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.

Johnson’s Dictionary Editions

Johnson’s Dictionary Online provides transcriptions of the 1755 edition and the 1773 edition. Our Search page allows the user to expand or narrow their search between the two editions.

1755 Edition

The 1755 edition is the first published edition of Johnson’s Dictionary. Johnson’s two volume dictionary was published on April 15, 1755 in folio format. See About Johnson’s Dictionary for more information on the development of Johnson’s Dictionary.

1773 Edition

The 1773 edition is the fourth edition of Johnson’s Dictionary. This edition followed the publication of two abridged versions of Johnson’s Dictionary. The 1773 folio edition provided significant revisions to Johnson’s dictionary, including new headwords, quotations, and senses. See About Johnson’s Dictionary for more information on the development of Johnson’s Dictionary.


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.

Standardization of the Letter “S”

One exception is the change from the long “ʃ” character. 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” (as shown in the figures below).

"Distinct" entry transcription showing the use of the standard "s" character.
Example of Transcription Using the Standard “s” Character.
"Distinct" entry showing the use of the long "s" character.
“Distinct” Entry Showing the Use of the Long “S” Character

Variations in 18th Century Spelling

Our database allows the user to retrieve entries with their modern spelling. For example, the entry for “usquebaugh” can be retrieved via headword search for “whiskey” or “whisky.” Note that spelling variation can also cause variation in alphabetical order (see Variations in Order of Entries for exceptions). For guidance on searching words with variations in spelling, see Use Wildcards to Facilitate Searches.

Alphabetical Order

The 18th century alphabet differed somewhat from our modern alphabet.

In the 18th 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.

Entries With Multiple Headwords

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

Headwords "Lady-Bird", "Lady-Cow", and "Lady-Fly" grouped together as a single dictionary entry.
Example of an Entry with Multiple Headwords

Variations in Order of Entries

Sometimes, Johnson’s Dictionary groups words together outside of alphabetical order as shown in the image below. If you can’t find a word where you expect it on a facsimile page, look at the nearby pages.

Dictionary entries "Scirrhous", "Scirrhosity", and "Schism" listed on a facsimile page in non-alphabetic order.
Example of Entries Listed in Non-Alphabetical Order


The headword is the word being defined. Johnson’s Dictionary lists headwords in alphabetical order, as in a modern dictionary (see Variations in Order of Entries for exceptions).

"Fantastically" entry with the headword circled.
Example of Headword

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.

Headword Format

Johnson’s Dictionary displays each headword using all capital letters. See the table below for descriptions of the different headword formats and their variations.

Headword Format Description
Large Capital Letters

Headwords in all capital letters represent the standard entry in Johnson’s Dictionary. 

"Fumid" entry showing an example of a headword with large capital letters.
Example of Headword with Large Capital Letters
Small Capital Letters

Johnson lists headwords that he considered to be derived from another English word in small capital letters. 

"Fumingly" entry showing an example of a headword with small capital letters.
Example of Headword with Small Capital Letters
Italicized Capital Letters

Headwords that Johnson considered to be more foreign than English are italicized. 

"Fumette" entry displaying an example of a headword with italicized capital letters.
Example of Headword with Italicized Capital Letters
Table of Headword Styles


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.

Stress is the relative emphasis with which syllables of a word are spoken. Sometimes different parts of speech are distinguished chiefly by which syllable is stressed. Imagine the difference in stress between saying the word “abstract” AB-stract versus saying it ab-STRACT. The following figures show how the last syllable is stressed in the verb “abstract”, while the first syllable is stressed in the noun.

"To Abstract" entry showing the stress placed on the last syllable.
Example of Headword with Emphasis on the Last Syllable
"Abstract" entry showing the stress placed on the first syllable.
Example of Headword with 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” (shown in the following figure). The existence of two entries means that Johnson considered these homographs to be two different words.

Homographs "Doe" and "Doe" shown as two separate entries.
Example of Homographs Listed as Two Entries

Homographs in Search Results

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.

