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  • Who Would DO This?
    Samuel Johnson has a lot of great quotations, but sometimes he gets more credit than he deserves. I've found a number in books or on the Internet which don't really seem to be from him. Sometimes they are close to something he's said. In other instances, I just can't find anything to suggest they originate with him. They don't appear in Primary Source Media's CD-ROM of Johnson's works (which also includes Boswell, Piozzi, Hawkins, Burney, Hill's "Johnsonian Miscellanies," O.M. Brack's "Early Biographies," et al -- it's extremely comprehensive). In the interest of completeness, I'm putting them here on this page. (Links take you to discussion about the misattribution.)

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions

    Johnson said something close, but he was following in others' footsteps. In Boswell's Life of Johnson, in an entry marked April 16, 1775, Boswell quotes Johnson as saying (on some other occasion), "Hell is paved with good intentions." Note, no prefatory "the road to..." Boswell's editor, Malone, added a footnote indicating this is a 'proverbial sentence,' and quoting an earlier 1651 source (yet still not in the common wording).

    Robert Wilson, in the newsgroup alt.quotations, provided two other sources prior to Johnson. John Ray, in 1670, cited as a proverb "Hell is paved with good intentions." Even earlier than that, it's been attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), as "Hell is full of good intentions or desires." Just how it got to the road to Hell being paved this way, and not Hell itself, I don't know.

    You smell me, and I stink.

    This anecdote centers on usage of the verb 'smell,' and Johnson's cleanliness. I've seen it set in a number of locations -- once I saw it even set in a train station, and we all know how many train stations there were before Johnson died. ("Almost one," as they say in the Monty Python skit. "And would that be another way of saying 'zero'?")

    The anecdote basically goes like this: somebody says to Johnson, "Dr. Johnson, you smell!" Johnson usually replies something like, "Incorrect, Madam/Sir, you smell me, and I stink!"

    This is generally accepted as an apocryphal anecdote.

    The supreme end of education is expert discernment in all things - - the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit.

    This quote appears on the internet in a number of places, and it took me years to find a reasonable source for this. I knew it wasn't by the British Samuel Johnson, because it isn't on the CD-ROM referenced above, and it didn't even sound like him; the syntax was all wrong. For lack of a better option, I'd figured it might have been from the American Samuel Johnson, that is, the Anglican minister who was the first president of King's College (which eventually became Columbia University). After all, he was an educator.

    But no, that wasn't it either. It's written by Charles Grosvenor Osgood (1871-1964), as part of a 1917 preface to Boswell's "Life of Johnson." It's difficult to say who first mistook Osgood's words for Johnson's, but the president of an Arkansas college (who frequently uses the quotation) told me that he found it in Laurence Peters' 1977 book of quotations, and it's attributed to Johnson there. I really don't know if the mistake originated with Peters, and can't find out, since he died in 1988. But here's what Osgood wrote:

    "But the supreme end of education, we are told, is expert discernment in all things--the power to tell the good from the bad, the genuine from the counterfeit, and to prefer the good and the genuine to the bad and the counterfeit. This is the supreme end of the talk of Socrates, and it is the supreme end of the talk of Johnson."

    Osgood, I'm sure, would have felt flattered to learn that his words have been mistaken as Johnson's, but would have done what he could to correct the mistake.

    Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

    Here too, not found in his works, or the contemporary biographies about him...

    A fishing pole has a hook at one end and a fool at the other...

    I am indebted to the newsgroup alt.quotations for providing a source for this one... Hans posted the following explanation:

    According to Oxford's:

    Fly fishing may be a very pleasant amusement: but angling or float fishing I can only compare to a stick and a string, with a worm at one end and a fool at the other.
    Samuel Johnson; Attributed, in Hawker "Instructions to Young Sportsmen" (1859) p. 197, though not found in Johnson's works. The remark has also been attributed to Jonathan Swift, in "The Indicator" 27 October 1819, p. 44.

    Golf: A game in which you claim the privileges of age and retain the playthings of youth.

    Johnson wrote something like this in Rambler #50, but he wasn't talking about golf. He was talking about age in general, and the desire to have the best of both worlds. What he wrote was as follows: "It is a hopeless endeavour to unite the contrarieties of spring and winter; it is unjust to claim the priveleges of age, and retain the play-things of childhood." (The mistaken attribution to the game of golf can be found in Jon Winokur's The Portable Curmudgeon. Winokur obviously didn't trace this one down, so there is probably much to be suspicious about in his book. I have also seen him misspell the name of Charles Schulz, the Peanuts creator, as "Schultz." So, it's a fun book, but use it with caution.)

