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A Whining Pretension to Goodness

October 17, 2013

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A Whining Pretension to Goodness

I had to smile the other day on finding out about the “repurposing” of a favorite quote.

The quote is from Dr. Johnson, one of the most quotable men that ever lived. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations—the good 1955 edition, not the crappy later ones—gives Johnson 91/2 pages: not in the same league as Shakespeare (66 pages) or the King James Bible (281/2), but competitive with Tennyson (14), the Book of Common Prayer (131/2), Milton (13), and Kipling (103/4).

The quote is from a conversation Johnson had in his chambers with James Boswell on May 15th, 1783, which Boswell of course recorded in his diary. Johnson was 73 years old; Boswell, 42.

Boswell expresses a wish to go into Parliament but wonders if it would make him less happy because he might “be vexed if things went wrong.” Johnson pooh-poohs that, saying Boswell would be no more vexed as a legislator than he would be as a common citizen, adding: “Publick affairs vex no man.”

Boswell counters that he thought Johnson had sometimes expressed vexation over politics. Johnson ripostes: “I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed.”

“Practically anything you read or hear about racism, sexism, and homophobia is cant.”

Here you have to go to Johnson’s Dictionary to understand his precise meaning. This was a man obsessively precise about the meaning of words.

To VEX: (1) To plague; to torment; to harass. (2) To disturb; to disquiet. (3) To trouble with slight provocations.

Boswell says he’d imagined himself vexed by politics: “But it was perhaps cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less.”

Then comes the quote I cherish.

Says the sage: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant….You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in society: but don’t think foolishly.”

The italics in that opening commandment are absolutely necessary, as the rest make clear. Johnson did not object to people speaking insincerely for the purpose of lubricating social exchanges. Most of us agree with him on this, and the few who don’t are annoying and unpersuasive.

Well, the other day I Googled “clear your mind of cant,” for some reason I’ve forgotten, and learned that it has been repurposed to a motivational motto. There are instances here, here, and here.

What’s happened there is that Johnson’s word “cant” has been mistakenly read as, or deliberately transformed into “can’t” with an apostrophe, making it motivational: “Clear your mind of CAN’T!”

I wish I knew how many of the numerous instances of repurposing I found are mistakenly read versus how many are deliberately transformed. I darkly suspect that most are the former, and that the very useful and expressive word “cant” is less and less understood. Ngram confirms that usage has fallen off, showing “cant” as four times more frequent in 1800 than in 2000 (though there was an encouraging uptick from 1996 to 2008). An averagely educated English speaker of our time, seeing the word “cant,” probably assumes that the apostrophe was accidentally dropped from “can’t.”


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