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Boswell and Dictionary Johnson (2)

The second of three entries.

Since the mid-eighteenth century, our language has changed. I get a kick out of some of the expressions from those days. Boswell doesn’t say that he shook hands with Johnson, or that the two of them shook hands, but rather that Johnson “shook me by the hand.” I imagine Johnson literally shaking him, as if in a cartoon, until the coins fall out of his pockets.

People drink a lot nowadays, but I suspect that people drank even more in those days.

Boswell and Johnson “had a good supper, and port wine, of which he then sometimes drank a bottle.“

“We finished a couple of bottles of port, and sat still between one and two in the morning.”

At this time, Boswell is in his twenties, while Johnson is in his fifties. Boswell is not yet used to the lifestyle.

When Boswell complains to a friend that “drinking port and sitting up late with [Dr. Johnson] affected my nerves for some time after,” the friend replies that “one had better be palsied at eighteen than not keep company with such a man.”

Johnson (far right) holds forth.

Johnson himself confesses to being “distrest by melancholy,” which obliges him to “fly from study and meditation, to the dissipating variety of life.”

It’s funny how, when you take notice of a particular word, that word seems to magically show up again and again. Boswell frequently mentions “dissipation.” The thickest of my dictionaries provides the following definition, among others, for dissipate: “to be extravagant or dissolute in the pursuit of physical pleasure; esp : to drink alcoholic beverages excessively 'paying with a hangover for his extended dissipating of the night before'” The day before yesterday, on the radio show, I played Eartha Kitt singing “I Want to be Evil,” which contains the line, “I want to see some dissipation in my face.”

Here is a nice turn of phrase. Johnson stays up late drinking and talking because of his “unwillingness to go into solitude, before that unreasonable hour at which he had habituated himself to expect the oblivion of repose.”



May 2019



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