    God Himself, sir, does not propose to judge a man until his life is over. Why should you and I?

    Dale Carnegie closes the first chapter of his famous 1936 book "How To Win Friends And Influence People" with that line, attributing it to Samuel Johnson. That's the earliest appearance I've seen for this one. Carnegie's quotation marks do not include the final question, only the first sentence: the question at the end comes from Dale Carnegie. The two, together, appear in a variety of places on the Internet as if it were all by Samuel Johnson. In fact, I've yet to see it on the Internet without Carnegie's additional question.

    It was too much to hope for a citation from Carnegie, I guess, although I hiked a good mile to find a copy of his book. As I feared, Carnegie does not say where the quotation comes from. Nor could I find it in any of the collections of quotations in the reference section of the bookstore. (Nor in my CD-ROM, of course, that would have been too easy!)

    Aside from whether or not Johnson ever uttered these words, you have to wonder whether or not Johnson ever thought anything like them. On the one hand, he recognized that judging someone's intentions is difficult ("Actions are visible, though motives are secret," he wrote in his life of Cowley), and he believed in the theoretical possibility of being saved when on one's death bed. However, he was not one to shy away from drawing conclusions and resisted the allure of unnecessary speculation (for example, in Idler #32 he wrote, "The speculatist, who is not content with superficial views, harasses himself with fruitless curiosity; and still, as he inquires more, perceives only that he knows less", and in Idler #36, "when speculation has done its worst, two and two still make four").

    The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.

    There is no concrete evidence that Johnson ever said this or wrote it. It doesn't appear in his works or letters, nor in any of the biographies of him from the 18th century. Nor does it appear in "The Beauties of Johnson," a collection of his sayings.

    Admittedly, it does appear on many Internet pages, but none of them say where it can be found. And just as many pages credit advice columnist Ann Landers for having said it. (In fact, the quotation web site Brainyquote credits it to both Landers and Johnson on separate pages, without mentioning on either page that there is any question about who said it. And they don't have a source for it in either case. It would be nice if, on the page where they attribute it to Johnson, they noted that it's also attributed to Landers, and vice versa. As it is, people come away from each page having no idea that there is any question on the matter.) It's not a good sign that there is wide disagreement about who said something, and it's a worse sign when the quotation can't be found.

    Here's a hypothesis for research. Perhaps Landers was paraphrasing something Johnson did say in one of her columns, and said she was paraphrasing Johnson; and while some readers recognized the paraphrase was not actually a Johnson quotation, others were confused. (A good candidate for what she might have paraphrased might be Johnson's "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization", or perhaps one of his comments that it is the servants in a household who know someone best.)

    But there is an additional problem I've encountered... I can't even find this quotation in print as being attributed to Ann Landers. Quotation encyclopedias I've looked at don't have it. And I can't find any of Landers' books. So please keep your eyes open, and maybe together we can answer this.

    Update: I've also seen this similar quotation attributed to Abigail Van Buren (of "Dear Abby" fame): "The best index to a person's character is (a) how he treats people who can't do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can't fight back."

    He who has provoked the shaft of wit, cannot complain that he smarts from it.

    There used to be word processing software called WordStar, and in addition to being a fine product, it offered a set of quotations. One source told me it was in that database in the early 1990's. Unfortunately WordStar is no longer around for me to ask for further information (they were bought by SoftKey, which eventually became The Learning Company, which is now part of Broderbund). But there is some good news on this one, although Johnson didn't say it: it's one of Boswell's. Sort of. In The Life of Johnson, for October 16, 1769, following a discussion Thomas Sheridan, Boswell wrote, "I should, perhaps, have suppressed this disquisition concerning a person of whose merit and worth I think with respect, had he not attacked Johnson so outrageously in his Life of Swift, and, at the same time, treated us his admirers as a set of pigmies. He who has provoked the lash of wit, cannot complain that he smarts from it." Note that Boswell has written lash and not shaft. But most importantly, it's Boswell, not Johnson, with this mot.

    Slander is the revenge of a coward, and dissimulation his defence.

    I don't know much about this one, except that it's another item from the WordStar data base, and that it's not in the Johnson and Boswell CD-ROM I mentioned at the top of this page. Until someone can provide me with a decent reference, I think we have to consider it apocryphal.

    Criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant a standard of judging well.

