Sam Was Not Woke

One of the definitions of woke in Sam Johnson’s 1755 dictionary gives the sense of the word as it has been used since at least the 13th century, as the past tense of wake:

Not to sleep … To be roused from sleep … To cease to sleep

The English language changes of course, and now over 250 years later the word has some very different meanings, usages, and connotations. As usual, you can’t rely on the Urban Dictionary for a dependable definition, because they seem to simply accept all contributions and then present as the main meaning the one that gets the most votes. It’s a stupid way to run a dictionary. However, one advantage is that an Urban Dictionary definition does give a sort of up-to-date definition, though with attitude and bias. The current top-voted one (with a usage example), from 2018, is:

The act of being very pretentious about how much you care about a social issue
Yeah most people don’t care about parking spaces for families with disabled pets. I wish they were woke like me.

On second thought, that’s not a bad definition.

Looking at more authoritative sources for a definition of what the woke movement is, though, the online Collins dictionary gives:

Someone who is woke is very aware of social and political unfairness

The standard authority for Australian English, Macquarie, gives:

Sensitised to prejudice and conscious of its manifestations in society

Tony Thorne, who maintains the Slang and New Language Archive at King’s College London, blogged in January about the origins of the term, and how its meaning has changed so quickly and frequently and substantively. It’s not just a simple case of a new word being positive and slowly changing to be negative. He writes that it started as a term in Black culture, lost that origin, became an anti-Black racist slur, and now — and I’m skipping several steps in between — it has come to mean, quoting @JournoJoshua, “excessive social awareness.” My friend V adds something about the connotations:

Woke in its more recent sense, seems to me a trendy term, used to mean awareness/identity of whatever topic is at hand, a way of showing support for same … It just seems self-congratulatory, an I’m-so-cool moment.

In my view, things have changed even since January, and the term has different meanings depending on what your politics are. My friend S gives this excellent definition:

Woke is the earnest attempt to do the right thing at the expense of reason, humility, history, civil society, and personal dignity.

This points to some of the main problems I have not with the term per se, but with how people’s belief in it as a legitimate outlook on society is having some scary consequences. Its negative aspects as a way of thinking and as a movement have infiltrated some of the most important values of free, civilized, democratic life. The main one, and the one I find most angering, is freedom of speech and freedom of expression. This manifests in two aspects of society.

The first is in the explicit and implied restraints that are attempted to be enforced on artistic expression. This canard is so old it used to be a duck. Artistic expression by definition has to be free of control by not only the state itself, but by special-interest groups within the state who have biases and preferences they want to claim as their sole possession. An artist does not work that way. Cannot work that way. One of the main hoped-for changes by the woke is that “stories” of a certain group can be told only by members of that group. Indigenous people are the only people who can tell Indigenous stories. Men can’t write from a woman’s point of view. A non-Black person cannot say or write certain words in any context, no matter how educational or professional.

I can at least opine on the part of artistic expression and say, in my view, and categorically — that an artist must be allowed — I cannot even phrase it like that — I have to say: an artist expresses themself in whatever voice and with whatever instruments they see fit. There is no “allowing.” There is no permission. Art of course exists in society — though I imagine a happy artist somewhere, in the woods, carving what he damn well pleases and not worrying about whether it looks like a duck (or a dick). Art exists in society but it is not subject to the rules that society considers proper at the time.

The same thing applies for expression generally. People need to be allowed to say what they want to say. Your right to swing your fist doesn’t necessarily end where someone else’s face begins. Sometimes disobedience, civil and otherwise, is called for. It’s never any surprise that when dictators of one flavour or extremity or another take over, one of the first things they start to control is the media. Shut down dissent. Don’t have people saying things in public, especially on potentially large forums like the internet, that happen either not to be in line with your goals or are straight-up opposed to them. And if the pesky activists and artists persist, well, there’s always killing, right?

