18th century chitchat at Samuel Johnson's table

SIR A [Alexander Macdonald]: "I think, Sir, almost all great lawyers, such at least as have written upon law, have known only law, and nothing else."

JOHNSON: "Why no, Sir; Judge Hale was a great lawyer, and wrote upon law; and yet he knew a great many other things; and has written upon other things. Selden too."

SIR A: "Very true, Sir; and Lord Bacon. But was not Lord Coke a mere lawyer?"

JOHNSON: "Why, I am afraid he was; but he would have taken it very ill if you had told him so. He would have prosecuted you for scandal."

BOSWELL: "Lord Mansfield is not a mere lawyer."

JOHNSON: "No, Sir. I never was in Lord Mansfield's company; but Lord Mansfield was distinguished at the University. Lord Mansfield, when he first came to town, 'drank champagne with the wits,' as Prior says. He was the friend of Pope."

SIR A: "Barristers, I believe, are not so abusive now as they were formerly. I fancy they had less law long ago, and so were obliged to take to abuse, to fill up the time. Now they have such a number of precedents, they have no occasion for abuse."

JOHNSON: "Nay, Sir, they had more law long ago than they have now. As to precedents, to be sure they will increase in course of time; but the more precedents there are, the less occasion is there for law; that is to say, the less occasion is there for investigating principles."

SIR A: "I have been correcting several Scotch accents in my friend Boswell. I doubt, Sir, if any Scotchman ever attains to a perfect English pronunciation."

JOHNSON: "Why, Sir, few of them do, because they do not persevere after acquiring a certain degree of it. But, Sir, there can be no doubt that they may attain to a perfect English pronunciation, if they will. We find how near they come to it; and certainly, a man who conquers nineteen parts of the Scottish accent, may conquer the twentieth.

"But, Sir, when a man has got the better of nine tenths he grows weary, he relaxes his diligence, he finds he has corrected his accent so far as not to be disagreeable, and he no longer desires his friends to tell him when he is wrong; nor does he choose to be told. Sir, when people watch me narrowly, and I do not watch myself, they will find me out to be of a particular county [Staffordshire]. In the same manner, Dunning may be found out to be a Devonshire man. So most Scotchmen may be found out.

"But, Sir, little aberrations are of no disadvantage. I never catched Mallet in a Scotch accent; and yet Mallet, I suppose, was past five-and-twenty before he came to London."

     --Boswell's Life of Johnson for 1772

Before I hear about it for "Scotch" and "Scotchman", I will point out that Boswell, a Boswell of Auchinleck and most certainly a Scot of the Scots, uses these forms himself.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sheer erudition. It's wonderful to imagine, and liberally punctuates Boswell's Life. (The famous dinner at which John Wilkes was an unexpected but carefully contrived guest is my favourite example.)