Search results for "duck" in the 1773 edition displaying parts of speech.
Example of Entries in Search Results Showing Parts of Speech

Part of Speech

A part of speech is the label for a word’s grammatical role, such as noun, verb, etc. To view an entry’s part of speech, click the circled “i” beside the part of speech.

"Fairy" entry transcription displaying the part of speech information button
Example of Part of Speech Information Button

The labels used in the eighteenth century differ somewhat from modern labels. The table below identifies some labels that Johnson’s Dictionary commonly uses, along with their modern equivalents (if different).

Abbreviation 18th Century Modern
ad. or adj. adjective adjective
adv. adverb adverb
conj. conjunction conjunction
interj. or interject. interjection interjection
n.s. noun substantive noun
prep. or preposition. preposition preposition
pron. pronoun pronoun
v.a. verb active verb – transitive
v.n. verb neuter verb – intransitive
Table of Parts of Speech


Johnson’s Dictionary typically gives a word’s etymology, or ancestry, in square brackets after the part-of-speech label as shown in the following figure.

"Hotcockles" entry displaying an example of etymology described inside square brackets after the part of speech.
Example of Etymology Identified in Square Brackets

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 as shown in the figure below.

"Maere" entry displaying an example of etymology described within the definition.
Example of Etymology Described in the Entry

Revisions to Greek and Saxon Etymologies

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.

"Acephalous" dictionary entry displaying Greek etymology.
Example of Greek Letters in Johnson’s Dictionary
"Acephalous" transcription displaying modern spelling of Greek etymology.
Example of Greek Letters in Transcription


Language names in the 18th century differed somewhat from modern language names. Our transcription retains Johnson’s names; we do not modernize any language names. The table below identifies some of the language names referenced in Johnson’s Dictionary that might confuse readers.

Language Name Modern Name
Armorick Old Breton
Erse Irish
Frisick Frisian
old English Middle English
Persick Persian/Farsi
Saxon Old English
Teutonick German
Table of Dictionary Language Names and Modern Equivalents


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

"A Dab" entry with a green rectangle surrounding the bracket enclosed usage information.
Example of Usage Displayed Inside Brackets

The following figure on the left provides an example of a usage description contained within square brackets. The following figure on the right provides an example of additional context appearing in the entry without brackets.

"A Dab" entry iIdentifying a usage description without brackets.
Example of Usage Displayed without Brackets

Understanding Johnson’s Usage Terminology

Some of Johnson’s usage terminology had meanings that may be unfamiliar to modern readers. Refer to the table below for a list of Johnson’s usage terminology and their definitions.

Word Definition
bad generally disfavored or looked down upon
barbarous impure or unsuited to English
cant specialized jargon
country either rural or uneducated
low undignified; not appropriate for formal writing
low Latin post-classical or medieval Latin
ludicrous funny, not serious
rustick like “country,” either rural or uneducated
scarce English more foreign than English
unauthorized not supported by a respected writer
Table of Usage Terminology

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 as shown in the following figure.

"To Smite" entry identifying the inflected forms.
Inflected Forms Identified in “To Smite” Entry


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.

Transcription Updates to Senses

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

A 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.

Viewing Quotation Sources

Johnson frequently edited quotations and abbreviated the names of authors and titles that he was quoting. Where possible, our online edition identifies the author and title. 

To view information about the author and/or title, click on the circled “i” after the name/title.

"Fairy" entry transcription identifying author/title information button.
Example of Author/Title Information Button


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 as shown in the following figure.

"Fantasy" entry identifying the cross-reference to "Fancy".
Example of Cross-Reference in Dictionary Entry

Viewing Cross-References

Our transcription links Johnson’s cross-references to their respective entry (shown in the figure below). To view the entry, click on the cross reference in our transcription. 

"Fantasy" transcription identifying hyperlinked "See Fancy" cross-reference.
Example of Transcription with Link to Cross-Reference