Samuel Johnson was an Englishman of the 18th century whose writings had a huge impact on the English language. In turn, this means that he remains recognizable for a surprising number of people in present times, which has been helped by his appearances in pop culture. For example, Johnson has a scowling portrait painted in 1772 that has been turned into an Internet meme ready for use whenever someone is flabbergasted by what they have just read. Likewise, Johnson was an important character in an episode of the third Blackadder series, which saw the titular character scrambling to recreate Johnson’s magnum opus when he believes that he has burned the manuscript. Speaking of which, while Johnson has made a wide range of contributions to the English language, he remains best-known because of his magnum opus called A Dictionary of the English Language.
How Did Samuel Johnson Become So Important to the English Language?
For those who are curious, Johnson’s childhood wasn’t particularly happy. First, he was born when his mother was 40, which would have been a very advanced age for a woman to have a child in those times. As a result, there were serious fears that Johnson wouldn’t survive to see adulthood, so much so that a vicar was called in to perform a baptism. Second, Johnson managed to catch scrofula, which was called the King’s Evil in those times because there was a belief that members of the royalty could cure it. He was lucky enough to receive the royal touch from Queen Anne, but since that had no effect, he had to undergo an operation that resulted in permanent scarring on much of his form. Third, Johnson’s father had accumulated a huge amount of debt that had a serious impact on the family’s standard of living, which is why Johnson struggled to pay for a university education in spite of the clear signs of his keen intelligence. On top of this, it should be mentioned that Johnson started developing the tics that would trouble him for his entire lifetime at a young age, which are now believed to have been signs of Tourette syndrome. Something that wasn’t recognized in those times.
Initially, Johnson was unable to finish his schooling at Oxford because he had fallen behind on his fees. In fact, he actually left behind some of the books that he had borrowed from his father because he couldn’t afford to pay for them to be transported home, though in this, he was motivated by the hope that he would be able to return as well. Whatever the case, Johnson struggled for some time because of his difficulties in finding a steady job because of his lack of a degree, which were in addition to both physical pain and mental anguish because of years of illness. Eventually, Johnson got married to the 45-year-old widow of a friend, who provided him with a measure of financial stability because of her substantial savings.
With that said, it wasn’t until one more failure that Johnson decided to focus on his writings, which might have been because his probable Tourette syndrome made it very difficult for him to do any job that required extensive face-to-face interaction with other people. In time, he became well-known enough that he was approached by a group of publishers to write a dictionary, which he managed to complete in eight years. Said dictionary was far form being the first of its kind. Furthermore, it was sold at a very expensive price, which works out to around £350 in modern times. However, Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language nonetheless managed to become recognized as the English dictionary for a period of 173 years, which was when the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928. As a result, it had an enormous impact on English writers for that entire span of time, who in turn, would have an enormous impact on the people who followed in their footsteps.
Unfortunately, while A Dictionary of the English Language might have brought Johnson fame, it wasn’t enough to ensure happiness for the rest of his life. For instance, his wife died in 1752, which devastated Johnson because of his belief that he had neglected his wife as well as his belief that he had forced her to live in poverty. Due to this, Johnson is known to have continued lamenting her death until his own in 1784, which wasn’t helped by the loss of other friends over the course of his lifetime. Still, while Johnson might not have had the happiest life, he is nonetheless remembered as one of the all-time greats when it comes to the English language.