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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a small carnivorous mammal, similar to a weasel, but with a characteristic black-tipped tail

stoat on muddy ground

The fact that in his Dictionary of the English Language Samuel Johnson defined a stoat as “a small, stinking animal” ended up one of this week’s most popular HH tweets. But it wasn’t just the poor old stoat that came out of Johnson’s Dictionary a little worse for wear.

A writer and author of some renown even before he turned his hand to lexicography, Samuel Johnson’s razor-sharp wit was the stuff of legend—and when it came to compiling his landmark dictionary, he wasn’t afraid to bring more than a touch of his own character and sense of humour to what might otherwise be a fairly dry and academic project.

As a result, oats were famously defined by Johnson as “a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”

A politician was defined as a “man of artifice”, while a distiller was “one who makes and sells pernicious and inflammatory spirits.”

A patron was “a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery”, while a pension was “pay given to a state hireling for treason to his country”. The adjective scurrilous was defined as “using such language as only the licence of a buffoon can warrant”.

And luggage, quite wisely, was said to refer to “any thing cumbrous and unwieldy that is to be carried away”—or put another way, “any thing of more weight than value.”


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