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

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

The Style Terrific

From “The Idler”

THERE are men who seem to think nothing so much the characteristic of a genius as to do common things in an uncommon manner; like Hudibras, to tell the clock by algebra; or, like the lady in Dr. Young’s satires, to drink tea by stratagem; to quit the beaten track only because it is known, and take a new path, however crooked or rough, because the straight was found out before.

Every man speaks and writes with intent to be understood; and it can seldom happen but he that understands himself might convey his notions to another, if, content to be understood, he did not seek to be admired. But when once he begins to contrive how his sentiments may be received, not with most ease to his reader, but with most advantage to himself, he then transfers his consideration from words to sounds, from sentences to periods, and, as he grows more elegant, becomes less intelligible.

It is difficult to enumerate every species of authors whose labours counteract themselves: the man of exuberance and copiousness, who diffuses every thought through so many diversities of expression, that it is lost like water in a mist; the ponderous dictator of sentences, whose notions are delivered in the lump, and are, like uncoined bullion, of more weight than use; the liberal illustrator, who shows by examples and comparisons what was clearly seen when it was first proposed; and the stately son of demonstration, who proves with mathematical formality what no man has yet pretended to doubt.

There is a mode of style for which I know not that the masters of oratory have yet found a name; a style by which the most evident truths are so obscured, that they can no longer be perceived, and the most familiar propositions so disguised that they cannot be known. Every other kind of eloquence is the dress of sense; but this is the mask by which a true master of his art will so effectually conceal it, that a man will as easily mistake his own positions, if he meets them thus transformed, as he may pass in a masquerade his nearest acquaintance.

This style may be called the terrific, for its chief intention is to terrify and amaze; it may be termed the repulsive, for its natural effect is to drive away the reader; or it may be distinguished, in plain English, by the denomination of the bugbear style, for it has more terror than danger, and will appear less formidable as it is more nearly approached.

A mother tells her infant that two and two make four; the child remembers the proposition, and is able to count four to all the purpose of life, till the course of his education brings him among philosophers, who fright him from his former knowledge, by telling him that four is a certain aggregate of units; that all numbers being only the repetition of an unit, which, though not a number itself, is the parent, root, or original of all number, four is the denomination assigned to a certain number of such repetitions. The only danger is, lest, when he first hears these dreadful sounds, the pupil should run away. If he has but the courage to stay till the conclusion, he will find that, when speculation has done its worst, two and two still make four.

An illustrious example of this species of eloquence may be found in “Letters Concerning Mind.” The author begins by declaring that “the sorts of things are things that now are, have been, and shall be, and the things that strictly ARE.” In this position, except the last clause, in which he uses something of the scholastic language, there is nothing but what every man has heard, and imagines himself to know. But who would not believe that some wonderful novelty is presented to his intellect, when he is afterward told in the true bugbear style, that “the ares, in the former sense, are things that lie between the have-beens and shall-bes. The have-beens are things that are past; the shall-bes are things that are to come; and the things that ARE, in the latter sense, are things that have not been, nor shall be, nor stand in the midst of such as are before them, or shall be after them. The things that have been, and shall be, have respect to present, past, and future. Those likewise that now ARE have, moreover, place; that, for instance, which is here, that which is to the east, that which is to the west.”

All this, my dear reader, is very strange; but though it be strange, it is not new. Survey these wonderful sentences again, and they will be found to contain nothing more than very plain truths, which, till this author arose, had always been delivered in plain language.