17 Hilarious Definitions from Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

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It took roughly eight years for Samuel Johnson and his staff of six helpers to complete the Dictionary of the English Language, which was published 263 years ago this month, on April 15, 1755. The work soon established itself as one of the most important dictionaries in the history of the English language, and remained a landmark reference source right through to the early 1900s.

Johnson—a celebrated humourist and anecdotist who also wrote countless works of journalism and criticism, biographies, essays, poems, and even a novel and a stage play—brought a huge amount of that wit and linguistic creativity to his dictionary, which defined over 42,000 words, using 114,000 literary quotations to illustrate them. Famously, for instance, he defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”—but that famous definition is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the slights, barbs and quips Johnson included in his dictionary.

1. BACKFRIEND

The Oxford English Dictionary calls a backfriend “a pretended or false friend,” but Johnson was more straightforward and defined the word as “a friend backwards”—or in other words, “an enemy in secret.”

2. EXCISE

No one likes paying tax—and Johnson knew it. Excise was defined as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid.”

3. FINESSE

Johnson didn’t much care for French loanwords, and omitted a great deal of francophone words—including such familiar examples as champagne and bourgeois—from his dictionary. Many of those that he did include, meanwhile, had some serious shade thrown at them: Finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language”; monsieur was described as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman”; and ruse was labeled “a French word neither elegant nor necessary.”

4. GYNOCRACY

A gynocracy is a governing body of women, or women seen as a ruling class. In Johnson’s pithier words, however, a “gynecocrasay” was defined as a “petticoat government.”

5. LEXICOGRAPHER

Johnson seemingly didn’t think much of his own job: On page 1195, he called a lexicographer “a harmless drudge” who “busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words.”

6. LUNCH

Lunch wasn’t so much a time as a quantity in Johnson’s eyes: He defined it as “as much food as one’s hand can hold.”

7. NIDOROSITY

If you ever needed a word for an “eructation with the taste of undigested meat”—in other words, a really meaty burp—then here you are.

8. PATRON

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary and paid a staggering 1500 guineas (around $300,000 today) for his troubles. Even still, he couldn’t let the opportunity to have a dig at the London publishers who acted as his financial backers go by: He famously defined a patron as “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery.”

9. PENSION

A pension is “an allowance,” Johnson explained, adding that “in England it is generally understood to mean pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country.”

10. POLITICIAN

As well as “one versed in the arts of government,” Johnson defined a politician as “a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.”

11. SCELERATE

This 16th century word for a villain or reprobate won’t be among the most familiar of entries in Johnson’s dictionary, but it does give us a prime example of both his disdain for French loanwords and for the authors who adopted them. On page 1758 he explains that the word was “introduced unnecessarily from the French by a Scottish author”—and then goes on to illustrate its use with a quotation from Scottish physician and scholar George Cheyne.

12., 13., AND 14. SOCK, BUM, AND LIZARD

When you’re tasked with defining 40,000 words, it’s perhaps to be expected that some entries are going to be more half-hearted than others—and sock, which Johnson defined as “something put between the shoe and foot,” probably falls into that group. He also defined the word bum as “the part on which we sit,” and a lizard as “an animal resembling a serpent, with legs added to it.”

15. STOAT

Pity the poor stoat, which Johnson defined as “a small, stinking animal.”

16. TROLMYDAMES

Johnson was nothing if not honest: All he had to say when it came to this word, which Shakespeare used in The Winter’s Tale, was “of this word I know not the meaning.” Noah Webster had a better idea when it came to compiling his American Dictionary 60 years later, however, and explained that the word is another name for “the game of nineholes,” a bowling game in which players have to roll balls into holes of different point values.

17. URINATOR

Browse the dictionary and this one might raise a few eyebrows: Johnson defined a urinator as “a diver” or “one who searches underwater.” We might not agree today, but he wasn’t wrong: In this context, urinator derives from urinari, a Latin word meaning “to dive.”

13 Words That Changed From Negative to Positive Meanings (or Vice Versa)

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

One of the main reasons for the existence of slang is to keep the outsiders from understanding the insiders. Making up new words is one way to achieve this, but it’s not the only one. A favorite trick for the young to play on the old is to take an established word and completely change its connotations from bad to good. In recent decades we’ve seen sick, wicked, ill, and bad recruited to the “hearty positive endorsement” side. While some would lament the decline of language suggested by such wanton disregard for word meaning, this kind of meaning switch is nothing new. Here are 13 fine, upstanding words that long ago switched from negative to positive (or vice versa).

1. Fun

Fun was first a verb meaning "to cheat or hoax." It came from fon, an old word for "fool." It still retains some of that sense in “make fun of,” but now also means "a merry good time."

2. Fond

Fond also goes back to fon, and it once meant "foolish and weak-minded." It came to then mean over-affectionate in a negative, cloying way. Now it’s positive, but at root, being fond of something is basically being a fool for it.

3. Terrific

The root of terrific is terror, and it first meant terror-inducing. It then became an exaggerated intensifier (“terrifically good!” = so good it’s terrifying) and then a positive term all on its own.

4. Tremendous

Like terrific, tremendous has its roots in fear. Something tremendous was so terrible it caused trembling or shaking. It also became an intensifier (“tremendously good!”) before it went all the way positive.

5. Awe

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, awe originally referred to “immediate and active fear.” It then became associated with religious, reverential fear, and then to a feeling of being humbled at the sublime. While awful retains the negative sense, awesome took on the positive one.

6. Grin

To grin was to bare the teeth in a threatening display of anger or pain. It then became the term for a forced, fake smile, before settling into an expression of happiness.

7. Smart

Smart was first used in Old English to describe things that cause pain. Weapons, nails, and darts were smart. Shakespeare’s Henry VI has the phrase “as smart as lizards’ stings.” It took on connotations of sharpness, quickness, intensity, and, through smart, pain-causing words or wit came to stand for quick intelligence and fashionableness.

8. Egregious

Egregious was a positive word that turned negative. It used to mean "eminent and distinguished," but because people started using it sarcastically, it came to mean "bad and offensive."

9. Sad

Sad started with the meaning of "satisfied or sated," also sometimes "steadfast" or "firm." It then went from meaning "serious," to "grave," to "sorrowful."

10. Smug

Smug first meant "crisp, tidy, and presentable." A well-dressed person was smug in this way, and it later came to mean "self-satisfied and conceited."

11. Devious

Devious comes from de via, "off the way." It once meant "distant" or "off the road." It took on the meaning of wandering—there were devious comets, devious minnows—and, because to do wrong was to stray from the right path, it eventually came to mean "scheming and deceitful."

12. Facetious

To be facetious was once to have elegant, gracious, high style, and to be jokey and witty. It came from a Latin term for playful humorousness. It is still connected with a type of humor, but with an unproductive or annoying connotation.

13. Bully

Bully used to be a term of endearment for men or women. A bully could be a good friend or a sweetheart. It then came to stand for a swaggering braggart and than a coward who picks on others.

This list was first published in 2015 and republished in 2019.

22 Weird Jobs From 100 Years Ago

Metal Floss via YouTube
Metal Floss via YouTube

Before everyone started working in tech, people actually had their choice of eclectic and strange vocations that put food on their old-timey tables. Discover what lamplighters, lectores, and knocker-uppers did back in the day as Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy runs down 22 Weird Old Jobs from 100 Years Ago.

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