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I recently came across a strange inconsistency regarding Samuel Johnson's A Dictionary of the English Language: while every (online) source I've looked at agrees that it was first published in 1755, they don't appear to agree on how much time it took Johnson to finish compiling it.

For starters, the Wikipedia article for the dictionary itself seems to contradict itself on this matter. The opening paragraph states (emphasis mine):

Johnson took seven years to complete the work, although he had claimed he could finish it in three.

But later on in the article in the section Johnson's preparation is the following claim (emphasis mine):

Johnson's dictionary was prepared at 17 Gough Square, London, an eclectic household, between the years of 1746 and 1755. By 1747 Johnson had written his Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, which spelled out his intentions and proposed methodology for preparing his document.

This would imply that it actually took him eight or nine years to complete, depending on whether you count writing the Plan as working on the dictionary itself. And in fact, on Johnson's main Wikipedia page, the listed number is eight (emphasis mine):

In comparison, the Académie Française had 40 scholars spending 40 years to complete their dictionary, which prompted Johnson to claim, "This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman."[67] Although he did not succeed in completing the work in three years, he did manage to finish it in eight.[67]

The British Library's website agrees that it took "just over eight years" for the dictionary to be finished. Unfortunately, nearly every other source I've found says that it actually took nine years, including this info page for an online version of the dictionary (emphasis mine):

More than once he discovered that his procedures weren’t working, and had to toss out his work and start over again. It is no surprise that he missed his three-year deadline. In fact it is almost miraculous that he completed the work in nine years, from the signing of the contract in 1746 to publication in 1755.

Assuming that Wikipedia is correct that Johnson signed the contract to write the dictionary in June 1746 and that the final product was published in April 1755, that would mean a total working time of a few months shy of nine years, which I certainly wouldn't call "just over eight years."

So... what's going on here? Is this just an issue of semantics or a rounding problem? Is one or more of these sources incorrect? What is the definitive correct answer to the question of how long it took Johnson to complete his dictionary?

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    We can speculate that the lead time from finishing the manuscript until actual publication could easily be on the order of two years. This doesn't help establish an answer, but might help sort out some of the apparent inconsistencies.
    – tripleee
    Sep 19, 2022 at 11:01
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    Ten years, according to a noted BBC documentary. youtube.com/watch?v=PuDquo76490
    – Pete
    Sep 20, 2022 at 17:14
  • If he had to throw it out and start again, as you suggest, then would you count failed efforts? It's hard to work out exactly what counts as work on a book - from initial thoughts to editing proofs and finally putting in shops - and it seems this book would be even harder to judge. An interesting question - but any answer would have to explain exactly what it means by time to complete.
    – Stuart F
    Sep 22, 2022 at 9:53
  • And does "start" mean "doing the first work that will turn into the dictionary" or "definitively embarking on turning his work into a dictionary"?
    – Mary
    Sep 26, 2022 at 0:14

1 Answer 1

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A Dictionary of the English Language was published on 15 April 1755, and John Hawkins says, in his life of Johnson, that the contract for the Dictionary was signed on 18 June 1746, so that Johnson worked on the Dictionary for a little under nine years.

From the original contract now in my hand, dated 18th June 1746, between Johnson on the one part, and the two Knaptons, the two Longmans, Charles Hitch, Andrew Millar, and Robert Dodsley, on the other.

John Hawkins (1787). The Life of Samuel Johnson, 2nd edition, p. 345, footnote. London: J. Buckland etc.

If you only started counting from the publication of The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language in 1747, that would bring it down to eight years, but I think that’s unjustifiable and unfair to Johnson, because planning is also work.

One might wonder, however, whether Johnson had done any preparatory work prior to signing the contract. Indeed, Boswell suggests that Johnson had considered the project for some time:

How long this immense undertaking had been the object of his contemplation, I do not know. I once asked him by what means he had attained to that astonishing knowledge of our language, by which he was enabled to realise a design of such extent, and accumulated difficulty. He told me, that ‘it was not the effect of particular study; but that it had grown up in his mind insensibly.’ I have been informed by Mr. James Dodsley, that several years before this period, when Johnson was one day sitting in his brother Robert’s shop, he heard his brother suggest to him, that a Dictionary of the English Language would be a work that would be well received by the publick; that Johnson seemed at first to catch at the proposition, but, after a pause, said, in his abrupt decisive manner, ‘I believe I shall not undertake it.’ That he, however, had bestowed much thought upon the subject, before he published his Plan, is evident from the enlarged, clear, and accurate views which it exhibits; and we find him mentioning in that tract, that many of the writers whose testimonies were to be produced as authorities, were selected by Pope; which proves that he had been furnished, probably by Mr. Robert Dodsley, with whatever hints that eminent poet had contributed towards a great literary project, that had been the subject of important consideration in a former reign.

James Boswell (1799). Life of Johnson, 3rd edition, pp. 131–132. Oxford University Press (1953).

However, it seems unlikely that Johnson, who famously noted that “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money” (Boswell, p. 731), went very far beyond “contemplation” of the Dictionary before the contract was signed.

The anecdote of Johnson in the Dodsleys’ print-ship is placed by Boswell “several years before” the 1747 Plan, but Hawkins says that it was only after the publication of Miscellaneous Observations on the Tragedy of Macbeth (1745) that

the booksellers of greatest opulence in the city [of London], who had long meditated the publication of a dictionary, after the model of those of France and the Academia della Crusca, looked upon him [Johnson] as a fit person to be employed in such an undertaking.

Hawkins, p. 170.

This would suggest a date of 1745–6 for the anecdote.

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