In 2005 the Royal Mint issued a 50 pence coin into general circulation in the UK to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. So who was Samuel Johnson and why was his dictionary special?
The Life of Samuel Johnson
Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, UK on 18 September 1709. Johnson’s mother, Sarah, was 40 years old when she gave birth which was remarkable for that time.
His father, Michael was a bookseller and had a bookshop in Lichfield. Unfortunately, the bookshop was beginning to accrue debts which affected the family’s standard of living.
Johnson was a dogged with illness as a child and would later (posthumously) be diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome which would hamper his later career. Despite all that, the young Johnson was exceptionally bright and went to a local school from the age of four and later on to Lichfield Grammar School.
To alleviate the problems of his family poverty, Johnson stitched books for his father. When a relative of the family died in 1728, the family inherited some money and Johnson entered Pembroke College, Oxford, although to do so he still needed some financial help from a friend.
After just over a year at university the money ran out and Johnson was forced to leave without completing the degree. However, just before publication of his dictionary Oxford University awarded him a MA degree. Later on Johnson would receive honorary doctorates from Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University itself.
After dropping out from University, Johnson struggled to find work as his Tourette symptoms gave him tics and gesticulations and were not understood at the time and were met with little sympathy. His father, still deeply in debt, died in 1731.
Johnson wanted to teach but without a degree he could only get a post as undermaster. He enjoyed teaching, although found it boring, but he was treated badly as and decided to return home and try making money as a translator of Latin poems.
Johnson had a close friend called Harry Porter, who sadly contracted a terminal illness and died in 1734. A few months later, Johnson started to date Harry’s widow Elizabeth, known as ‘Tetty’. They married in 1735 despite their large age difference – Samuel was 25 and Tetty was 46.
Although Tetty was reasonably well off, Johnson continued to look for work. He applied to Solihull School for the position of Headmaster but the interview was ruined by Johnson’s tics and face contortions which he couldn’t control.
Realising the only way he would be headmaster was to buy his own school, he opened Edial Hall School. It was a disaster and lost Tetty much of her fortune. Johnson decided to move to London in 1737 and work as an author and poet.
Although Johnson published poems and magazine articles, he was almost penniless. He lived separate from Tetty for a few years because he didn’t want to live off what was left of her money.
In 1746 a group of publishers asked Johnson if he could produce an authoritative dictionary of the English language. He said yes and estimated it would take three years, although the French equivalent had taken 40 years to complete. The contract paid 1,500 guineas (£1,575 and probably £220,000 in today’s money).
Dictionaries were not a new thing, there were already many, some dating back to 1538. But the publishers group had noticed that words were being used incorrectly and the English language was becoming ‘unruly’.
Johnson’s solution was not just a list of words, but a list with an entry for each with quotations illustrating how the word should be used. The quotes would come from literary giants like Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden.
It eventually took Johnson eight years to produce the dictionary, but amazingly he did every entry himself and used half-a-dozen staff purely for clerical purposes. It was published on 4 April 1755.
The book was physically large: 18 incles (46cm) high and 20 inches (51cm) when open. It had 42,773 entries with 114,000 quotes. It cost £4 10s, which is about £350 today.
The book was an instant success, not only in Britain but also in America and other parts of the Word. ‘A Dictionary of the English Language‘ or simply ‘Johnson’s Dictionary‘ became the authoritative work on the English language until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary 175 years later in 1928. It changed forever the way dictionaries were written.
It was not all good news for Johnson. Tetty had been ill for some time and died in 1752; Johnson was gutted and forever tormented for neglecting her.
The dictionary paid no royalties, so when it was published Johnson received no more payments. For the rest of his life Johnson scratched out a living as a writer.
Johnson had the fame of compiling one of the most influential books in British history, but not the fortune. In 1762, George III granted Johnson an annual pension of £300 in ‘appreciation for the Dictionary’. It didn’t make Johnson rich but it kept him comfortable until his death in 1784.
2005 Commemorative Coin
Dr Johnson will always be remembered for his contribution to the English language. 2005 was the 250th Anniversary of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language which was first published in 1755.
The fifty pence coin (50p) shows part of the definition of the words ’50 Pence’.
The reverse, designed by Tom Phillips show entries from the Dictionary for the words FIFTY and PENCE, with the figure 50 above, and the inscription JOHNSON’S DICTIONARY 1755 below.
Obverse is the portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Ian Rank-Broadley.
The Mintage was 17,649,000 and was minted at The Royal Mint. It is also available in Silver proof and Gold proof.
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