Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Abbreviations in Johnson's Diaries

I've been reading The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume I: Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, ed. E.L. McAdam, Jr. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958). Johnson used many abbreviations in his diaries. Some of the abbreviations are cryptic, others obvious. In Johnson's diaries the Greek letter theta (θ) stands for death or dead (Greek θάνατος, thánatos = death), and the Greek letter phi (φ) stands for friends (Greek φίλος, phílos = friend). So on Easter Day, April 4, 1779, Johnson wrote, "At the altar I commended my θ.φ." McAdams explains (p. 296), "At church on Easter Johnson commended his dead friends as usual."

On Thursday, January 10, 1765, Johnson wrote in his diary, "2 cb. M 2. Floyd, Lucy, Coxterer, Beauclerc, Langton." McAdams comments (p. 86), "On Thursday, having gone to bed at 2 ('M' is his symbol for defecation), Johnson saw a long list of people."

In the 1990s a controversy arose in the pages of The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual (abbreviated AJ) about the meaning of M, which occurs often in Johnson's diaries. Peter Martin, Samuel Johnson: A Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008), p. 87, summarizes the debate (words in square brackets added by me from Johnson's diary):
This impulse to tabulate and count, incidentally, which later became compulsive, appears to account for the appearance of a cryptic 'M' under 22 October in his 1729-34 'Diary'. If the Latin that follows [M quod feci Sept. 9 et 12 et 17. et 19 et 22 et 28 et 26.] is translated as 'Remember what I did on 9, 12, 17, 19, 22, 26 and 28 September', this would simply be an innocuous reference to what happened on those days that he either forgot to record in the diary or recorded elsewhere. Or it might mean something less savoury. One widely respected critic has urged that this 'M' refers to masturbation, others that it indicates sexual intercourse, and still others that it alludes to defecation. In the 1760s he used this 'M' more plausibly to chronicle his defecation because he was very ill then, suffering from insomnia and wishing to keep track of his bowel movements during the night. In 1729 the first two meanings may be more likely as it is certainly possible that, especially during periods of boredom in his room, he indulged in sexual fantasies. To keep a record of instances of masturbation by way of trying to control the practice, this same critic observes, is not uncommon, and it would have been a way of dealing with his guilt over it.24
Martin's note 24 on p. 536 reads:
See these articles: Donald Greene, 'A Secret Far Dearer to Him Than His Life: Johnson's "Vile Melancholy" Reconsidered', AJ, 4 (1991): 1-40; Barry Baldwin, 'The Mysterious Letter "M" in Johnson's Diaries', AJ, 6 (1994): 131-145; J.D. Fleeman, 'Johnson's Secret', AJ, 6 (1994): 147-149; and Aaron Stavisky, 'Johnson's "Vile Melancholy" Reconsidered Once More', AJ 10, (1998): 1-24.
In the introduction to his Life of Johnson, Boswell wrote:
I remain firm and confident in my opinion, that minute particulars are frequently characteristic, and always amusing, when they relate to a distinguished man. I am therefore exceedingly unwilling that any thing, however slight, which my illustrious friend thought it worth his while to express, with any degree of point, should perish. For this almost superstitious reverence, I have found very old and venerable authority, quoted by our great modern prelate, Seeker, in whose tenth sermon there is the following passage:

"Rabbi David Kimchi, a noted Jewish commentator, who lived about five hundred years ago, explains that passage in the first Psalm, His leaf also shall not wither, from Rabbins yet older than himself, thus; That even the idle talk, so he expresses it, of a good man ought to be regarded; the most superfluous things he saith are always of some value. And other ancient authors have the same phrase, nearly in the same sense."
Boswell, Seeker, and Kimchi of course meant the "minute particulars" of a great man's public conversation, but my fascination about Johnson's life extends to what he wrote in his private diaries, and even to what he did on Thursday, January 10, 1765.

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