About The Joy of English

Johnson's Dictionary: The English Long S Explained


I was prompted to compile this page after I began publishing the HTML version of Dr Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English language from 1755.

Being a book published in the mid-1700s, this dictionary features particular orthographic forms that differ from what we are used to today. There were various ligatures that were common around this time, most of which were purely stylistic (joined ct, fi, fl etc) rather than actual ligature letters (fused æ and œ etc).

The most noticeable things about reading Johnson's Dictionary is going to be the English long s. which looks like an f rather than that s we know today. Similarly, the long s takes a different form when italicised and looks like ʃ.

Also noticeable will be the two interchangeable letters i and j, as well as u and v. This is why these appear as two sections (i/j and u/v) in the dictionary rather than the modern four of today.


English long s

As you can see from these 18th-century chiselled gravestones, the f (left) and long s (right, between i and h) are distinctly different.


How and when the long s is used

Now, before we delve deeper into the long s we must remember that the letter form S and s still existed – they just weren't used all of the time. Therefore, there were rules for using f instead of s eto Let's take a look.


First, f was used only as a lowercase letter.

So, CAST still had a normal S but in lowercase form looked like caſt.

Next, to use the long s correctly we need to know both when to use it and when not to use it. This all depends on what letters come before or after it.


Second, do not use the long s directly before after the letter f (eff).

This makes sense because f + s would look like ff, which is a form that is reserved for only s+s, i.e. ff, as in miſſion (mission). Therefore, when s followed f it looked like it does today, fs, as in croffs [not cofff].

The same problem occured with s appearing in front of f, so again it was rendered sf, not ff, for reasons we just saw.


Examples of words featuring a long s

The best way to discover the long s from here is to dive right in and look at some examples found in the dictionary:


buſhels (bushels), ſweet (sweet), sorrowfulneſs (sorrowfulness), mournfulneſs (mournfulness), ſecurity (security), faint (saint), poiſonous (poisonous), ſuperiority (superiority), practiſed (practised), ſpittle (spittle), taft (taste), fack (sack), ſuſceptive (susceptive), receſs (recess), ſhow (show), excuſe (excuse), wholſomeneſs (wholesomeness), kifs ſkiss), glaffmen (glassmen), poſſible (possible), fand (sand), fap (sap), ftimulating (stimulating), ſilk (silk), ftuffing (stuffing), ſuch (such), ſuſpenfe (suspense), ſatires (satires), ſchoolboys (schoolboys), diſtinction (distinction), fulneſs (fulness), Engliſh (English), huſband ſhusband), againſt (against), eſcape (escape), evaſion (evasion), inciſions (incisions), ſhoe (shoe), syftem (system), diſtreſs (distress), elſe (else), ſubject (subject)


You will no doubt have made some observations by scrutinising this liststrangely endearing spellings and made some conclusions of your own.

Let's start with words beginning with s. Not every word beginning with an s had the form of a long s all of the time. For instance, we learnt above that capital S never goes long. Thus:

Song for my child.

is correct

He will fing a ſong.

is also correct.


Similarly, proper nouns never started with a long s because, say, Saxon begins with a capital. It would never be faxon. Therefore, any sentence beginning with S actually did start with S, not f.


More of this to come in part two. In the next part we will difect, sorry, disect these rules some more as learn about the orthographic difference between f and long s. (I have used a simple f [eff] for all examples above but will next look at how they actually differ in form.)