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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.”

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."


Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."


Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."


By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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