A new edition of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language is being published tomorrow, on the occasion of Johnson’s 294th birthday. Adam Kirsch argues that, despite its flaws, it’s the most literary of the reference books:
[Johnson’s] definitions are sometimes wrong (as with “pastern”), sometimes whimsical (“lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge”), and sometimes opinionated (“sonnet: A short poem consisting of fourteen lines … It is not very suitable to the English language”). Often he records accurately an 18th-century definition that is now hopelessly inadequate (“electricity: A property in some bodies, whereby, when rubbed so as to grow warm, they draw little bits of paper, or such like substances, to them”). And, of course, many words have simply changed their meaning from Johnson’s time to ours (“cartoon: A painting or drawing upon large paper”; “advertisement: 1. Instruction; admonition; 2. Intelligence; information; 3. Notice of any thing published in a paper of intelligence”).
But it is just these qualities that make Johnson’s dictionary a delightful book and certainly the best dictionary for reading and browsing. This is especially true of the new edition….