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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Garbage Collectors

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By Elland Road Partners*

There are more than 116,000 garbage collectors in the United States, which sounds like a lot until you consider the staggering volume of trash Americans toss out every year: 250 million tons (and growing). And yet, these intrepid men and women are shrouded in mystery. Maybe that's because we only think of them when running to the curb in our undies at 6 a.m. or when stuck behind a truck on our way to Costco.

Well, let ignorance go the way of open-air incinerators. To help clear the mystery surrounding the only people who—unlike mom—will keep cleaning up after you for the rest of your life, we interviewed dozens of garbage collectors around the country about their work, motivation, and, yes, that smell. Here's what we learned:

1. It's OK to call us garbage men.

Politically correct terms are "sanitation engineer" and “waste management professional,” but if you ask the men and women who actually do the work there’s nothing to be ashamed of in a description that’s less euphemistic. Veteran "engineer" Scott Fultz, of Portland, Oregon, speaks for most of his peers when he says that the classic moniker is still the best. “Just call me the garbage man," he implores. "I’m the guy that picks up your sewage. I’m the guy driving the big green truck." Trash collector, trash hauler and, across the pond, “bin men” are also acceptable. (So is their actual name.)

2. Or garbage women.

About 99% of U.S. garbage collectors are men, but that still means that more than 1,000 women are out there hauling trash. And all the garbage women we interviewed say they encounter real surprise when they share their vocational choice. Not that such reactions deter them. "I wear it like a badge of honor," says veteran Memphis collector Kim Hardeman. "I’m a garbage woman, and I love it. I’m outdoors all day. And I don’t have to worry about the garbage can talking back to me." And while female collectors may not match their male counterparts when it comes to strength in numbers, they often have a stronger stomach. Says Baltimore garbage woman Kristen Anderson, "If you could see these grown men going crazy when things get gross…"

3. These are not jobs for the faint-hearted.

Trash collecting routinely shows up on lists of the most dangerous jobs in America, with roughly 30 fatalities per 100,000 workers annually. (Logging, the most dangerous profession, averages nearly 60 deaths per 100,000.) Small wonder: Every aspect of a trash collector's job has the capacity to injure. From heavy lifting to man-eating gears to glass and needles hidden in black garbage bags, disaster is never far away. “The toughest job is the position on the back,” says Dallas trash collector Jimmy Johnson. “Mostly because you’re jumping on and off the truck.”

But the most common accident is sadly preventable: collectors getting hit by cars. "It’s a very dangerous job," says Orlando garbage man Edwin Hernandez. "A lot of us get hurt. A driver is flying around a curve and doesn’t see the garbage man—or the truck—and ..." Part of the solution might just be a change in attitude. "Some people do not see you," says Joe Udice, a trash collector in the suburbs of New York City. "It’s a mentality: The garbage truck is there, but it’s not really there. Everyone is in a rush. Everyone’s the most important person."

4. These are also not jobs for the faint-nosed.

It may be the No. 1 reason more people don't get into garbage collection as a career: that unholy odor, impossible to parse but instantly recognizable. "It all combines into one sour swill," explains Udice. But after a while, you just stop noticing. "On the way home I might pick up a friend and he’ll be like, 'Joe, you stink!' And I can’t even notice it." Odor is only one part of an overall gross-out factor that quickly and brutally weeds out the weaklings from the rest of the herd. Minneapolis garbage man Al Gruidl says, "Our running joke—after we dump the garbage from the truck and it’s just water and maggots sloshing around—is to see if you can say, 'Mmmm, looks like great soup!'” Not everyone can. “One summer, a new guy was standing there just puking his guts out. We always have fun with the new guys."

5. This is not your father’s garbage man’s truck.

For many sewage picker-uppers, the days of lifting overstuffed cans by hand are over. “In Phoenix, all the trash collectors are drivers,” says Valley of the Sun veteran Tim Femrite. “Everything’s automated. We call it curbside pickup, where we drive up next to the bins, pick them up and dump them in. So it’s just me in the truck. It could get lonely for some people, but I like it. It’s my office.”

