Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson – a short biography for advanced learners of English

Samuel Johnson was born on 18th September, 1709 in Breadmarket Street, Lichfield in Staffordshire, England.  He was the son of a bookseller and his childhood was spoiled* by poverty* and illness.  A brilliant man, Samuel Johnson overcame his difficulties and became the author of one of the most famous English dictionaries in the world, ‘Dictionary of the English Language.’  He was a man determined to succeed. This is his story.

Samuel Johnson The English Tower


Early life

Samuel Johnson was born into a poor family.  His father was a bookseller with financial problems.  Johnson became ill as a baby, possibly tuberculosis, and he developed hearing difficulties and poor eyesight.  His love of books began early in life as he spent time reading in his father’s bookshop.  He went to a local Grammar School* and managed to get a place at the prestigious* Oxford University.  He attended Pembroke College, Oxford for one year but had to leave as his parents could not afford* to pay for his tuition anymore.

Suffering from pain and depression, Johnson returned home to Lichfield.  Without a degree, he found it difficult to get a teaching job.  Eventually, he was given a job at a school at Market Bosworth.  However, he was treated as a servant and after a few months and an argument with the Headmaster, Johnson left the school and returned to Lichfield.  His father had died a few months earlier.

Johnson wrote poetry but had to earn money through journalism and translating.  He was offered a position at the Birmingham Journal where he translated many French and Latin texts.  In 1735, he married the widow* of a friend.  Many people were opposed* to the marriage because the bride, Elizabeth Porter, known as Tetty, was 20 years older than Johnson.  One of her three children never spoke to her again. 

Tetty had some money and decided, with Johnson, to open a school in Lichfield.  Sadly, the school failed very quickly.  It was open for only a few months.  Johnson walked to London to try to find work.  He took with him a pupil, David Garrick, who would become a famous actor and later give his name to the Garrick Theatre, London.

Birth of a dictionary

In London, Johnson found a little work writing pamphlets and essays but spent many years in poverty.  He often walked the streets all night because he could not afford a room.  However, in 1746 he was asked by a group of publishers to produce a dictionary of English.  It took Johnson nearly nine years to complete.  It contained a list of 40,000 words and 114,000 quotations from literary and scientific works.  Johnson’s sense of humour can be seen in the dictionary, for example,

Dull: Not exhilarating; not delightful; as, ‘to make dictionaries is dull work’.

Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.

Johnson’s ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’


The dictionary was finally published in 1755 but Johnson did not receive much money.  Whilst writing the dictionary, Johnson’s wife, Tetty, had become ill and died, leaving Johnson bereft*.  He felt guilty about their life of poverty together.  It was not until 1762 that Johnson was awarded a pension of £300 a year by King George III.  Before then, however, Johnson had been arrested on several occasions because of debt*.


Johnson had friends of influence and money who helped him pay his debts when he was arrested. He was friends with artists and writers and in 1763, he met his future biographer, James Boswell.  One friend asked Johnson to take a Jamaican, former slave, Francis Barber.  Johnson, a strong opponent* to slavery, agreed and took Barber and his family in to his home where Barber worked as a valet*. 

Johnson left Barber an annual sum of £70 in his will*. Johnson’s biographer, Boswell, relied much on Barber for information about Johnson’s life, particularly his years of depression after the death of his wife. Barber used the money he had inherited to leave London and move to Lichfield where he opened a school.  However, he was forced to sell Johnson’s books and possessions because of debt. He died a poor man in hospital after a failed operation.

Final years

Johnson’s own final years were not much better.  He fell in love with his friend, English Member of Parliament, Henry Thrale’s wife, Hestor.  After the death of her husband, Hestor sold the family home.  The home shared by her family and Johnson.  Hestor later married an Italian singing teacher, leaving Johnson, once again, bereft.

Johnson struggled with depression and poverty throughout much of his life.  However, he was a man of great character and determination.  He said of his work Few things are impossible to diligence* and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance*.’ He was greatly respected and admired by his peers and friends.  He leaves a large collection of work such as, poems, sermons, essays, biographies, a collection of the works of Shakespeare, and, of course, his magnum opus, A Dictionary of the English Language.

Samuel Johnson died on 13th December 1784 and is buried at Westminster Abbey in London.


Some Samuel Johnson quotes:


When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.


Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.


Talking about second marriages: the triumph of hope over experience.


The use of travelling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.


Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.


The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.


Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome.


Vocabulary check

Spoiled: to stop something from being enjoyable or successful

Poverty: the state of being very poor

Grammar Schools:a school in which the learned languages are grammatically taught’ according to Johnson’s 1755 ‘A Dictionary of the English Language’.  However, grammar schools are different today.   In the UK, they are state schools that require students to pass an entrance exam.

Prestigious: respected and admired, usually because it is thought of as important

Afford: to have enough money to pay for something or do something

Widow: a woman whose husband has died (a man whose wife has died is a ‘widower’)

Opposed: to be opposed to something is to disagree with something, to believe it is wrong or a very bad idea

Bereft: Not having something, or feeling great loss

Opponent: A person who disagrees with something or somebody, or is against them and tries to change something

Valet: someone who is a male servant to a rich person

Diligence: Working in a careful, serious and determined way

Perseverance: Continuing to do something, despite difficulties


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