The great Vladimir Nabokov, from whom I quote so much that some of my friends are starting to roll their eyes, writes this about fiction, but it could be applied to all artistic expression:

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann.

I don’t want to twist Nabokov’s words into meanings and contexts which he didn’t intend — he was notoriously picky about that sort of thing — but a similar statement could be made about general free expression and not just artistic expression. You have to do a few substituions though (sorry, Vladimir):

  • “Topical trash” is then the logorrheic blatherings which those who are categorically sure of their opinion bleat on all media
  • And the “literature of ideas” is the putative received wisdom, the conclusions that the woke have come to after much shouting in their echo chamber, and much support from politicians desperate to be on the right side of correctness du jour

· · · · ·

So what does any of this have to do with Sam Johnson? Two things at least.

  • Sam was, among many other things, an artist, and the mode and content of what he had to say certainly weren’t agreeable to everyone. He was also a political pamphleteer in his later life, and of course if you are on one side of a political issue then you definitely have people lined up against you on the other side.
  • Some of his writing would be characterized as sexist these days by wokeists and even by less militant people. Two famous quotes of his come to mind:
    • After Boswell had told him about a meeting of Quakers that he had attended: “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
    • Speaking of the great writer and scholar Elizabeth Carter: “My old friend Mrs. Carter could make a pudding as well as translate Epictetus from the Greek.”

These kind of make anyone cringe a little today, even though the first one was likely a joke and the second one was actually meant as a compliment. In any case, definitely not woke.

In my podcast, I explore this idea further, going beyond the non-PC tidbits about preaching and making pudding. Listen, please …

Happy with Sam

Last Thursday I interviewed Gretchen Rubin, the author of Happier at Home, a bestselling book which mentions Samuel Johnson in the subtitle. I had seen one of the epigraphs she uses in the book — “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which all enterprise and labour tends” — but I was interested to know more about how she had come across Sam and what other aspects of his life and work have had an influence on her. It turned into a really great and lively back and forth discussion about Sam and his writing and his life — and how difficult it can be sometimes to penetrate his writing.

Happiness. It’s a huge topic, of course, with many people offering advice on it. I’ve heard that you shouldn’t (and cannot, really) pursue happiness itself, that the thing to do is to dedicate yourself to something or someone(s), and that will take you there. Happiness is the result of living your life in an authentic way.

There’s a lot in the circuitous path that Sam took, and which became his biography in the same way it does for the rest of us — there’s a lot of talk and writing about happiness and, frankly, about its opposite. Sam was both a brilliant and a practical man. “Human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” Some might say that that is going beyond practicality to downright pessimism. I guess it depends on your standards, your ideals, what you expect, and maybe what you’ve already experienced.

We know there were times and episodes in his life during which he was happy. He was thrilled to get married. He revelled in all those discussions and talks and arguments that he had with others at the numerous “clubs” he was part of. He was generally happy during the last 20 years or so of his life after he’d fostered a friendship with his generous friend Hester Thrale, who had him as a guest in her sumptuous mansion many times, to the extent that he was for long periods effectively living there.

In a way Sam’s life is no different from any other. Some of the things that made him happy ended because of something stupid that he did. Some ended because he got older and couldn’t engage socially so much any more. Some ended because a person died. And some just ended in the way things often do in life — they are there for a while and you are caressed by them, but gradually the arms pull free and you realize after a while that things are very different than they used to be.

What happened?

We’re often attracted or drawn to people who have the same preoccupations and obsessions as we do. Poor Boswell expended much energy trying to be happy, but I’m not sure he ever was. He always had a plan for this and a plan for that, and he often tried to “be like Johnson” in order to wrest himself onto the right path, but success was fitfull at best. His father constantly berated him. His wife was a good wife, a good woman, but Boswell betrayed her many times with prostitutes whom he could never quite sate his appetite for. And he never managed the family finances very well either.