Even in places where the sanitation department and citizenry are less in-tune, today’s trucks are often high-tech wonders equipped with motion-activated cameras (for avoiding unseen hazards) and onboard tablets that help drivers track houses that have missed collection. "I’ve had a customer that I need to go back for because they didn’t have their stuff out in the morning," says Fultz, the Portland collector. "I can get that info in real time, whip right back around the corner, get it picked up and not have to worry about the phone calls." Trash haulers can also flag residents for particularly poor garbage etiquette, like overfilling cans. (“We call it ‘snow-coning,’” says Femrite.) You know who you are—and they do, too.

6. Your trash is our treasure.

You know that flat screen you dumped because it was last year's model? Or that bike your child begged for and never rode? You might have thought those were destined for the compactor, but garbage folk often find new homes for the unloved but usable goods we toss. "A lot of people throw out vacuum cleaners that are really just clogged," Udice explains. Those get a good cleaning and are put to use again. Lamps get fixed and recycled. Old TVs are taken back to headquarters, tested and then installed somewhere else. Just because you don’t have use for it doesn’t mean someone else won’t.

7. Your trash is our titillation.

Most trashcans are filled with the humdrum detritus of day-to-day living: spoiled food, broken appliances, waxen Q-tips, and threadbare underpants. But every so often— a.k.a. pretty much every day—there’s a titillating surprise for the guys and gals who dispose of your rubbish. "Pornography," says Udice. “A lot of pornography.” And while some may be shocked that anyone still buys X-rated magazines and videos, Udice is mostly amazed at the volume. "Never just a couple of magazines,” he says. “It’s always like someone just threw out their trove."

8. Your trash is you!

Minnesotan Gruidl recalls, "At the facility where we dump our garbage, one of the trucks, a front-end loader that picks up private dumpsters, was getting ready to offload. Somebody must have jumped in the dumpster that night to stay warm. They dumped it, and there he was down in the pit. The entire operation stopped. The guy was rolling around in there."

9. It’s the bag, stupid.

The next time you're shopping for trash bags, take a moment to consider all the stakeholders. Cheap bags are cheap for a reason, and when they fail it’s your garbage collector who will pay the price. "Guys throw bags into the truck and the garbage busts right out of the bag,” says Terrell Thompson, a trash collector in Kansas City, Missouri. “If they’ve been cleaning out the yard where their dog was, well…" And Thompson wants you to know that it’s not just about the quality of the bag. “On a hot day,” he explains, “bag material will thin.” In other words, people: Don't be afraid to double-bag it in the summer.

10. It’s a jungle out there.

"We run into animals all the time," says Gruidl. And not just raccoons. "Squirrels have a way of chewing through the lids and getting in and out of the garbage,” he says. “So when you dump it into the hopper, the squirrels fly out and scare the living daylights out of you." Kristen Anderson, a Baltimore garbage woman, had a slightly closer encounter: "I opened a can, and I felt something go up my arm. The guy I was working with jumped back and yelled, 'Did you see that?!' It was a rat, and it ran right up my arm. I didn’t notice till it jumped off. I was glad. I might have quit my job right there."

11. We hate autumn.

Summer, with its bag-thinning and trash-ripening heat, isn't easy on garbage folk. And winter's snow banks are certainly a pain (even if the smell lessens). But the real nightmare season? When the leaves start falling. "Memphis in the fall," says veteran Bluff City collector Kim Hardeman, "The piles—oh my goodness, it’s overwhelming.”

12. We’re generally pretty flexible.

In San Francisco, where Mario Montoya has spent 27 years hauling trash, the Public Works Department "does it all." That not only means emptying cans, but also cleaning out illegal waste dumps and cleaning up after car accidents and fires—even scrubbing down biological waste on the street. And yes, the job can get frustrating, but for Montoya and many of his peers there’s a pervasive sense of pride in their work. "We all grew up in this city," he says, "and we’re proud of that. My dad used to say, 'Whatever you do, whether you’re flipping burgers or flipping dollars, take pride in what you do.' I think that’s very important, especially in this job."

13. And sometimes we’re very flexible.

Joe Udice has a story for you. “There’s a lot of nice areas in Westchester," he says. "You wouldn’t think sanitation workers would really hook up on route because they smell, but there’s this wealthy divorcee who kept joking with one guy on a three-man crew. So eventually he says to one of the other guys, ‘Do you think you could cover my route for like a half hour?” And the other guy is like, ‘Are you kidding?’ And the first guy says, ‘I’m gonna try.’ He hit the lottery with that one. The guy has skills.”

