The Development of a Method
Johnson started very enthusiastically with his work. After the contract with the booksellers was signed in June 1746, Johnson hired Francis Stewart. He was the first of six amanuenses Johnson employed during the process of finishing the Dictionary. They were occupied with the task to copy and sort quotations. But Johnson himself had started to work more early on the project. As Johnson and Stewart officially started, Johnson had already selected a number of quotations and furthermore considered the practical and theoretical problems of the project.
The first huddle Johnson had to take, was the formation of a method to create his dictionary. Before him there were only very few dictionaries in English language that incorporated aspects of lexicography. Johnson hoped that he could learn by them, but virtually none of his predecessors left any hint or clue about their methods except the dictionaries they had written themselves. He was more or less left alone to find a practical approach to create a dictionary. Furthermore the earlier English dictionaries were far less ambiguous than Johnsonís plans.
The problem of method seemed to be solved with the publishing of The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language in 1747. Authors like Reddick assume that Johnson was preceded by Pope in the method to collect literary quotations to illustrate the meaning of words. Pope passed his small sample of quotations on to Johnson. They can be assumed as a small guidance for the work that would follow.
It seems to be quite normal that Johnson was in his first attempt very cautious and conservative as Reddick calls it. Johnson was well aware that he was about to deal with an enormous task. The French Academy which compiled a dictionary of the French language worked on their project for more than 40 years. It seems to be the fact that Johnson tried to save time by incorporating some attempts of other authors who had some experience in the field of lexicography. The two most important influences had been Nathan Bailey and Robert Ainsworth. Bailey wrote the Dictionarium Britannicum and Ainsworth the Latin Thesaurus.
Johnson used both lexicons as an outline of what he was about to compile. Within the academic world there is a huge discussion going on how much Johnson relied on both authors. Especially the role of Bailey is discussed constantly.
The reader who scrutinizes the Plan carefully will realize that the systematic order of the definitions is very close to its predecessors. But Johnson was sure that he found the solution for his problem, as he was sure that even multiple definitions could be sorted in his new system. Furthermore he believed that every included word could be illustrated by a literary quotation, like the following link, Shakespeare, shows.
It seems that Johnson expected his dictionary to more or less create itself. He thought that finding the quotations and incorporating them would be his main task. The only further intervention expected seemed to be mechanical, like systemizing the material and looking for etymologies.