    It's from John Dryden, not Johnson. Dryden wrote an "Apology for Heroick Poetry and Poetic License," and prefixed it to the print edition of his opera "The State of Innocence." In that essay, Dryden wrote, "Criticism, as it was first instituted by Aristotle, was meant as a standard of judging well; the chiefest part of which is to observe those excellencies which delight a reasonable reader." (You can see it for yourself in Everyman's Library volume 568, pages 196-7.)

    Why do many people attribute the first part to Johnson? Well, Johnson used it as an illustrative quotation in his Dictionary, under the word "criticism." And Johnson tells us that it comes from Dryden, and correctly identifies the work. However, someone (Johnson? the typesetter?) omitted the definition which the quote was meant to illustrate, and so it seems as if many have mistaken Dryden's quotation for Johnson's definition. I'm not sure if it was ever corrected in any of the editions of Johnson's Dictionary, as it's there at least as late as the 4th edition.

    The next best thing to knowing something is knowing where to find it.

    This is a corruption of something Johnson actually did say. When visiting an estate, Johnson seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time reviewing the contents of the library. Boswell quotes Johnson as having defended himself with the famous line, "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." The corrupted form is not found in either Johnson's works or the contemporary accounts about Johnson.

    The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.

    This is another popular corruption of a famous line of Johnson's. What Johnson really said, according to Boswell, was, "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." A little clunkier in its original form, even when you drop the first sentence, which is probably why the simpler, corrupted form is frequently seen.

    What we hope ever to do with ease we must learn first to do with diligence.

    So very close to being absolutely correct, it's difficult to say it's apocryphal, but it's not correct, and the difference is important and should be noted. In his life of Milton (in the Lives of the Poets), Johnson actually wrote "What we hope ever to do with ease we may learn first to do with diligence." Not "must," but "may." "Must" would be an absolute, and would limit individuals to the behavior of the norm. "May" introduces probable human behavior. But unfortunately, you'll usually see it in the incorrect form, with "must." But if you pull out your copy of The Lives of the Poets, I bet it says "may."

    It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

    Apparently not Johnson, using the Primary Source Media CD-ROM as the judge. Nowhere in Johnson's works or letters, or contemporary biographies of him, do the phrases "remain silent" or "remove all doubt" appear in anything close to this context. In fact, the words "silent" and "fool" never appear together in a sentence.

    In addition to Johnson, many other people are supposed to have said this. Sometimes people cite Abraham Lincoln; or a journalist named Silvan Engel or sometimes it's attributed to "Lincoln, quoting Silvan Engel." It also gets attributed to Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Woodrow Wilson. (You can read more in this discussion in alt.quotations, as well as this explanation at "Ask Yahoo!")

    Peter Lewerin has suggested Proverbs 17:28 as an early source of the line: "Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding."

    For what it's worth, Johnson dealt with the topic of bashfulness in conversation in Rambler #159. Part of what he wrote there is pertinent here, because he discusses how bashfulness saves us from venturing into conversations when we shouldn't. Johnson wrote, "It is observed somewhere, that 'few have repented of having forborne to speak.'" The editors of the Yale edition of the Rambler suggest that Johnson "may refer to Simonides (Plutarch, Moralia, 515A)."

    Yet another Johnsonian association was pointed out to me by Jack Lynch, through his book Samuel Johnson's Insults. On pages 14-15, under the entry for "blockhead," Professor Lynch tells of Johnson having clubbed Tom Osborne with a book, and Osborne's insistence on proudly telling the story. Hester Thrale queried Johnson about this, and he said, "There is nothing to tell, dearest Lady, but that he was insolent and I beat him, and that he was a blockhead and told of it. ... I have beat many a fellow, but the rest had the wit to hold their tongues."

    We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.

    A nice sentiment, but it's not from Samuel Johnson. Rather, it's from James Boswell, part of commentary in his Life of Johnson, in the entry for September 19, 1777.

    Prejudice, not being founded on reason, cannot be removed by argument.

    I'm not sure who we have to thank for this one, but I don't think it's Samuel Johnson. I've tried to find another source, but haven't, and it doesn't appear in the Primary Source Media CD-ROM discussed at the top of this page. On the Internet, it's not that prevalent, appearing on about eight pages, and none really provide a legitimate source for it. But even though it's not as prevalent as some other bits of apocrypha, it's time to establish the bulwark. Until someone can find a proper source, I'm leaving it on this page of apocrypha.

    A wise man is cured of ambition by ambition itself; his aim is so exalted that riches, office, fortune and favour cannot satisfy him.