Illness can accost you and wring the life out of you, literally and figuratively. That was Sam’s situation for at least the last year and a half of his life. Ailment upon ailment afflicting him, keeping him at home, relegating him to simply having visitors, and of course not to mention many times keeping him in physical discomfort and pain.

Sam believed, as I do frankly, in the present. He was critical of the human tendency to dwell on a past that could never be revived or to look forward to a future that couldn’t be guaranteed. As he put it:

At our entrance into the world, when health and vigour give us fair promises of time sufficient for the regular maturation of our schemes, and a long enjoyment of our acquisitions, we are eager to seize the present moment; we pluck every gratification within our reach, without suffering it to ripen into perfection, and crowd all the varieties of delight into a narrow compass; but age seldom fails to change our conduct; we grow negligent of time in proportion as we have less remaining, and suffer the last part of life to steal from us in languid preparations for future undertakings, or slow approaches to remote advantages, in weak hopes of some fortuitous occurrence, or drowsy equilibrations of undetermined counsel: whether it be that the aged, having tasted the pleasures of man’s condition, and found them delusive, become less anxious for their attainment; or that frequent miscarriages have depressed them to despair, and frozen them to inactivity; or that death shocks them more as it advances upon them, and they are afraid to remind themselves of their decay, or to discover to their own hearts that the time of trifling is past.

Rambler 111 (April 9, 1751)

Have a listen to my chat with Gretchen Rubin. It’ll make you happy …

Sam Johnson: Rambler, Adventurer, Idler

Sam was all of these in person, but those are also the names of three separate periodicals/magazines that he contributed to in the 1750s, when he was mostly in his forties. Here are the basic facts about the extent of his writing for them, so that you can get a sense of perspective on his level of commitment and dedication:

The Rambler, 1750-52

Sam wrote all but 7 of the 208 twice-weekly essays

The Adventurer, 1753-54

Sam wrote only 29 of the twice-weekly essays

The Idler, 1758-60

Sam wrote all but 12 of the 103 weekly essays

One of my favourite anecdotes about The Rambler is that, apart from the money that he would be paid for writing them,* his stated reason for beginning the series was as a break from the dictionary of the English language that he happened to be compiling at the same time. Some people take a jaunt to the coast when they have a quarterly report due next week, and some people start working on their annual report, I guess.

*”No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” — Sam Johnson, 1776, quoted by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, ed. David Womersley (London: Penguin Random House, 2008), p. 591.

from The Beauties of Johnson: Consisting of Maxims and Observations, Moral, Critical, and Miscellaneous,
by Dr. Samuel Johnson (London: G. Kearsly, 1781)

These three series of essays are really good illustrations of Sam’s ability to adapt the style of his writing to the purpose and the readership he was addressing. The main point is that I see a decrease in the density and complexity of the style and diction from the Rambler in the early 1750s to the Idler in the late 1750s. How much more difficult is it to understand this, from the Rambler:

The resentment produced by sincerity, whatever be its immediate cause, is so certain, and generally so keen, that very few have magnanimity sufficient for the practice of a duty, which, above most others, exposes its votaries to hardships and persecutions; yet friendship without it is of a very little value, since the great use of so close an intimacy is that our virtues may be guarded and encour∣aged, and our vices repressed in their first appearance by timely detection, and salutary remonstrances.

No. 40 (August 4, 1750)

than this, from the Idler:

Men complain of nothing more frequently than of deficient memory; and, indeed, every one finds that many of the ideas which he desired to retain have slipped irretrievably away; that the acquisitions of the mind are sometimes equally fugitive with the gifts of fortune; and that a short intermission of attention more certainly lessens knowledge than impairs an estate.

No. 72 (September 1, 1759)

I talk about the differences in style and tone among the three sets of essays, and also call on modern examples of writing and film to illustrate the point, in my latest podcast. Surely you have three thirty-four more minutes … ?

