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Samuel Johnson believed that just as pedants can abuse the objective meaning of words, distorting them for their own purposes, so can scoundrels abuse the healthy love of home and homeland, parroting patriotic words for self-serving reasons…

Can it really be true, as Mark Malvasi has claimed in two separate essays on these pages, that the great Dr. Johnson is an enemy of the efficacy of defining words?* Is it feasible that the man who spent so much of his life writing his great dictionary of the English language could think that such labours were a waste of his and everyone else’s time?

Writing of “the wisdom of Dr. Johnson,” Mr. Malvasi reaffirms the words that he claims that Dr. Johnson wrote. “Definitions,” Johnson is alleged to have written, “are tricks for pedants.” Since it struck me as odd that Dr. Johnson would have said such a thing, and since I find it unfathomably inconceivable that he could have said it in the sense in which Mr. Malvasi intends us to take it, I thought I’d try to find the exact source of the alleged quotation. I searched in vain in Dr. Johnson’s brilliant Preface to his Dictionary, which is an epic exposition of the science of etymology and of the art of defining words with exacting precision, an essay which is itself the true antidote to all of Mr. Malvasi’s arguments against the defining of words.

At a loss as to where to look next, I resorted to the modern art of googling. Searching for the quotation in question, it brings up several books by John Lukacs, in which the venerable historian quotes Dr. Johnson saying these very words. Unfortunately, Mr. Lukacs fails in any of the books to offer us a cited source for the quotation and in one of the books even admits that Dr. Johnson is only “supposed to have said” these words. This is hardly conclusive, nor is it very satisfying from a scholarly standpoint. Since I suspect that Mr. Malvasi is simply quoting Johnson’s words, having read them in one of Lukacs’s books, I find myself less convinced than ever that the great Samuel Johnson ever uttered the words. I am, however, willing to give Mr. Malvasi the benefit of the doubt and will take it in good faith that Dr. Johnson might have said these words or at least something similar. If he did so, it is inconceivable that he could have meant the words in the manner in which Mr. Malvasi contends that he meant them, simply because Mr. Malvasi’s reading of his words contradicts Dr. Johnson’s whole etymological philosophy as elucidated in the aforementioned Preface. This being so, let’s look a little closer at the words that he is alleged to have said to see if he could have said them in a manner which does not contradict his own stated view of things.

Definitions are tricks for pedants could simply mean that pedants play tricks with the meaning of words, abusing their definitive meanings to make them mean something that they don’t really mean. Since the word “trick” derives etymologically from the same root from which we get the word “treachery,” a fact which Dr. Johnson would obviously know, he is saying that pedants are traitors who betray the real meaning of words. It is not the definition which is at fault but the trick that pedants play with definitions. In short, Dr. Johnson is not saying that definitions are elusive or illusory, as Mr. Malvasi has claimed, but that they can be made to seem to be elusive or illusory by the treacherous trickery of the pedant. If anything, Dr. Johnson’s axiom can be seen to be an attack on the sort of sophistry that spawned the deconstructionism and relativism of those who deny the definitive meaning of words.

In order to illustrate the necessity of reading words and sentences closely, let’s take another of Dr. Johnson’s famous epigrams. What are we to make of his claim that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”? Unlike the alleged quotation on definitions, this maxim is at least verifiable by means of a reputable source, the words having been said by Dr. Johnson, according to James Boswell, on April 7, 1775. Do Dr. Johnson’s words indicate that patriotism is bad and that only scoundrels are patriots? No, they do not. They indicate that a certain type of disreputable person will take refuge in patriotism when all else fails. Dr. Johnson is condemning the jingoism of the warmonger, or the patriotic platitudes of the politician. Just as pedants can abuse the objective meaning of words, distorting them for their own purposes, so can scoundrels abuse the healthy love of home and homeland, parroting patriotic words for self-serving reasons.

Having rescued the venerable Dr. Johnson from the efforts of Mr. Malvasi to pressgang him into the service of the war on definition, I am confident that Dr. Johnson would be happy to rescue me from Mr. Malvasi’s efforts to berate me for doing what Dr. Johnson did much better.

“The effort to establish precise definitions has, I fear, set Mr. Pearce on an impossible errand,” writes Mr. Malvasi. “His noble but quixotic soul, on a quest to discover and secure ‘objective meaning’, may be tilting at windmills. For no two persons ever say or write precisely the same thing in precisely the same way.”

In the quest for coherence and cohesiveness, I am pleased that Dr. Johnson and I have precise definitions of words such as “impossible” and “errand,” and of adjectives such as “quixotic.” I am pleased that we can both picture the “windmills” at which Mr. Malvasi imagines us “tilting.” In short, we understand what Mr. Malvasi is saying because we possess precise definitions of the words he is using. As for Mr. Malvasi, I’d like to offer him some sage advice, not in my words but in those of the indomitable Dr. Johnson: “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant.”

*See Mr. Malvasi’s essays here and here. Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreThe Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Bravo. Our fantastic English language along with our evolving (devolving) culture is in constant change; but precise definitions allow effective, though not perfect, communication. People can choose to speak or write precisely and hopefully clearly as best they can, or use something closer to “point and grunt.”
    As I think about it, point and grunt may be more precise and clear than many vague writings.

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