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.
Johnson’s saying caught the eye of the notable Scottish philosopher and essayist Thomas Carlyle. He included a version with a different phrasing in a book review he wrote in 1828: 2
. . . he has no word to utter; no remedy, no counsel to give us in our straits; or at most, if, like poor Boswell, the patient is importunate, will answer: ‘My dear Sir, endeavor to clear your mind of Cant.’
In 1929 an article in the “Woodland Daily Democrat” of Woodland, California attempted to entice more individuals to enter an airplane derby contest. The winner of the contest was going to be given an expensive airplane. Johnson was credited with employing the variant saying with the word “can’t” instead of “cant”: 3
The man or woman who WAKES UP to the fact that the fear of competition that is keeping the next fellow out, is PRECISELY the thing that is going to help him or her most is working for the prize, WILL ENTER THE DERBY TODAY.
Samuel Johnson used to say “Clear your mind of can’t.” That is exactly what this competition complex is—CAN’T, FIDDLESTICKS. NONSENSE!
In 1939 a brief filler item presenting an instance of the saying with “can’t” appeared in multiple newspapers in Iowa including “The Albert City Appeal” 4 and “The Elma New Era”. 5 The ellipsis was in the original text:
Clearing the Mind
My dear friend, clear your mind of can’t. You may talk as other people do . . . but don’t think foolishly.—Samuel Johnson.
In 1942 H. L. Mencken included an instance in his massive compilation “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. Mencken presented a streamlined version with “cant”: 6
My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do, but don’t think foolishly.
SAMUEL JOHNSON: Boswell’s Life, May 15, 1783
In 1953 a syndicated columnist named Holmes Alexander writing in the “Los Angeles Times” attributed an instance with the word “can’t” to Johnson. Perhaps a change from “cant” to “can’t” was made by an editor or compositor: 7
The Eisenhower administration will make its first major mistake if it fails to recognize the change in climate which has been taking place. Samuel Johnson’s advice to young writers—“Clear your mind of can’t”—is a perfect admonition for the incoming Secretary of State, Mr. Dulles. He could profitably spend several days doing nothing else than clearing out the cobweb theories and the Simple Simon slogans of his predecessor.
In 1996 the “Rocky Mountain News” of Denver, Colorado printed the expression with “can’t”: 8
This could be Todd Siler’s philosophy of thinking: Clear your mind of “can’t.” Siler, 43, is an author, artist and deep thinker. He said anyone can be a deep thinker. And he has written Think Like a Genius.
In conclusion, Samuel Johnson should be credited with the expression “Clear your mind of cant”. The full context was given in a May 15, 1783 entry in “Boswell’s Life of Johnson”. The expression with “can’t” was created via a mistake and was not spoken or written by Samuel Johnson.
(Great thanks to Professor Geoffrey Nunberg who kindly told QI about this entertaining example. Nunberg identified the original statement from Samuel Johnson and the misattributed phrase with “can’t” instead of “cant”. The inquiry above was composed by QI.)
Image Notes: Picture of acrobats from at IgorSuassunaat Pixabay. Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds circa 1775; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
- 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 ↩
- 1838, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays by Thomas Carlyle, Volume 1, Goethe, (Review published in “Foreign Review” in 1828; review of Goethe’s Sämmtliche Werke: Goethe’s Collective Works), Start Page 220, Quote Page 238, Published by James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1929 May 28, Woodland Daily Democrat, Eyes Shut to Chance Offered by Plane Gift, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Woodland, California. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1939 October 19, The Albert City Appeal, Clearing the Mind (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Albert City, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1939 October 19, The Elma New Era, Clearing the Mind (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Albert City, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken [Henry Louis Mencken], Section: Cant, Quote Page 140, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1953 January 15, Los Angeles Times, An Airing of Minds by Holmes Alexander (McNaught Syndicate), Quote Page A5, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1996 December 6, Rocky Mountain News, This Genius Opens Minds, Byline: Gary Massaro, Quote Page 50A, Denver, Colorado. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