The English Language and Sam’s Dictionary

Sam published his Dictionary of the English Language on April 15, 1755. It has been called the first dictionary of English (which is not true) or the first modern dictionary of English (which is closer to the truth). A couple of interesting facts about it:

  • The full title is A Dictionary of the English Language, in Which the Words Are Deduced from Their Originals, and Illustrated in Their Different Significations by Examples from the Best Writers, to Which Are Prefixed, A History of the Language, and An English Grammar.
  • Sam published a Plan for the Dictionary in 1747 after he had signed a contract with the publishers.
  • The published Dictionary includes a Preface, which is often held out as a significant work in itself in the history of lexicography.
  • One of the main differences between the Plan and the Preface — and it’s an important one — is that Sam’s experience of actually compiling the Dictionary had converted him from someone who wanted to regularize the language to someone who wanted to record the real language as it is used. In lexicographical terms, he started off a prescriptivist and ended up a descriptivist. Most modern dictionaries are descriptive.
  • The first edition is rare and expensive. The highest price on AbeBooks, for a first edition “in entirely unrestored contemporary condition,” costs over $80,000 USD.

Title page of the first of two volumes of the first edition of Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755

There is much lore that has built up about the Dictionary over the years — various humorous or political definitions, or “in” references, or words he defined incorrectly, and so on.

I want to focus in this blog post though on some of the unusual or arcane words and definitions, which I divide into five categories:

Words with Personal or Opinionated Definitions

· dedica’tion. A servile address to a patron.

· fo’rtuneteller. One who cheats common people by pretending to the knowledge of futurity.

Words That Sam Doesn’t Know the Meaning Of

· bu’tterfly. A beautiful insect, so named because it first appears at the beginning of the season for butter.

· sta’mmel. Of this word I know not the meaning.

Words with Highly Specific Meanings

· ca’lenture. A distemper peculiar to sailors, in hot climates; wherein they imagine the sea to be green fields, and will throw themselves into it, if not restrained.

· discalcea’tion. The act of pulling off the shoes.

Words Showing How Meaning or Spelling Has Changed

· co’mpliment. An act, or expression of civility, usually understood to include some hypocrisy, and to mean less than it declares.

· no’cent. Guilty; criminal.

Funny or Unusual Words and Definitions

· a’sshead. One slow of apprehension; a blockhead.

· ne’twork. Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

I’m feeling a little desidiose, so I think I’ll leave it there. In my podcast this week, I talk more about the dictionary.

Sam and Home

Two things happened this week.

One is that as a welcome of two friends to the same condo complex that I live in in Ottawa, I visited their place and brought rosé champagne and some homemade pecan shortbread cookies. I also gave them a card — specifically this one from the line of greeting cards I designed based on quotations from Sam and art by artists, friends, and family:

One of my friends read the quotation and wasn’t sure she agreed with the sentiment. We talked about that a little, and didn’t come to any final conclusions — which reminds me of the title of the final chapter from the one novella, Rasselas, which Sam published, in 1759: “The Conclusion, in Which Nothing Is Concluded” — but she thought it might be the categoricalness of it that didn’t sit right with her. That is, that being happy at home was “the ultimate result of all ambition.”

It never occurred to me at the time, though it did for the word prosecution when I was making the card, that part of the issue might have to do with the meaning of ultimate. So, I’ve just looked up that word in Sam’s own dictionary, and it reads: “Intended in the last resort; being the last in the train of consequences.” That definition doesn’t have the same categoricalness about it as the word has for us today. If someone said “Being happy at home is my ultimate goal,” it has more the sense of only than simply final or last. It doesn’t feel as absolute. So that might be what my friend was reacting to.


The other thing has to do with something you will read more about in this blog (and hopefully listen to on my podcast) some time in August.