14. These are not jobs of last resort.

"As a kid I always wanted to be a garbage man,” says Orlando garbage man Edwin Hernandez. “I used to live in the projects, and the garbage men had to come to the back of the house, grab the cans and pull them all the way around the house. I liked helping them. This guy, he was probably about 18 years old. He worked on the garbage truck. His name was Lester. And I followed that garbage truck everywhere it went. So that’s one of the things that inspired me. I always wanted to do it.”

Elland Road Partners is a content collaborative founded by Gary Belsky and Neil Fine. Kevin J. Ryan and Deanna Cioppa contributed to this story.

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15 Fascinating Facts About Candyman
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Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) is a Chicago graduate student with a deep fascination with urban legends, which she and her friend Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are using as the basis for a thesis project. After they stumble across the local legend of Candyman, a well-to-do black artist who fell in love with a white woman in the late 1800s and was murdered for it, Helen wants to learn more. When she’s told that Candyman still haunts Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, and that his spirit can be summoned by repeating his name into a mirror five times, Helen does just that … and all hell breaks loose.

What began as a low-budget indie film has morphed into a contemporary classic of the horror genre, and essential Halloween viewing. In 1992, English filmmaker Bernard Rose—who got his start working as a gopher on The Muppet Show—turned Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden” into Candyman, which was released in theaters 25 years ago today. In honor of the film’s anniversary, here are 15 things you might not have known about Candyman.

1. EDDIE MURPHY WAS CONSIDERED FOR THE LEAD.

Though the role of Candyman turned Tony Todd into a horror icon, he wasn’t the only actor in consideration for the film’s title role: Eddie Murphy was also reportedly a contender for the part. Though it’s unclear exactly why he wasn’t cast, sources have reported that it had to do with everything from his height (at 5 feet 9 inches, he wouldn’t seem nearly as intimidating as the 6-foot-5 Todd) to his salary demands.

2. AN UNEXPECTED PREGNANCY LANDED VIRGINIA MADSEN THE LEAD.

Virginia Madsen stars in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

When asked by HorrorNewsNetwork about how she got the role of Helen in Candyman, Virginia Madsen shared that it was almost by accident: She was supposed to play Bernie, Helen’s friend and classmate, the role that eventually went to Kasi Lemmons.

“I was actually very good friends with Bernard [Rose] and his wife Alexandra,” Madsen said. “She is a wonderful actress, who actually brought Clive Barker’s short story ‘The Forbidden’ to her husband. She thought this would be a great film, and he could direct her. She was supposed to be Helen. I was going to play [Kasi Lemmons'] part, until they made the character African American. Then I was out.

“Right before shooting, Alexandra found out she was pregnant. It was great for me, but it was so sad for her because this was her role; she found this story and really wanted it. So when I was asked to step in I felt like ‘I can’t take my friend’s role.’ She actually came over one day and said ‘It would just kill me to see someone else play this role, you have to be the one who plays it.’ So with her blessing I took on the role. I really tried to work my butt off just to honor her.”

3. IT COULD HAVE STARRED SANDRA BULLOCK.

On the film’s DVD commentary, producer Alan Poul said that had Madsen been unable to step into the role of Helen, the part would have likely been offered to Sandra Bullock, who was still a relative unknown actress at that point. Though she had played the role of Tess McGill in the television adaptation of Working Girl, she was still a couple of years away from Speed (1994), the role that launched her into stardom.

4. ITS OPENING SHOT WAS GROUNDBREAKING.

The film’s opening credits feature a great aerial view of Chicago, which was pretty revolutionary for its time. “We did that with an incredible new machine called the Skycam, which can shoot up to a 500mm lens with no vibration,” Rose told The Independent. “You've never seen that shot before, at least not done that smoothly.”

5. NOT ALL OF THE FILM’S CREEPY DETAILS SPRUNG FROM CLIVE BARKER’S IMAGINATION.

While investigating one of Candyman’s crime scenes, Helen and Bernie discover that the design of the apartment’s medicine cabinet made it a possible point of entry for an intruder. This was not a made-up piece of horror movie fiction. While researching the film, Rose learned that a series of murders had been committed in Chicago in this very way.

