Archives & Special Collections Gallery Exhibit




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Creation Date

Fall 2014


Artifact Label:

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
A Dictionary of the English Language
London: Printed for W. Strahan, 1778

In chapter 104, “The Fossil Whale,” Ishmael self-consciously addresses his efforts to define the whale, explaining that “when Leviathan is the text” more than trivial words are required: “Fain am I to stagger to this enterprise under the weightiest words of the dictionary. And here be it said, that whenever it has been convenient to consult one in the course of these dissertations, I have invariably used a huge quarto edition of Johnson, expressly purchased for that purpose; because that famous lexicographer's uncommon personal bulk more fitted him to compile a lexicon to be used by a whale author like me.”

The whale is a fish?

Notice that Johnson defines the whale as a fish. First appearing in 1755, Johnson’s dictionary was published prior to the whale being determined a mammal. Interestingly, Ishmael too defines the whale as a fish: “Be it known that, waiving all argument, I take the good old fashioned ground that the whale is a fish.”

Mary Mahl Collection