I heard back from a query I’d sent to writer Gretchen Rubin about doing an interview of her. I was interested because the book she published in 2012, called Happier at Home, has this for a subtitle:

Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life

There aren’t many books about Sam Johnson, or that mention him prominently, that end up being New York Times bestsellers, so I wanted to talk to her about how Sam fits in with her daily living. I was thrilled to hear back “yes,” and so I’ll be interviewing her by phone mid-August. I’ve started reading her book, and apart from the epigraph (which is a quotation from one of Sam’s Rambler essays), I haven’t come across any references, direct or otherwise, yet. But it’s early going.

Apart from the rarity of seeing Sam’s name on a popular book, the other thing that intrigues me — and one of the things I’ll be asking her about — is that it’s surprising to see him linked to a project that has to do with happiness. It’s not that he was perpetually unhappy, but it’s just not the first thing I think about when I think about him. Perhaps it’s just that I happen to be writing about his death right now, and so perhaps that is influencing me. But overall, when I think of Sam, though, I always see him as someone who wrote and knew about happiness, and certainly had joy in his life, but not as someone who lived a life awash in it.


There’s an interesting coincidence in that the epigraph from Gretchen’s book and the quotation from my greeting card are from the same Rambler essay, published November 10, 1750. In my podcast this week, I’ll be reading from and commenting on that essay …

Sam Dying

I happen to be working on the part of the book covering the last two years of Sam’s life. Not only did a lot happen during this time (1783–1784), but there is a fair bit written by various witnesses. During the last year of his life, for example, Sam lost one of his closest friends, Hester Lynch Thrale, because he stubbornly refused to accept the man she had chosen as her new husband. The last letters between them are heartbreaking.

We also know a lot about Sam’s literal last days, more specifically the last three weeks of his life when he was very ill and ultimately died. A friend named John Hoole kept a written account of the visits he paid to Sam and of the conversations between them. It’s all fascinating to read, though you can feel the inexorable decline to death as the details of the visits come through, and as the pages to read in the book get fewer.

A snippet from a page of Journal Narrative Relative to Doctor Johnson’s Last Illness Three Weeks Before His Death, Kept by John Hoole, ed. O M Brack, Jr. (Iowa City: Windhover Press, 1972)

He started to get really ill in December 1783. He had the idea to form another club (the Essex Head Club, named after the pub) where he could gather with friends in order to debate ideas over lots of drink and food, but it soon fell apart. He and a couple of the former members of a previous club did have one meeting, but the ambience was a little too placid for Sam. They talked about being old, and the evening not only was too “tender” and “melancholy,” but they just had a meal, finished up with coffee, and broke up early to go home. It wasn’t the robust conversation and debate well past midnight that Sam was used to and preferred.

Things go well for the first couple of meetings, but on or around the night of the third meeting, Saturday, December 13, Sam becomes sick. One source says that he actually suffers a coronorary thrombosis (a clot inside one of the blood vessels of the heart). In any case this is his last Essex Head meeting for the next couple of months, as the illness is serious enough to keep him out of commission. It’s not just the result of eating too much food and having a little too much to drink. He is actually laid up at home, not going out to any club or anywhere, and in painful recovery.

Things are up and down for much of 1784, but the account by Hoole concentrates on visits he made between Saturday, November 20, to the day of Sam’s death on Monday, December 13, around 7 p.m. I quote from Hoole’s account and make some comments in my podcast …

Sam’s Health

I just received this great, nicely specific book in the mail a couple of days ago, and am hopeful it will provide fairly up-to-date information (it was originally published in 1991) all in one place about Sam’s various ailments. I haven’t started reading yet, but the first chapter is “Johnson’s Medical History: Facts and Mysteries.” There’s also a chapter about (Dr.) Robert Levet, who lived within Sam’s home for many years, and who some considered a doctor, and some considered a quack. Finally, there’s a chapter on “The Practice of Physic” (physic = medicine), which also sounds promising.

