Saturday, October 15, 2005
Joseph Wood Krutch, Samuel Johnson
, chap. V:
The sometimes introductory and sometimes parenthetical "sir" Boswell no doubt consciously established as the Johnsonian trademark by seeing to it that it occurred somewhere in most of the reported remarks, especially those of the knock-down-and-drag-out variety. But the vocable is not a mere meaningless syllable. It served Johnson only somewhat more conspicuously than it served eighteenth-century conversation in general by enabling him to speak freely without degenerating into insult. "Sir" used as an introduction to a vigorous attack means: "I acknowledge that this is a civilized gathering and that we are all ladies and gentlemen. In general, you have a claim to be treated with respect and the claim I hereby acknowledge. But you will grant me the privilege, which one gentleman grants another, of speaking frankly." To have lost, as we have, the use of such formulae is to make conversation that is at once full-blooded and civilized more difficult. It makes it harder to escape from merely vapid amiability without falling into what looks like mere rudeness.