theology to astrology to jewelling to hunting to much more.

Nathaniel Bailey made the first attempt at a complete English-to-English dictionary in 1721.

The first attempt to include all the words of English in a dictionary was in 1721, when Nathaniel Bailey produced his Universal Etymological English Dictionary. (Etymological means giving the original sources of words; many entries, however, do not include etymologies.) Thirty editions appeared between 1721 and 1802; the last was about 900 pages long. The Knights and their family and friends could look words up in the fourteenth edition of this dictionary, published in 1751.

While Bailey’s dictionary included “many Thousand Words more” than any previous English dictionary, it was still not complete enough. Literary leaders such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift called for a better source to standardize the English language.

Johnson’s Dictionary

Jane Austen’s “dear Dr. Johnson” took up the challenge. Simon Winchester calls Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language “an unparalleled triumph . . . a portrait of the language of the day in all its majesty, beauty, and marvelous confusion.”

In 1746, a group of London booksellers hired Samuel Johnson to produce a new dictionary. He hired six men as scribes and spent the following years compiling his dictionary.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary became the definitive dictionary of English in England for the next century.

How do you write a dictionary? Johnson began by reading. He bought or borrowed stacks and stacks of books. He went through them, reading hundreds of thousands of pages. He listed and organized all the words he found.

Since he couldn’t go through all of history (as the later Oxford English Dictionary would do), he chose books from a time period of about 150 years: beginning with Sir Philip Sydney, who died in 1586, and ending with authors who had recently died in Johnson’s own time (plus a little Chaucer thrown in here and there).

As Johnson read, he marked the words he wanted and chose good sentences illustrating all the varied meanings of each word. His assistants wrote the sentences on slips of paper, which he filed.

Four years later, in 1750, Johnson had finished gathering words. Then he spent another four years sorting, choosing, and editing his 118,000 sample quotations (which he occasionally altered!). Finally, he wrote definitions for the 43,500 words included. Sometimes he based the definitions on earlier dictionaries, but many were entirely his own.

Imagine how much work this was, for one man! No wonder he defined lexicographer as “A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.” There must have been a great deal of drudgery involved in digging out and organizing so many words, with no help from a computer or even a typewriter. While a few definitions, like lexicographer, show Johnson’s personal opinion, most are careful and exact.

I learned in a linguistics class that it is very hard to write definitions. You need to use only words that are simpler than the word you are defining, explain clearly what the word means and rule out what it doesn’t mean, and not use circular definitions (defining Word A as meaning B, but when you look up B you find it means A). Try making up a definition for an everyday word, and you’ll get some appreciation for Johnson’s task. Then you might want to compare your definition with Johnson’s.

Johnson’s dictionary was very thorough, including most of the words in use at the time. As in modern dictionaries, many words have multiple definitions. The word take, for example, is followed by 134 definitions. All are supported by at least one quotation from literature, and most have several.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, 1756

When Johnson was almost ready to publish his dictionary, he convinced Oxford University to give him an honorary degree, so he would have letters to put after his name (Samuel Johnson, A. M.), and the dictionary was published in 1755.

The final dictionary was over 2300 pages long. It was printed on high quality paper in large, heavy, expensive volumes. Jane’s parents probably could not have afforded a set.

The fact that Godmersham had two copies of this dictionary shows us something of the Knight family’s wealth. They owned a first edition, published in 1755, and a  twelfth edition, published in 1810; each was in two volumes.

Samuel Johnson’s was England’s definitive dictionary of English until 1928, when the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) was completed. Simon Winchester tells the enthralling story of the OED in his book The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. Most of this article comes from his section on Johnson’s dictionary. For the OED, a team of thousands of volunteers sent the compilers over six million slips of paper with sample sentences on them, from works in English throughout history. After five years, the compilers had only gotten to the word ant.  It took from 1879 to 1928 to produce all ten volumes of the dictionary. The OED has been constantly updated since then, because of course language is always changing.

(In America, of course, Noah Webster published the first dictionary of American English in 1806. American and British dialects and spelling were already diverging at that point.)

Austen and Johnson’s Dictionary

We don’t know how much Jane Austen consulted Johnson’s Dictionary, but we do know that she loved to read Dr. Johnson’s works, so she probably read some of the dictionary when she could. There might have been a copy at Chawton House near her cottage.  Also, shorter, smaller abridged versions, without all the quotes, were published later in her lifetime, so perhaps she owned one of those.

Shortened versions of Johnson’s Dictionary were soon produced, like this one in 1806.