It comes at the same time as I am in the middle of reading another pretty specific book, which a well-known Johnsonian scholar, O M Brack — yes, those are his names: the O and M are not abbreviations of something else — has edited in a beautiful edition of only 250 copies (one of which I own!) published by the Windhover Press in Iowa City. The full title is Journal Relative to Doctor Johnson’s Last Illness Three Weeks Before His Death, Kept by John Hoole, MDCCLXXXIV. You can see that the title refers to the year Sam died, M(1)DCC(7)LXXX(8)IV(4), and the last three weeks would have been November 20 through December 13.

The facts are that though he was a big and in many ways robust man through his life, in addition to suffering from depression and anxiety (mental illnesses), he also suffered from physical ailments from birth, in addition to major ones as his body deteriorated in his latter years.

I’m interested in the details of Sam’s death partly for myself, but also because I am anticipating that it will be something that readers of my book will be interested in as well. As in everything in a biography, there has to be a balance, and that balance is subjective. Another writer might see the death as the end of a great life and might not want to dwell on this sadness for too long, and so Sam might be dispatched in half a page. But even from what I’ve read so far about his death, I know I don’t want to be so succinct. Balance. You don’t necessarily want to dwell on all the details, but there are selected ones that can really evoke the deathbed and show the reader something about how Sam’s mind was, how he “handled” dying, what he said, what his last words were, and so on. I don’t feel any need to defend myself about this. If you’re writing a biography, any- and everything that happens in the person’s life has potential for inclusion.

Whether something is included, and the extent to which it is, is a common thing that not only any biographer deals with, but anyone who writes a book — or creates any kind of work — about anything faces. We are used to it in movies, for example. In a single movie, 30 seconds of screen time can cover a decade, and yet 5 minutes might be devoted to, say, a single interaction between two characters in a key scene.

In my podcast this week, I just have a few things to say about Sam’s health and death, but mostly I focus on something I’ve touched on before but have not discussed in much detail. It also has to to with selection, with what to leave in and what to leave out, but applied to my whole book. So: I talk about how one organizes (or at least how I organize) the mass of information about Sam Johnson in order to produce a readable book of a sensible length for the general reader. Want to listen … ?

Sam, Sam, and Technology

I had a great chat this past Monday with my 11-year-old nephew Sam. He has a keen interest and lots of knowledge about various aspects of computer technology — especially hardware, gaming, and social media — and so we talked about the differences between tech in Sam Johnson’s century and tech in Sam Jones’s century. It was a lot of fun.

Have a listen to our conversation.

Sam Leaves Lichfield

In the mid-1730s Sam’s basic situation was that he had applied for teaching jobs that he didn’t get, he and his wife had established their own school which didn’t attract enough students, and Sam had applied to be a writer for the Gentleman’s Magazine but wasn’t hired. He needs another plan and so in 1737 he and one of his former students, named David Garrick, leave Lichfield and head off to London to pursue their careers. Frankly, they both do exceptionally well for themselves: David wanted to act and he became one of the pre-eminent actors and theatre producers of the era; and of course Sam wanted to write, and he became the chief man of letters of that same era.

I talk about some of the details and the greater scope of their lives and careers in London in my podcast (see link at the end), so I thought I’d dedicate this blog post to showing you some images. Sometimes when someone talks about a time that was nearly 300 years ago, it can be hard to visualize what things were like and what people looked like.

There aren’t many portraits of Sam at this stage of his life (he was in his late 20s), but these are a couple of typical portraits of him during various stages:

These are some of David Garrick:

That third image of Garrick is of him playing Richard III, for which he was famous.

This is an engraving of Sam’s wife Tetty, who stayed behind in Lichfield while Sam and Garrick made their way to London. She joined Sam later.

(Image copyright © National Portrait Gallery)

As biographer John Wain points out, Tetty likely didn’t end up with the life that she imagined and hoped for. They spent long and frequent periods apart, and when she was in London with him, Sam was busy working.

So, there you go. If you’d like to hear a bit more about Sam and Tetty and David, check out my podcast below. I still call it 3 More Minutes about Sam, but, er, they’re getting longer, because there’s more to say. Happy listening.