Sunday, 17 April 2005

The Great Cham

This year is the 250th anniversary of the publication of Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary, which was to define our language for the next 150 years. An admirable anthology of selections from the dictionary was published a couple of years ago, and there is a new book about it just out.

After Shakespeare, Dr Johnson is the second most quoted person in the English language. Some 1,800 of his sayings are collected here, most of them expressive of his wit and erudition and not a few of them demonstrating a degree of misanthropy or at least curmudgeonliness.

There is one, however, which shows none of these characteristics and indeed suggests that, sharp tongue or no, he might have been a lovable old buffer. Unfortunately I cannot remember where I first heard it, and I have not found it listed anywhere, so it could well be apocryphal*:
He was at the height of his powers and his fame made him the most desirable guest imaginable; having him accept an invitation to dinner was an enormous honour. On one occasion the distinguished guests gathered with him round the table were excited at the prospect of hearing some new and sparkling aphorism fall from his lips. But he was not in a talkative mood and chomped his way grumpily through the meal, responding with grunts and monosyllables to all attempts to engage him in conversation.

This was very disappointing, but when the meal was over he appeared to be in a better humour. He wiped his face with his napkin (he was a messy eater), turned to his hostess and cleared his throat. Everyone leaned forward so as not to miss the wise or witty pronouncement which the great man was surely about to make….

A very fine pud, ma’am”, he said.

* Jack Lynch, the world's leading authority on Johnson, has kindly written to advise me that he's fairly sure that the story is indeed one of the "many hundreds" of apocryphal stories about the great man. Pity; but I shall go on repeating it.

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