6. BERNARD ROSE SEES CANDYMAN AS A ROMANTIC FIGURE.

Tony Todd stars in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Viewers may think of Candyman as one of the horror genre’s most terrifying villains, but Rose said that “the idea always was that he was kind of a romantic figure. And again, romantic in sort of the Edgar Allan Poe sense—it's the romance of death. He's a ghost, and he's also the resurrection of something that is kind of unspoken or unspeakable in American history, which is slavery, as well. So he's kind of come back and he's haunting what is the new version of the racial segregation in Chicago.

“And I think there's also something very seductive and very sweet and very romantic about him, and that's what makes him interesting. In the same way there is about Dracula. In the end, the Bogeyman is someone you want to surrender to. You're not just afraid of. There's a certain kind of joy in his seduction. And Tony was always so romantic. Tony ties him in so elegantly and is such a gentleman. He was wonderful.”

7. THE BEES IN THE FILM WERE BRED SPECIFICALLY TO APPEAR ONSCREEN.

No, that is not CGI! The bees that play a key role in Candyman are indeed real. So that they looked appropriately terrifying, but were less dangerous to the cast and crew, the filmmakers used newborn bees—they were just 12 hours old—so that they looked fully grown, but had less powerful stingers.

8. TONY TODD WAS STUNG 23 TIMES, AND GOT A BONUS EACH TIME IT HAPPENED.

Photo of Tony Todd in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

In addition to allowing the filmmakers to cover his face with bees, Todd actually agreed to film a scene in which he had a mouthful of bees—and that, too, was all real. He told TMZ that he wore a dental dam to prevent any bees from sliding into his throat—which doesn’t mean that he didn’t suffer a sting or two … or 23, to be exact, over the course of three Candyman movies. Though it might have been worth it. “I had a great lawyer,” he told TMZ. “A thousand dollars a pop.”

9. THE BEES WEREN’T GREAT NEWS FOR MADSEN, EITHER.

Madsen, too, had to get up close and personal with those bees—a fact that almost forced her to pass on the role. “When Bernie was first asking me to do the role I said, ‘Well, I can’t. I’m allergic to bees,’” she told HorrorNewsNetwork. “He said ‘No you’re not allergic to bees, you’re just afraid.’ So I had to go to UCLA and get tested because he didn’t believe [me]. I was tested for every kind of venom. I was far more allergic to wasps. So he said, ‘We’ll just [have] paramedics there, it will be fine!’ You know actors, we’ll do anything for a paycheck! So fine, I’ll be covered with bees.

“So we a had a bee wrangler and he pretty much told us you can’t freak out around the bees, or be nervous, or swat at them, it would just aggravate them. They used baby bees on me. They can still sting you, but are less likely. When they put the bees on me it was crazy because they have fur. They felt like little Q-tips roaming around on me. Then you have pheromones on you, so they’re all in love with you and think you’re a giant queen. I really just had to go into this Zen sort of place and the takes were very short. What took the longest was getting the bees off of us. They had this tiny ‘bee vacuum,’ which wouldn’t harm the bees. After the scene where the bees were all over my face and my head, it took both Tony and I 45 minutes just to get the bees off. That’s when it became difficult to sit still. It was cool though, I felt like a total badass doing it.”

10. PHILIP GLASS COMPOSED THE SCORE, BUT WAS DISAPPOINTED IN THE MOVIE.

When Philip Glass signed on to compose the score for Candyman, he apparently envisioned the final film being something totally different. According to Rolling Stone, “What he'd presumed would be an artful version of Clive Barker's short story ‘The Forbidden’ had ended up, in his view, a low-budget slasher.” Glass was reportedly disappointed in the film, and felt that he had been manipulated. Still, the haunting music is considered a classic score—and Glass’s own view of it seems to have softened over time. “It has become a classic, so I still make money from that score, get checks every year,” he told Variety in 2014.

