Guide to Dictionary

Guide to Dictionary

Printed dictionaries fit a great deal of information into a small space using conventions that were pioneered by Johnson’s Dictionary. This guide explains important features of Johnson’s dictionary entries as they appear in the facsimile images and in the transcribed text.


Spelling in the 18th century was more variable than modern spelling. Johnson’s Dictionary spells many words, even proper names, in more than one way. Our transcription corrects obvious typographical errors but otherwise preserves Johnson’s spelling.

Where the spelling might potentially cause confusion, you can hover your mouse over the transcribed text for a modern spelling. Note that spelling variation can also cause variation in alphabetical order (see below).

Johnson’s Dictionary includes the long “ʃ” character, a form of the letter s. Our transcription uses “s” throughout, to make reading and searching the dictionary easier for modern readers. For example, the word “diʃtinct” is transcribed as “distinct.”

Alphabetical order:

The eighteenth-century alphabet differed somewhat from our modern alphabet. Our online dictionary preserves Johnson’s original ordering.

In the eighteenth century, the letters I and J were considered different forms of the same letter; the same with letters U and V. As a result, in Johnson’s Dictionary the word jargon comes before the word idle, and vagabond comes before ultimate.

Sometimes, Johnson links multiple headwords together to the same definition. For example, this entry contains the headwords lady-birdlady-cow, and lady-fly. In these cases, the word is normally alphabetized by the first headword.

A dictionary entry with multiple headwords
Example of multiple headwords

Sometimes, a group of words is arranged in other than alphabetical order. If you can’t find a word where you expect it on a facsimile page, look on the nearby pages.

Dictionary page showig schirrhous, scirrhosity, schism -- words not in alphabetical order
Example of other than alphabetical order

The headword is the word being defined. Johnson’s Dictionary lists headwords in alphabetical order, as in a modern dictionary. Sometimes these words are preceded by “to,” “a,” or “the,” a practice that was common in the eighteenth century but does not affect the alphabetical order.

An example of where to find the headword of an entry
The headword is circled in this image
Headword format:

Most headwords appear in all capital letters. Johnson lists headwords that he considered to be derived from another English word in small capital letters. Headwords that Johnson considered to be more foreign than English are italicized.

An example of a headword
Typical headword
An example of a small caps headword
Headword in small capital letters
An example of an italicized headword
Headword in italicized capital letters

Stress is the relative emphasis with which syllables of a word are spoken. Imagine the difference in stress between saying the word “abstract” AB-stract versus saying it ab-STRACT. Sometimes different parts of speech are distinguished chiefly by which syllable is stressed. For example, the last syllable is stressed in the verb “abstract,” while the first syllable is stressed in the noun. In headwords, Johnson places an accent mark in the syllable that receives the most stress.

The accent mark gives information for pronouncing the word, but the mark is not part of the word’s normal spelling. When the word is used within the entry itself, the accent mark does not appear.

A word showing stress on the last syllable
Emphasis on the last syllable.
A word with emphasis on the first syllable
Emphasis on the first syllable.

Unrelated words can have the same spelling. These identically spelled words are called homographs. Each homograph has its own entry in the dictionary. For example, Johnson provides two entries for two nouns that are spelled “doe.” The existence of two entries means that Johnson considered these homographs to be two different words:

An example of homographs
Example of homographs.

By contrast, Johnson lists different senses (meanings) of the same word under the same headword. For example, the word “dog” has four different senses. The fact that all these senses are contained in the same entry means that Johnson considered “dog” to be one noun with four possible meanings, not four different nouns.

In our search results, homographs are listed separately, distinguished by their parts of speech and (when multiple homographs have the same part of speech) by number.

An example of homographs found in a result listing
Example of homographs in result listing.
Part of Speech:

part of speech is the label for a word’s grammatical role, such as noun, verb, etc. The labels used in the eighteenth century differ somewhat from modern labels. Here are some labels that Johnson’s Dictionary commonly uses, along with their modern equivalents (if different).

