Happy 300th Birthday!
September 18, 2009 7:32 AM   Subscribe

Samuel Johnson was born 300 years ago today in Lichfield. Best known for his dictionary, he also edited a landmark edition of Shakespeare, wrote Lives of the Poets, and composed his Rambler and Idler essays. Among other things. Perhaps most of all, he’s remembered for being very quotable(previously). See a portrait here; or visit the house where he put together his dictionary. Want to learn more? Here's a good place to start.
posted by Man-Thing (34 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
He forgot the word sausage.

Aaaand aardvark.
posted by notmydesk at 7:36 AM on September 18, 2009

I thought he was best known for this.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:37 AM on September 18, 2009

BOSWELL. 'Sir, do you think him [Rousseau] as bad a man as Voltaire?'

JOHNSON. 'Why, Sir, it is difficult to settle the proportion of iniquity between them.'

posted by Joe Beese at 7:44 AM on September 18, 2009

Looking for my favorite Samuel Johnson anecdote, I came across this apropos quote: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
posted by DU at 7:45 AM on September 18, 2009

"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."
posted by njbradburn at 7:45 AM on September 18, 2009

Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.
posted by Dumsnill at 7:51 AM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Does his wallet say 'Bad Motherfucker' on it too?
posted by WinnipegDragon at 7:53 AM on September 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

C'mon, aardvark, people!
posted by iamkimiam at 7:56 AM on September 18, 2009

Get these m-----------ing snakes off my m-----------ing train, sirrah.
posted by DU at 7:56 AM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

My favorite is "Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome." But there's an important caveat to that one.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:57 AM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design , require that it should fix our language, and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify. When we see men grow old and die at a certain time one after another, from century to century, we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language, and secure it from corruption and decay, that it is in his power to change sublunary nature, or clear the world at once from folly, vanity, and affectation.

Ok, it's not so snappy as some of the quotes, but with one stroke of characteristic good sense, the principle which lexicographers of English have followed ever since is established.
posted by Phanx at 8:00 AM on September 18, 2009 [4 favorites]

Blackadder meets Dr Johnson. Legend.
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 8:01 AM on September 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

Wow, this is a good post full of information about a fantastically interesting man. Thanks a lot. I'm looking forward to pouring over this.

While we are quoting Dr. Johnson, I'll reference a comment I made regarding Dr. Johnson's criticism of his pupil and friend David Garrick--a great Hamlet:

Boswell to Dr. Johnson: "Would not you, sir, start as Mr. Garrick does if you saw a ghost?"
Johnson: "I hope not. If I did, I should frighten the ghost."

By the way, that walk in the link looks awesome. I love knowing there are people like that in this world. It brings a smile to my face.
posted by dios at 8:02 AM on September 18, 2009

How in god's name can a man forget about sausage?
posted by molecicco at 8:03 AM on September 18, 2009

Thanks Man-Thing! Johnson and his quotations are well loved around the house, since my flatmate is a lexicographer.
posted by honest knave at 8:11 AM on September 18, 2009

This seems to be an incredibly convenient point at which to mention the Samuel Johnson Online Exhibition which Horace Rumpole posted to projects.
posted by dubitable at 8:28 AM on September 18, 2009

Oh, poo! I was going to do a post about Horace Rumpole's exhibition!

But hooray for Samuel Johnson, anyhow.

Links I was planning to include (I'm particularly fascinated by his relationship with Hester Thrale, and it shows):
"Dr. Johnson and Mrs. Thrale," an illuminating article about their friendship, from The New Yorker.
"One Longs to Say Something," scans of books (including Boswell's Life) with marginalia by Mrs. Thrale (from the collection Horace Rumpole works with).
Wikipedia biography of Hester Thrale Piozzi.
From Thraliana on Jack Lynch's excellent website.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:47 AM on September 18, 2009

Edmund: (to Prince) Oh, well, in that case, sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the Doctor my most enthusiastic contrafribularities.

Dr. Johnson
: What?

Edmund: `Contrafribularites', sir? It is a common word down our way...

Dr. Johnson: Damn! (writes in the book)
posted by plinth at 9:04 AM on September 18, 2009

"Oats: A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people."
posted by gimonca at 9:05 AM on September 18, 2009

Haha, I was also about to post about Horace Rumpole's exhibition!

