Born in Derbyshire, Bosworth was educated at Repton School and at the University of Aberdeen. In 1817 he became vicar of Little Horwood, Buckinghamshire, and devoted his spare time to literature and particularly to the study of Anglo-Saxon.
In 1829, Bosworth went to Holland as a chaplain, first in Amsterdam and then in Rotterdam. In 1831, the degree of Ph.D. was conferred on him by the university of Leyden. In 1834, he took at Cambridge the degree of B. D. He remained in Holland until 1840, working on his A Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language (1838), his best-known work. Thomas Northcote Toller later compiled a new edition of the dictionary based on Bosworth's work, both printed and in manuscript, and added a supplement (2 vols. 1898-1921).
In 1857 Bosworth became rector of Water Stratford, Buckinghamshire, and in the following year was appointed Rawlinsonian Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. He gave £10,000 to the University of Cambridge in 1867 for the establishment of a professorship of Anglo-Saxon. He died leaving behind him a mass of annotations on the Anglo-Saxon charters. He was buried in Water Stratford churchyard.
Bosworth was succeeded by John Earle (1824–1903) and Arthur Sampson Napier (1853–1916). In 1916, the chair was renamed to Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in honour of Bosworth, the first "Rawlinson and Bosworth" professor being Sir William Alexander Craigie (1867–1957), who in 1925 moved to a post at the University of Chicago (in order to work on his Dictionary of American English) and was succeeded by J. R. R. Tolkien.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Bradley, Henry (1886). "Bosworth, Joseph". In Stephen, Leslie. Dictionary of National Biography 5. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- His writings at the Internet Archive
- An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, scanned page images and OCRed text. From the Germanic Lexicon Project.
- An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, scanned page images. Digitized under the direction of Sean Crist.
- A Downloadable version of "An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary"
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