Samuel Johnson: 5 Things You May Not Know About Him

Samuel Johnson became famous after publishing the Dictionary of the English Language. It all began in 1746 when a group of publishers approached him to write the dictionary, which was one of the first. Johnson also committed to finish the dictionary in three years, but it took nine years to write and was not published until 1755. Because of it, Trinity College awarded him a doctorate and thereafter he was known as Dr. Johnson.

Samuel Johnson, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After it was published, Johnson did not become rich for all his hard work, and “the reward of his labour was only fifteen hundred and seventy-five pounds.”[1] This was because “no royal or noble patron extended a munificent … to the man who had conferred stability on the language of his country … [and] when the expense of amanuenses, and paper and other articles, [were] deducted, his clear profit was very inconsiderable.”[2] Moreover, in 1756, Johnson was arrested for an outstanding debt and eventually wrote to the publisher Samuel Richardson, who loaned him six guineas, after which the two became friends.

There are also five other interesting things about Dr. Samuel Johnson. These include his opinion of the Scottish race, his illnesses, his odd behavior, his love for his wife, and his tea drinking.

One thing  Johnson was readily known for was his sharp wit, amusing sayings, and dislike of everything Scottish. This resulted in several anecdotes. The first anecdote is related to Johnson’s dictionary. In it he wrote a tongue-in-cheek explanation of the word oats, stating, “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses [but in Scotland appears to support the people].”[3]

Another anecdote involves Johnson’s famous Scottish biographer, James Boswell, 9th Laird of Auchinleck. Dr. Samuel Johnson knew Boswell was from Scotland and “knowing the lexicographer’s dislike of that country, said apologetically [upon their first meeting], ‘I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it,’ Johnson replied, ‘That, sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.’”[4]

James Boswell, Courtesy of Wikipedia

James Boswell. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The last anecdote involves the Scottish poet, Reverend John Ogilvie. Upon meeting Johnson for the first time, Ogilvie unfortunately chose the topic of his own country. He remarked that Scotland had a great many noble wild prospects whereupon

“Johnson ‘tossed him,’ as Boswell called it … ‘I believe, sir, you have a great many. Norway, too, has noble wild prospects, and Lapland is remarkable for prodigious noble wild prospects. But, sir, let me tell you, the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the highroad that leads him to England!’”[5]

In childhood, Johnson develop scrofula, known at the time as the King’s Evil, which is today called Mycobacterial Cervical Lymphadenitis. To effect a cure, his physician, a former physician to King Charles II, insisted he receive the “royal touch” — a belief that a monarch’s touch could cure various diseases or conditions. Johnson was touched on 30 March 1712  at St James’s Palace by Queen Anne. Unfortunately, the Queen’s touch did not cure him. He later underwent surgery and thereafter suffered from long scars on his face and body.

Anne of Great Britain, Author's Collection

Anne of Great Britain. Author’s collection.

Dr. Samuel Johnson claimed he always retained a memory of his trip to see the Queen. His memories included “a lady in diamonds, and a long black hood … [and] a boy crying at the palace.”[6] Later, when he and his mother were at the famous bookseller in Little Britain called Nicholson, he reported:

“[There was] a little dark room behind the kitchen, where the jack-weight fell through a hole in the floor, into which I once slipped my legs … We went in the stage-coach, and returned in the waggon, as my mother said, because my cough was violent. The hope of saving a few shillings was no slight motive; for she, not having been accustomed to money, was afraid of such expenses as now seem very small. She sewed two guineas in her petticoat, lest she should be robbed.”[7]

Johnson had many other health problems, but the most interesting problem was his tics, gesticulations, and odd behavior. These began when he was about five years old and would influence how eighteenth-century people viewed him. Boswell described them in his biography, stating:

“While talking or even musing as he sat in his chair, he commonly held his head to one side towards his right shoulder, and shook it in a tremulous manner, moving his body backwards and forwards, and rubbing his left knee in the same direction with the palm of his hand. In the intervals of articulating he made various sounds with his mouth; sometimes as if ruminating, or what is called, chewing the cud, sometimes giving a half whistle, sometimes making his tongue play backwards from the roof of his mouth as if clucking like a hen, and sometimes protruding it against his upper gums in front, as if pronouncing quickly under his breath, too, too, too; all this accompanied sometimes with a thoughtful look but more frequently with a smile.”[8]

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s odd tics and gesticulations did not prevent him from marrying. In 1732, he met Henry Porter and his wife, Elizabeth Jervis Porter, known “under the familiar appellation of Tetty or Tetsy, which … is provincially used as a contraction for Elizabeth.”[9] After Henry’s death in 1734, Johnson began to court Tetty, despite a 21-year difference in their ages (she was 46 and he was 25), and they married on 9 July 1735.

Elizabeth Jervis Porter, Courtesy of Wikipeda

Elizabeth Jervis Porter. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tetty died in March of 1752 and he was said to have loved his wife in a way that “was unimpaired by the lapse of time.”[10] A year later on the anniversary of her death, Johnson noted:

“I know not whether I do not too much indulge the vain longings of affection; but I hope they intenerate [sic] my heart, and that when I die like my Tetty, this affection will be acknowledge in a happy interview.”[11]

There were other notations demonstrating his love for her. For instance, he once wrote, “Thought on Tetty, dear, poor Tetty, with my eyes full.”[12] Johnson also preserved her wedding ring by placing it in a little round wooden box with a paper that inscribed her name, the date of their marriage, and the date of her death.

Besides loving his wife, Dr. Samuel Johnson also loved tea and was said to be “the prince of tea-drinkers,” just like Napoleon Bonaparte or Voltaire were obsessed with drinking coffee. It was also claimed that Johnson drank as many as sixteen to twenty-five cups of tea in one sitting. He once described himself in the following fashion:

“[A] hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who has for many years diluted … meals with only the infusion of this fascinating plant; whose kettle has scarcely time to cool; who with tea amuses the evening, with tea solaces the midnights, and with tea welcomes the morning.”[13]

Samuel Johnson, Author's Collection

Dr. Samuel Johnson. Author’s collection.

In fact, he enjoyed a steaming cup so frequently he once extemporaneous spouted the following rhyme to the famous British diarist, Hester Thrale:

“And now, I pray thee, Hetty dear,

That thou wilt give to me,

With cream and sugar soften’d well,

Another dish of tea.

But hear, alas! this mournful truth,

Nor hear it with a frown, —

Thou canst not make the tea so fast,

As I can gulp it down.”[14]

Samuel Johnson - Hester Thrale by Joshua Reynolds, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Hester Thrale by Joshua Reynolds. Courtesy of Wikipedia.


  • [1] Boswell, James, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1853, p. 100.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 99-100.
  • [3] Ibid., p. 97.
  • [4] Familiar Short Saying of Great Men, 1887, p. 293.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D, 1791, p. 12.
  • [7] Boswell, James, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL. D, 1846, p. 15.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 215.
  • [9] Boswell, James, 1791, p. 46.
  • [10] Ibid., p. 128.
  • [11] Ibid.
  • [12] Boswell, James, 1846, p. 213.
  • [13] Boswell, James, 1853, p. 105.
  • [14] Leigh Hunt, The Seer, 1850, p. 24.

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