11. MANY OF THE FILM'S SCENES WERE SHOT AT CABRINI-GREEN.

In 2011, the last remaining high-rise in the Cabrini-Green housing project was demolished. Over the years, the property—which opened in 1942—gained a notorious reputation around the world for being a haven for violence, drugs, gangs, and other criminal activities. While the project’s real-life history weaves its way into the narrative of Candyman, it only makes sense that Rose would want to shoot there. Which he did. But in order to gain permission to shoot there, he had to agree to cast some of the residents as extras.

“I went to Chicago on a research trip to see where it could be done and I was shown around by some people from the Illinois Film Commission and they took me to Cabrini-Green,” Rose said. “And I spent some time there and I realized that this was an incredible arena for a horror movie because it was a place of such palpable fear. And rule number one when you're making a horror movie is set it somewhere frightening. And the fear of the urban housing project, it seemed to me, was actually totally irrational because you couldn't really be in that much danger. Yes, there was crime there, but people were actually afraid of driving past it. And there was such an aura of fear around the place and I thought that was really something interesting to look into because it's sort of a kind of fear that's at the heart of modern cities. And obviously, it's racially motivated, but more than that—it's poverty motivated.”

12. THE FILM’S PRODUCERS WERE WORRIED THAT THE FILM WOULD BE CONSIDERED RACIST.

During pre-production, Candyman’s producers began to worry that the film might draw criticism for being racist, given that its villain was black and it was largely set in an infamous housing project. “I had to go and have a whole set of meetings with the NAACP, because the producers were so worried,” Rose told The Independent. “And what they said to me when they'd read the script was 'Why are we even having this meeting? You know, this is just good fun.' Their argument was 'Why shouldn't a black actor be a ghost? Why shouldn't a black actor play Freddy Krueger or Hannibal Lecter? If you're saying that they can't be, it's really perverse. This is a horror movie.'”

13. STILL, SOME FILMMAKERS COMPLAINED THAT IT WAS RACIST.

In a 1992 story in the Chicago Tribune, some high-profile black filmmakers expressed their disappointment that the film seemed to perpetuate several racist stereotypes. “There’s no question that this film plays on white middle-class fears of black people,” director Carl Franklin (Out of Time, Devil in a Blue Dress) said. “It unabashedly uses racial stereotypes and destructive myths to create shock. I found it hokey and unsettling. It didn't work for me because I don’t share those fears, buy into those myths.”

Reginald Hudlin, who directed House Party, Boomerang, and Marshall, described the film as “worrisome,” though he didn’t want to speak on the record about his specific issues with the film. “I've gotten calls about [the movie], but I think I'm going to reserve comment,” he said. “Some of my friends are in it and I may someday want to work for TriStar.”

For Rose, those assessments may have been hard to hear, as his goal in adapting Barker’s story and directing it was to upend the myths about inner cities. “[T]he tradition of oral storytelling is very much alive, especially when it's a scary story,” he told The Independent. “And the biggest urban legend of all for me was the idea that there are places in cities where you do not go, because if you go in them something dreadful will happen—not to say that there isn't danger in ghettos and inner city areas, but the exaggerated fear of them is an urban myth.”

14. IT’S STILL THE ROLE THAT MADSEN IS MOST RECOGNIZED FOR (ESPECIALLY AT AIRPORTS).

Kasi Lemmons and Virginia Madsen in 'Candyman'
PolyGram Filmed Entertainment

Though she earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination in 2005 for Alexander Payne’s Sideways, in 2012 Madsen said that Candyman is still the role she is most recognized for—especially at airports.

“More people recognize me from that movie than anything I’ve done,” she told HorrorNewsNetwork. “It means a lot to me. It was after years of struggling. As an actor, you always want a film that’s annual, like It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Story. I just love that I have a Halloween movie. Now it’s kind of legend this story. People have watched it since they were kids, and every Halloween it’s on, and they watch it now with their kids. That means a lot to me. The place I get recognized the most is the airport security for some reason. Every person in airport security has seen Candyman. Maybe it makes them a little afraid of me.”

15. THERE WAS AN ACTUAL CANDYMAN KILLER.

Though the Chicago-based legend of Candyman is a work of fiction, there was an actual serial killer known as “Candyman” or “The Candy Man.” Between 1970 and 1973, Dean Corll kidnapped, tortured, and murdered at least 28 young boys in the Houston area. Corll earned his sweet nickname from the fact that his family owned a candy factory.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise 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,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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