Abbreviation18th centuryModern
ad. or adj.adjective
interj or interject.interjection
n.s.noun substantive(noun)
prep. or preposit.preposition
v.a.verb active(verb – transitive)
v.n.verb neuter(verb – intransitive)
Table displaying parts of speech

Johnson’s Dictionary typically gives a word’s etymology, or ancestry, in square brackets after the part-of-speech label. Most of Johnson’s etymologies list only an etymon (ancestor) or two. Sometimes the etymology is explained elsewhere in the entry and not in brackets.

We transcribe the Greek and Saxon letters in Johnson’s etymologies with their modern equivalents to make reading and searching easier, except that Saxon eth (Ð, ð) and thorn (Þ, þ) (which would now be spelled with two letters, “th”) have been preserved.

Example of a typical etymology in square brackets, from the 1755 entry for 'hotcockles.'
Example of a typical etymology in square brackets
Etymological information in this entry for maere is not in square brackets.
Example of etymology elsewhere in the entry, not in square brackets

Language names in the eighteenth century differed somewhat from modern language names. Here are Johnson’s language names that may be unfamiliar to modern readers, followed by modern names:

Armorick – Old Breton
Erse – Irish
Frisick – Frisian
old English – Middle English
Persick – Persian/Farsi
Saxon – Old English
Teutonick – German

Our transcription retains Johnson’s names; we do not modernize any language names.


Johnson often describes how words should be used. His usage advice sometimes is set off by square brackets but can show up anywhere in the entry.

Johnson's usage comments "in low language" and "this is not used in writing" are highlighted in this entry for "a dab."
Johnson’s usage comments (highlighted in yellow)

Some of Johnson’s usage terminology had meanings that may be unfamiliar to modern readers:

badgenerally disfavored or looked down upon
barbarousimpure or unsuited to English
cantspecialized jargon
countryeither rural or uneducated
lowundignified; not appropriate for formal writing
low Latinpost-classical or medieval Latin
ludicrousfunny, not serious
rusticklike “country,” either rural or uneducated
scarce Englishmore foreign than English
unauthorizednot supported by a respected writer
Inflected Forms:

In English, inflected forms are normally easy to predict. English has comparatively few inflections and many of them are created in a regular manner: for example, we add –s or –es to nouns, -ed and –ing to verbs, -er and –est to adjectives and adverbs. When inflections are less predictable, Johnson sometimes lists them near the beginning of the entry.

An example of inflection
Inflected forms (highlighted in yellow)

Many words, particularly common words, have more than one meaning. Each of these meanings is called a sense, and Johnson, like modern lexicographers, numbers the different senses in each entry.

Occasionally in the print volumes, sense numbers appear out of order. For ease of reference, our transcribed text corrects errors when the intended numbering seems obvious.

Phrasal Verb:

phrasal verb is an idiomatic phrase that is typically made up of a verb plus a preposition or an adverb. Johnson includes these phrases in the entry for the verb. He typically lists these phrasal senses near the end of the entry. For example, in the entry for Set, v.n., the last ten senses define phrases such as to set about, to set in, to set on, to set out, to set up.

Illustrative Quotations:

Johnson’s Dictionary illustrates definitions with quotations showing the word in use. These quotations—more than 110,000 of them, drawn from respected writers in diverse fields including agriculture, religion, ship-building, literature, politics, medicine, print-making, history, chemistry, etc.—were considered one of the most valuable features of the folio editions. These quotations are indented in the transcription.

Johnson frequently edited quotations and abbreviated the names of authors and titles that he was quoting. Where possible, our online edition provides author and (soon) title information, which can be viewed by clicking a circled “i” after the name/title.

This image of the 1755 entry for 'jolthead' includes two illustrative quotations, one from William Shakespeare and one from Nehemiah Grew.
Image of printed 1755 entry for jolthead, n.s.
This transcription of the 1755 entry for 'jolthead' includes two illustrative quotations, one from William Shakespeare and one from Nehemiah Grew.
Illustrative quotations in the entry are indented in our transcription.

To save space in the print edition, Johnson avoided duplicating information. When additional information about one entry can be found in another entry, Johnson’s Dictionary provides a cross-reference to let readers know where to look for it. Our online edition will soon link cross references so that you can consult them easily.

An example of cross-references in a dictionary entry
Cross-reference to another entry (highlighted in yellow)