    I'm told that the author of this quotation is not Samuel Johnson, but Jean de la Bruyere, in his "'Les Caracteres: Du Merite Personnel":

    Le sage guerit de l'ambition par l'ambition meme; il tend a de si grandes choses, qu'il ne puet se borner a ce qu'on appelle des tresors, de postes, la fortune et la faveur.
    Special thanks to David Wise for doing the legwork in digging this out. The source was found by Michael Proctor, a masters student in linguistics at the University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. The quote appears in "Nouveau Dicionnaire de Citations Francaises," Hachette/Tchou, Paris, 1970.
    I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.

    Attributing this to Johnson is a popular misconception. A careful reading of Boswell's Life of Johnson (for the entry of February, 1766) reveals that Boswell is quoting someone he identifies only as a "foreign friend" of Johnson's. Croker correctly supposed that the friend is Joseph Baretti. Croker, working in the early 19th century, didn't have the benefit of Boswell's Journals (they came to light in the 20th century). But in the original journal entry for February 13, 1766 Boswell identifies the quotation as Baretti's. (See "Boswell On The Grand Tour; Italy, Corsica, & France," page 281. McGraw-Hill, 1955; edited by Frank Brady & Frederick A. Pottle.)

    It's also inconsistent that someone who loved social contact as much as Johnson, and went out of his way to help so many other people, would say that he hates mankind.

    A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse, not a remarkable mathematician.

    Not found in Johnson's works, letters, or the contemporary accounts of his life (again, using the Primary Source Media CD- ROM mentioned above as the final judge). I'll be happy to move it into the canon if someone can identify a proper source aside from the dozen or so pages on the Internet on which appears, or somewhere in some 18th century document.

    In fact, none of the key phrases ("horse can count," "remarkable horse," nor "remarkable mathematician") appear, so this doesn't even seem to be even a slight corruption of something verified.

    You don't have to eat the whole ox to know that it is tough.

    Like so many others on this page, we have to consider this apocryphal because it's not found in his works, letters, or contemporary biographies about Samuel Johnson. But it is similar to something he once said about Mrs. Montague's book on Shakespeare: " I have indeed, not read it all. But when I take up the end of a web, and find it packthread, I do not expect, by looking further, to find embroidery."

    The finest landscape in the world is improved by a good inn in the foreground.

    I can see how this might be attributed to Johnson — he thought the joy and conversation in an inn or tavern was a slice of heaven, and also, since he was nearsighted, he might not be able to see much of an outdoors scene except for the tavern! However, there's really no evidence that he said this, not so far as I have been able to find. I can't even find him saying or writing "finest landscape" anywhere.

    The true aim of writing is to enable the reader better to enjoy life, or better to endure it.

    This is a slight corruption of something Johnson actually wrote in his review of Soame Jenyns' "Free Enquiry into the Nature of the Origin of Good and Evil." The difference is really small, but accuracy counts in all things. What Johnson actually wrote was "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it." It's not really worth noting except that the corrupted form is out there and needs to be noted (for instance, in this speech reported by The Guardian, given by children's author Philip Pullman.)

    Our aspirations are our possibilities.

    An interesting idea, and you'll frequently see it credited to Johnson. It's also frequently credited to Robert Browning. I'm no authority on Robert Browning, but so far as I can tell it's not Samuel Johnson — at least, it's not in the canon.

    I did not have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote you a long one instead.

    Quite a few people credit this to Samuel Johnson (as well as Mark Twain). It's certainly not Johnson, though it may be Twain in the form we commonly know it. I don't know, not knowing much about Twain. However, Blaise Pascal wrote something very close in one of his letters, in 1657:

    Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

    I have made this letter longer than usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.

    Courage is the greatest of all virtues. Because if you haven't courage, you may not have an opportunity to use any of the others.

    Very close to what Boswell reported, but not quite. According to Boswell, what Johnson really said was "Courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other."

    Asked what the strongest argument for prayer is, Johnson is supposed to have said, "There is no argument for prayer."

    This came to my attention through a query from scholars working on an edition of Martin Luther King Jr's works. King apparently based his use on a 1926 book called "The Meaning of Prayer," by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Chapter 1 begins:

    Samuel Johnson once was asked what the strongest argument for prayer was, and he replied, "Sir, there is no argument for prayer." One need only read Johnson's own petitions, such as the one below, to see that he did not mean by this to declare prayer irrational; he meant to stress the fact that praying is first of all a native tendency.

    So far, I haven't been able to source this. I've searched on combinations of strongest, argument, and prayer, but haven't had any success yet.

