Samuel Johnson? James Boswell? Thomas Carlyle? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Two statements that sound the same but have very different meanings have been attributed to the esteemed dictionary maker and man of letters Samuel Johnson:
1) Clear your mind of cant.
2) Clear your mind of can’t.
In the first statement the noun “cant” referred to insincere, trite, or sanctimonious speech. Johnson was telling a friend not to dwell on this form of verbal nonsense.
In the second statement the term “can’t” referred to negative thoughts that undermine one’s self-confidence. But I think that this phrasing was too modern for Johnson who died in 1784. It sounds like a maxim from a current motivational book or poster. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: The first expression was spoken to James Boswell by Samuel Johnson on May 15, 1783 as recorded in the famous biographical work “Boswell’s Life of Johnson”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
JOHNSON. “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do. You may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.”
The second phrase was attributed to Johnson by 1929, but that was a very late date; clearly, the attribution was a mistake caused by confusion of the homophones: cant and can’t.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Time period specified: May 15, 1783, Quote Page 454 and 455, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