Tuesday, June 20, 2006


A Johnson Quotation?

I subscribe to A.Word.A.Day. As an added bonus, once a week there arrives in my inbox "A Compendium of Feedback on the Words in A.Word.A.Day and Other Interesting Tidbits about Words and Languages." AWADmail Issue 214 (June 18, 2006) ended with this quotation:
A man who uses a great many words to express his meaning is like a bad marksman who, instead of aiming a single stone at an object, takes up a handful and throws at it in hopes he may hit. -Samuel Johnson, lexicographer (1709-1784)
This set off my bullshit detector. After all, if there was ever "a man who uses a great many words to express his meaning," that man was Samuel Johnson.

I don't pretend to have read every word Johnson wrote, or every word his biographers record him as saying. Nevertheless, in the words I have read, I don't remember seeing this quotation. I was glad to see my skepticism reinforced at The Samuel Johnson Sound Bite Page: Apocrypha, compiled by Frank Lynch, who says:
Haven't found this one yet, but it's not encouraging. Searches on phrases like "great many words," "bad marksman," and "handful and throws" aren't showing any hits... In fact, the only place I can find him using the word "marksman" is as a word in his Dictionary; the quotations he uses to support his definition are completely different from this one. The phrase "single stone" also only appears in his Dictionary, but in completely different contexts.
For searching, Lynch uses "Primary Source Media's CD-ROM of Johnson's works (which also includes Boswell, Piozzi, Hawkins, Burney, Hill's 'Johnsonian Miscellanies,' O.M. Brack's 'Early Biographies,' et al -- it's extremely comprehensive)."

Most modern books on writing adopt as an article of faith what I call the brevity fetish, e.g. William Zinsser, On Writing Well: An Informal Guide to Writing Nonfiction:
Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what — these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.
In a clever post, Bill Vallicella showed that Zinsser's own sentence could be reduced from 54 to 39 words with no change in meaning.

Some of my favorite authors are those who are anything but brief, whose writings are expansive and leisurely. Like Montaigne and Johnson.

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