I read in "The life of Samuel Johnson" and see this sentence:

On Saturday, July 9, I found Johnson surrounded with a numerous levee, but have not preserved any part of his conversation.

I look up in Oxford dictionary about meaning of "levee", I see "levee" is a low wall built at the side of a river to prevent it from flooding.

I think "levee" in this context of this book does not that meaning. Can you explain meaning of it? I think it has a different mean in 17 centuries.

4 Answers 4


A probable meaning:

any miscellaneous gathering of guests, 1672.

(Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc.)



This might go like this

a formal reception of visitors or guests (as at a royal court)

[CITE] https://www.thefreedictionary.com/levee

  • Are you sure that this is what levée means in French? It seems to me that it means the act of the postman collect somebody's mail. See Larousse. Commented May 31, 2019 at 10:22
  • @PeterShor I'm really sorry, I was just taken away with the idiomatic meaning of the context. I have updated the answer and the reference. Thanks for pointing out.
    – Tauriel
    Commented May 31, 2019 at 10:56

The Oxford Dictionary entry for levee has two definitions. One is the flood bank and the other is:

(American achaic) A formal reception of visitors or guests.

With the sub definitions of

(Historical) An afternoon assembly for men held by the British monarch or their representative.


A reception of visitors just after rising from bed.

Given that this is from Boswell's Life of Johnson and that the flood bank definition is unlikely I think we can accept one of the last two as being the intended one.

The reference to not preserving his conversation means that Boswell did not write down anything that Johnson said.

  • I'm guessing that, by the late 1700s, the two definitions had merged somewhat, in a metaphorical sense. A notable person, such as Johnson, would tend to gather a crowd of admirers around him in any open social gathering, and this would provide something akin to a "levee" of protection (from annoying people such as Boswell) around him.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 1, 2019 at 20:05
  • @HotLicks According to the OED entry the 'reception' meaning originated in the 17th century and was used in England but the 'mud bank' meaning is from 18th century America. Both meanings come from French, of course, and are, I suspect, independent of each other. Also a mud bank flood defence isn't as commonly called a 'levee' in Br English, it tends to be called a 'bank' or a 'dyke'. Calling something a 'dyke' can be confusing in Br English as it can refer both to a bank and to a ditch.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 17:19
  • I'm thinking I've seen "levee" used, in older works, in the sense not so much as "floodwall", but as a guard against waves or possibly boats -- sort of a dock without top planking. But of course I can't point to an example.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 2, 2019 at 18:20

It means he was surrounded by a bunch of visitors.

The French word levée means the act of rising or lifting, and its first meaning in English was that of getting out of bed. It then acquired other meanings, the meaning 2c or 3 below being the meaning Boswell intended. From the OED:

2a. A reception of visitors on rising from bed; a morning assembly held by a prince or person of distinction.

2b. In Great Britain and Ireland, an assembly held (in the early afternoon) by the sovereign or his representative, at which men only are received.

2c. A miscellaneous assemblage of visitors, irrespective of the time of day.

 3. The company assembled at a levee; attendance of visitors. Obsolete.

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