Especially since I was still smarting with shame over missing my chance to enthuse about Mr. Rumpole's Johnson, which is, I dare say, the finest Johnson one might hope to see on this side of the Atlantic....
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:11 AM on September 18, 2009

I refute Man-thing thus! *kicks Man-thing*
Sweet post, thanks.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:12 AM on September 18, 2009

He has the Twitter!

Worth the admission price* alone.

* the wrath of MeFites for mentioning Tw*tt*r
posted by mippy at 9:14 AM on September 18, 2009

Happy birthday Dr. Johnson.
posted by caddis at 9:47 AM on September 18, 2009

"If you are idle, be not solitary; If you are solitary, be not idle." Damn good advice.
posted by $0up at 10:09 AM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I shewed to Dr Johnson the post I had made on MetaFilter. He read a few lines before rising from his chair in a passion. BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, it is in your honour.' JOHNSON. 'Honour? What honour is it to a man to have his name made the common jest of rogues and Americans? None but a blockhead ever used the Internet.' BOSWELL. But, Sir, it seems the world does not agree with you, for six users have already marked my post as a favorite.' JOHNSON. 'Sir, if a lunatic were to appear in the marketplace and act the part of a Methodistical preacher, there would be no want of fools to applaud him.' Then, observing my crestfallen expression, he added in a more cordial tone: 'But this, Sir, I grant you, that Ask MetaFilter may have its uses, in making an ignorant man a pretender to knowledge.' BOSWELL. 'What, Sir, of Wikipedia?' JOHNSON. 'It may serve a purpose in putting our Scottish encyclopaedia-makers out of employment. But let it once impose itself upon the public, and farewell all dictionaries, nay, farewell all books. "Mobile mutatur semper cum principe vulgus."'

I confess I was not a little disheartened at the vigour with which my friend delivered himself of these sentiments. However, the next morning I went into Dr Johnson's room and found him seated at his table in high good humour. JOHNSON. 'Sir, I was too hasty.' BOSWELL. 'How so, Sir?' JOHNSON. 'I have been reading MetaTalk, and already I have found three new words for the next edition of my Dictionary.'

posted by verstegan at 10:17 AM on September 18, 2009 [17 favorites]

Oh, and don't forget the Johnson Dictionary blog. A word a day, for the whole year, with images from a copy of the dictionary annotated by Johnson himself. It started on 1 January with ABACKE and now, working through the alphabet, it's got as far as PICKAPACK. The famous entry for LEXICOGRAPHER can be found here.
posted by verstegan at 10:53 AM on September 18, 2009

I was about to argue that the current term for "sausage" in 18th century Britain was "pudding," so "sausage" wasn't such a grievous omission from the dictionary. But then I searched for Johnson's definition of "pudding", and found "a dish variously composed, but commonly made of meal, milk and eggs" ... though he does include a few older, sausage-like definitions too. Oh well.

So I'll just leave you with one of my favourite definitions instead:
NETWORK n.s. [net and work.] Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intervals.
posted by Pallas Athena at 11:13 AM on September 18, 2009

Thanks for this, it made my day. I grew up in Lichfield, attended his old school and my Venture Scout unit was named after the good Dr. Johnson.
posted by arcticseal at 12:49 PM on September 18, 2009

And don't forget his Touretted depressive Hester Thrale business; no sex, much sorrow.
posted by JL Sadstone at 1:49 PM on September 18, 2009

I read that as "Samuel Jackson" the first time through, which rendered the rest of the post fascinating.
posted by Aversion Therapy at 1:58 PM on September 18, 2009

You're not the first to make that mistake, AT.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:03 PM on September 18, 2009

There's a reason for all the confusion.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:10 PM on September 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

A couple of weeks ago BBC Radio 4's Great Lives covered Samuel Johnson; the contemporary guest was Boris Johnson (no relation). You can still listen on-line. (I recommend it.)
posted by NailsTheCat at 4:39 PM on September 18, 2009

Best known for his dictionary

They said that on NPR today too... but I'd have said he was best known for being the subject of Boswell's Life.

That's certainly how he first came to my attention.
posted by Jahaza at 5:37 PM on September 18, 2009

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