Julian Lass


Johnson's Kettle

The name of pot is given to the boiler that grows narrower towards the top, and of kettle to that which grows wider. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, 1755.

Kettle: Common Germanic: Old English cetel = Old Saxon ketel Old High German kettiil (German kessel), probably Latin catillus, diminutive of catnus a food-vessel.

Legend has it that Samuel Johnson bought a kettle while he wrote his Dictionary in Gough Square, London, from 1746 to 1755. Normally, Johnson would mark a passage in a book to be used as a quotation for his Dictionary, and an amanuensis would then copy out the passage onto a slip of paper. These were then filed alphabetically. The idea was that the quotations would be collated and Johnson would go back and write in his definitions and etymologies afterwards. But in the case of the kettle, Johnson described the actual kettle used in his kitchen. In Johnson's Kettle, Julian Lass and a team of conservators burrowed into a long walled-off cupboard of the kitchen hoping to discover the whereabouts of the infamous kettle described in the Dictionary. A voiceover recounts an incident in 1759 when, after his amanuensis approached his desk, bared his breast, and mocked him, declaring him dead as an institution, a humiliated Johnson left the room, clasping his kettle.

Johnson’s ‘pot that grows narrower towards the top’ has never been found.