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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)


DAVIES, the bookseller, on seeing Johnson coming in, said he would introduce Boswell, who was drinking tea with Davies and his wife.

“Don’t tell him where I come from,” said Boswell.

“Mr. Boswell, from Scotland,” said Davies roguishly.

“Mr. Johnson,” said Boswell, in apologetic tone, “I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it.”

“That, sir,” said Johnson, who took the Scotticism as meaning that he had left his native country, not that he merely belonged to it by birth—“that, sir, I find, is what a great many of your countrymen cannot help!”

Boswell entertained Johnson at the Mitre Tavern, and had among his guests Mr. Ogilvie, a fellow-Scotchman, who had written a poem. He asked Johnson’s permission to introduce him. “Certainly,” said the doctor, with sly pleasantry, adding, “but he must give us none of his poetry.” Ogilvie was unlucky enough to choose for his topic of conversation the praises of his native land. He thought he was safe in saying that Scotland had a great many noble, wild prospects. “I believe, sir,” said Johnson, “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 can see is the high road that leads him to England.”

Boswell said that “drinking drives away care, and makes us forget whatever is disagreeable. Would you not allow a man to drink for that reason?” “Yes, sir,” said Johnson, “if he sat next to you.”

A gentleman told Johnson that a friend, looking into his dictionary, could not find the word ocean. “Not find ocean?” said the lexicographer, stalking into the library to see if he had possibly made the omission; and then rapidly turning the leaves, pointed triumphantly to the word: “There, sir; there is ocean! But never mind it, sir; perhaps your friend spells ocean with an s.”

“While Johnson was arguing,” says Parr, “I observed that he stamped. Upon this I stamped. Dr. Johnson said, ‘Why did you stamp, Dr. Parr?’ I replied, ‘Sir, because you stamped; and I was resolved not to give you the advantage even of a stamp in the argument.’”

“There is no private house in which people can enjoy themselves so well as at a capital tavern. Let there be ever so great plenty of good things, ever so much grandeur, ever so much elegance, ever so much desire that everybody should be easy, in the nature of things it cannot be: there must always be some degree of care and anxiety. The master of the house is anxious to entertain his guests—the guests are anxious to be agreeable to him; and no man, but a very impudent dog indeed, can as freely command what is in another man’s house as if it was his own. Whereas, at a tavern, there is a general freedom from anxiety. You are sure you are welcome; and the more noise you make, the more trouble you give, the more good things you call for, the welcomer you are. No servants will attend you with the alacrity which waiters do, who are incited by the prospect of an immediate reward in proportion as they please. No, sir, there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn.”

Although Johnson had a great regard for Garrick personally, he often spoke with contempt of his profession. Boswell said, “Surely, sir, we respect a great player as a man who can conceive lofty sentiments and can express them gracefully.” Johnson: “What, sir; a fellow who claps a hump upon his back and a lump on his leg, and cries, ‘I am Richard the Third’? Nay, sir, a ballad singer is a higher man, for he does two things: he repeats and he sings. There is both recitation and music in his performance; the player only recites.” Boswell argued that Garrick must have high excellence, as he had made £100,000. Johnson: “Is getting £100,000 a proof of excellence? That has been done by a scoundrel commissary.”

In conversation with a very talkative lady, of whom he appeared to take little notice: “Why, doctor,” she said, “I believe you prefer the company of men to that of the ladies.” “Madam,” he replied, “I am very fond of the company of ladies; I like their beauty, I like their delicacy, I like their vivacity, and I like their silence.”

Johnson had been arguing with an opponent who happened to say, “I don’t understand you, sir.” On which the doctor observed, “Sir, I have found you an argument, but I am not obliged to find you an understanding.”

Of a naturalist who had discoursed largely on the natural history of the mouse, he said, “I wonder what the fellow would have said if he had ever had the luck to see a lion!”