The chief glory of every people arises from its authours . . . I shall not think my employment useless or ignoble, if by my assistance foreign nations, and distant ages, gain access to the propagators of knowledge, and understand the teachers of truth; if my labours afford light to the repositories of science, and add celebrity to Bacon, to Hooker, to Milton, and to Boyle.
Samuel Johnson, Preface to A Dictionary of the English Language
From its first publication, Johnson’s Dictionary has been lauded for its carefully selected illustrative quotations. Where Johnson was often forced, due to space limitations, our online dictionary has the space to provide more information about who these authors are.
In the online dictionary, when more information is available, you will see a small i in a circle next to the name of the author. Click that symbol and a box will appear that provides a complete name, birth and death dates, and links to more information.
The box appears at the top of the left column. If you have scrolled to the bottom of that column, you may need to scroll back up to see it.
Where does the information on our site come from?
Wherever possible, we drew the complete name of the author from the Library of Congress Authorities, specifically the “Personal Name Heading” record.
An authority record is a tool used by librarians to standardize names in a database. By using standard forms of names, titles, and subject areas, databases make it easier for researchers to find information. You can imagine how difficult it would be to research Shakespeare if you had to search separately for Shakespeare, Shakespear, Shakesp, Shakes, Shake, Shak, Sha, and Sh, all abbreviations that Johnson deploys in his Dictionary. (Actually, you don’t have to imagine, because this is how our author search currently works—but not for long! See How will the author search use this information? below.) The Library of Congress provides its authority records online, where they can be accessed by librarians around the world, and by projects such as this one.
Wherever one of Johnson’s authors could be identified, we created a unique ID for that person and matched the information to a name authority record. We built a personography database in which to store this information, along with a few other facts, such as birth/death dates, gender, and a link to a Wikipedia article with more information.
Then, we added the unique ID to the xml files for every entry. For example, every time William Shakespeare was named as the author of a quotation, no matter how Shakespeare’s name was abbreviated, we marked the XML as “person-ShakespeareWilliam”. When you click the ICON, the database looks for this ID in our personography table and displays the related Personal Name Heading, link to the LC Authority record, and link to Wikipedia.
Occasionally, the Library of Congress Personal Name Heading field does not include birth/death dates for the author. When we could, we supplied this information, putting it in square brackets, as with Shakespeare, William [1568-1616]. Also, sometimes we could not locate a Library of Congress Authority record for an author, and in these cases we have provided whatever information we could find.
Anyone who is are interested in learning more about Johnson’s authors can find additional information at a wonderful site, Samuel Johnson Dictionary Sources, that is maintained by an independent scholar.
Why do some author names have no information icon?
We are adding the information symbol only when we are confident that we have correctly determined the person Johnson is quoting.
Sometimes it is difficult to identify which author Johnson is referring to. For example, “Brown” could refer to Sir Thomas Browne, Edward Browne, Isaac Hawkins Browne, or Moses Browne. “Cla.” could refer to “Clarendon” or Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. And Johnson quoted not only John Dryden, the famous 17th century poet, but that poet’s son, also named John Dryden.
Once we have disambiguated a reference, we then need to insert the author id into the XML before the symbol will appear, a process that also takes time.
Some authors we couldn’t identify at all from the information Johnson provided—at least not yet:
- Edward Blount (search for Author=Blount AND Title=to Pope)
- Robert Digby (search for Author=Digby AND Title=to Pope)
- Dr. Waldren (bum, n.s.)
- Samuel Dier/Dyer (mentioned in the etymology for ugly, adj.)
- Logie (search for Author=Logie)
- Anne Mor(e)ton (perish, v.n.)
- [[Robert of Gloucester]] (shrew, n.s.)
- John Smith (search for Author=smith* AND Title=rhetorick)
- Nichols (eft)
If you have more information about any of the authors Johnson quotes, please let us know. You can send email to email@example.com or click the “feedback” tab on the right edge of any word page.
How will the author search use this information?
The information that underlies our information symbol will also power an improved author search. We are working behind-the-scenes to enable the search to find:
- The author’s unique ID, so the search will retrieve all the times Johnson named an author, regardless of how Johnson abbreviated the author’s name. For example, a search for “William Shakespeare” will find Johnson’s mentions of this author regardless of whether the name “Shakespeare” is spelled out or abbreviated.
- Quotations from a known author, even if Johnson didn’t name that author. For example, a search for “Charlotte Lennox” will find quotations from The Female Quixote.
- Quotations for which Johnson credited the translator, rather than the author. For example, a search for “Homer” will find quotations from Alexander Pope’s Iliad.
- Quotations that Johnson misattributed (when possible). For example, a search for Thomas Burnet will retrieve quotations that we have confirmed are from Burnet, even when the print dictionary erroneously attributes a passage to Francis Bacon (as occurred in undersecretary).
We are actively working behind the scenes to improve our search functions! Please let us know of any improvements that you would like to see by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org or clicking the “feedback” tab on the right edge of any word page.