Dr. Schleifer Interview: Johnson's Work Left Room for Improvement

Classic Books and Ideas

In this interview, I sat down with Dr. Paul Schleifer, an English professor who specializes in English as a spoken language. I asked him various questions about Samuel Johnson and his influence in lexicography and the Oxford English Dictionary. In this video, I asked Dr. Schleifer if Samuel Johnson left room for improvement in his work. In his answer, Dr. Schleifer explained that some of the entries in Johnson’s dictionaries were not as serious, which we would not see in dictionaries today. His definitions were somewhat playful, and they were not exactly accurate definitions. Also, Johnson’s dictionary was relatively small and only contained about 55,000 words. Dr. Schleifer states that the first person who does something is not necessarily going to be the best at it. To explain this, he uses an example in baseball. Professional baseball players back in the day could do things that were unheard of at the time, but they are not necessarily as skilled as professional players today. Dr. Schleifer says that Johnson deserves credit for being the first. Johnson’s approach has been improved upon, Dr. Schleifer references a quote from Isaac Newton which says, “If I have discovered new things, it’s because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” He then states that, in linguistics, Samuel Johnson is one of those giants.