Without his “Dictionary,” you probably wouldn’t be able to make sense of “Sense and Sensibility”
Do you like being able to read Jane Austen?
How about understanding the Declaration of Independence?
Do you like having a snowball’s chance in hell at getting to the meaning of Shakespeare?
Then thank the dictionary.
In particular, thank Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755).
England first developed a literate population in the 1700s, when reading became fashionable and widespread. It had become so popular that the London Chronicle, at Johnson’s suggestion, started publishing a new genre of writing that would have been unheard just of a few decades earlier: the book review.
With this rise in reading came a movement to stabilize the English language, which had been undergoing fast and colossal changes over the past 200 years, making Elizabethan English much different than Georgian England’s:
Elizabethan English grew so fast, putting on muscle so swiftly and in such unforeseeable places, that it was both exciting and unpredictable . . . [T]here was no thing as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ spelling. Everyone spelt a word in the way he thought it ought to be spelt.” John Wain, Samuel Johnson (1974), 138.
Some, like Johnathan Swift, wanted to establish a formal academy, along French lines, to stabilize and normalize the language. If the language weren’t slowed down, their beloved Shakespeare could become indecipherable in a few generations, not to mention John Milton and the King James Version of the Bible.
Others, like Johnson, opposed Swift and the government academy approach, preferring a more relaxed one. Johnson wanted English stabilized, but not constricted. Johnson knew language by its nature changes.
So: Norms, yes. Laws, no.
A group of prosperous booksellers agreed. They came together in 1746 and offered Johnson 1,575 … Read the rest