Henry Tilney is “Nice”

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney have a discussion about a word and its definition:

Catherine: “But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?”

Henry: “The nicest—by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.”

“Henry,” said Miss Tilney, “you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is forever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word ‘nicest,’ as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.”

“I am sure,” cried Catherine, “I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?”

“Very true,” said Henry, “and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement—people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.”

“While, in fact,” cried his sister, “it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise.”

“Nice” in Samuel Johnson’s original dictionary

So how did Samuel Johnson define the word nice? He gave these definitions:

  1. Accurate in judgment to minute exactness; superfluously exact. (This may describe Tilney himself in the discussion, as his sister says.)
  2. Delicate; scrupulously and minutely cautious.
  3. Fastidious; squeamish
  4. Easily injured; delicate
  5. Formed with minute exactness (Perhaps this is the definition by which Tilney says the book’s binding may be nice.)
  6. Requiring scrupulous exactness
  7. Refined
  8. Having lucky hits (a meaning no longer in use)

Catherine, however, was using the word more as we would use it today, to simply mean something good or pleasant. Apparently, when Johnson wrote his dictionary forty years earlier, nice was not often used that way, at least in books. Even an 1817 short version of his dictionary still defines nice as “accurate, scrupulous, delicate.” Henry Tilney was overly scrupulous, or too nice, in his use of words.

(By the way, Eleanor refers to “Johnson and Blair.” Blair is Dr. Hugh Blair, a Scottish minister who wrote books of sermons that Mary Crawford mentions in Mansfield Park. He also wrote Blair’s Rhetoric, teaching good writing and speaking, which is what Eleanor mentions here.)

“Nice” in an 1806 abridged version of Johnson’s Dictionary

“Nice” Austen Quotes in the Oxford English Dictionary

The current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) quotes Jane Austen in three of its 44 definitions of nice (24 of these definitions are now obsolete, 2 others are rare).

For the obsolete definition 3c, “Particular, strict, or careful with regard to a specific point or thing,” this example appears from Persuasion, 1817: “Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential.”

The OED’s definition 14a of nice, “That one derives pleasure or satisfaction from; agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory; attractive,” is illustrated of course by Catherine and Henry’s conversation in Northanger Abbey. (It’s not the first example, though–that came from actor David Garrick in 1749, just a little too late to be included in Johnson’s Dictionary.)

And there’s one more “nice” example from Austen in definition 14d, where nice is “used ironically”: the very instance is from Jane Austen’s letter of Dec. 24, 1798: “We are to have Company to dinner on friday; the three Digweeds & James.—We shall be a nice silent party I suppose.”


Language has changed so much that we sometimes need dictionaries to understand writers of former ages. It would be easy to assume that wherever we see the word nice, for example, it means “pleasant,” but in Austen’s time it was much more likely to mean something else. In my research on the church in Austen’s time, I’ve found a number of words that had religious meanings in her time, words like principle and serious, that are now used differently. The word candour has changed almost entirely; it meant assuming the best of a person (which is why Jane Bennet is an example of candour), rather than plain speaking.

What are your favorite examples of words used in Jane Austen which now have different meanings, or are obsolete now? And, what’s your favorite dictionary or website where you look them up?

Further Resources

Johnson’s Dictionary: Myths and Reality, by linguist David Crystal

Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755, British Library

Johnson’s Dictionary Online is a fantastic free resource. You can look up any word in the original 1755 dictionary. Page view is available for all the words (click on the letters at the top), and some have been transcribed (search in the search window). If you want to know what words were in use in Jane Austen’s England, and how they were used, this is the book for you. If you want a later edition, archive.org has volumes of the dictionary from later dates.

Dr. Johnson, His House, Jane Austen, and a Cat Called Hodge,” by Tony Grant (who writes for Jane Austen’s World), gives a fascinating overview of Johnson’s life, Jane Austen’s comments about Johnson, and lovely photos of Johnson’s house. He also includes the intriguing story of Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber, who was like a son to Johnson; Johnson left most of his estate to Barber.

Dr. Johnson’s House, a museum of Samuel Johnson, can be visited in London (though it is currently closed for covid; check the website before going).

The Oxford English Dictionary will give you more detail and more quotations, but if you are not part of a library or university with access to it, it’s quite expensive. (Currently subscriptions are deeply discounted, at $90 per year.)

Simon Winchester tells the fascinating story of English dictionaries, especially the OED, in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The movie, The Professor and the Madman (2019), is based on this book and is well done, though it adds some imaginative twists.

You can connect with Brenda S. Cox, the author of this article, at Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen or on Facebook.

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