    A man who uses a great many words to express his meaning is like a bad marksman who, instead of aiming a single stone at an object, takes up a handful and throws in hopes he may hit.

    Haven't found this one yet, but it's not encouraging. Searches on phrases like "great many words," "bad marksman," and "handful and throws" aren't showing any hits... In fact, the only place I can find him using the word "marksman" is as a word in his Dictionary; the quotations he uses to support his definition are completely different from this one. The phrase "single stone" also only appears in his Dictionary, but in completely different contexts.

    Truth is the first casualty of war.

    Very close to what Johnson wrote in Idler #30, it's actually closer to what was said by US Senator Hiram Johnson in 1918: "The first casualty when war comes is truth." What Samuel Johnson wrote in Idler #30 is a little clunkier, and doesn't even use the word "casualty":

    Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages.

    I think it's safe to assume that Hiram Johnson's articulation was based on Samuel's, but Hiram deserves some credit for brevity.

    Clear your mind of can't.

    It's not "can't" with an apostrophe, but the noun "cant," as in overly expressive, extreme thoughts. Johnson has reminded Boswell to moderate his words. It comes from this exchange in Boswell's Life of Johnson:

    Boswell. "Have not they vexed yourself a little, Sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, 'That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished'?" Johnson. "Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed." Boswell. "I declare, Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less." 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 grimmest dictatorship is the dictatorship of the prevailing orthodoxy.

    The only place I've ever seen this attributed to Johnson (not to say it isn't elsewhere) is from George Galloway, a member of the House of Commons from Scotland. He has cited it on a number of occasions. However, I couldn't find any of the key phrases in the Primary Resources CD-ROM, and I also looked for individual words, and found nothing relevant.

    They will never agree, because they are arguing from different premises.

    This is supposedly what Johnson said when he encountered two women arguing from separate houses. While Johnson had an excellent wit, this pun doesn't seem to have been his. It's not in Primary Source Media's CD-ROM; importantly, many seem to think it came from Sydney Smith.

    I have found the world kinder than I expected, but less just.

    Tough to tell how this paraphrase started, but it's been used by those as well-known as John Derbyshire, a prominent political writer and Johnson fan.

    But it's not in the canon; I checked the Thomson Primary Source Media CD-ROM, and the line doesn't come up when I search on it in its entirety or on key components. The source could be this April 1778 conversation which Boswell provides in the Life (Boswell obscured the participants' names with letters, but I'm supplying the names as Boswell recorded them in his journals):

    Burke. 'From the experience which I have had,--and I have had a great deal,--I have learnt to think better of mankind.' JOHNSON: 'From my experience I have found them worse in commercial dealings, more disposed to cheat, than I had notion of; but more disposed to do one another good than I had conceived.' Gibbon. 'Less just and more beneficent.' JOHNSON. 'And really it is wonderful, considering how much attention is necessary for men to take care of themselves, and ward off immediate evils which press upon them, it is wonderful how much they do for others. As it is said of the greatest liar, that he tells more truth than falsehood; so it may be said of the worst man, that he does more good than evil.'

    I am indebted to Stephen Ostrach for both pointing out the apocryphal quote as well as its potential origin.

    A man is seldom more innocently occupied than when he is engaged in making money.

    Close to something Johnson might have said, but not quite. Here's what's in an entry in Boswell's Life of Johnson, for March 27, 1775:

    Mr. Strahan put Johnson in mind of a remark which he had made to him; 'There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.' 'The more one thinks of this, (said Strahan,) the juster it will appear.'

    Note that the words are slightly different, and also note that we have to assume the meaning of 'he' being Johnson and 'him' being Strahan. Knowing that Boswell revised Johnson's words betweeen the 1st and 2nd editions of the Life, I did some additional checking. I have an edition which shows variants in the editions, and there's no indication of any variation. Secondly, I also checked the trade edition of Boswell's Journals to see what Boswell had originally written, and the entry for that date doesn't include this. Which isn't to say it was a fabrication, it may have been a reconstruction; in many instances Boswell used his Journals to spur his recollection.

    There may have been a later edition of Boswell, maybe Croker's, which used this form. Ralph Waldo Emerson quoted it in the popular form in his notes, and while his editors located the source they didn't note any deviation between what Emerson noted and the copy where he'd made red marks around the line.

    The world is like a grand staircase, some are going up and some are going down.

    I can't find anything to support this being Johnson's in the Primary Sources Media CD-ROM talked about elsewhere on this page. I couldn't even find it by searching on isolated words, rather than combineations.As an aside, I'd also like to point out that it doesn't sound like him. And secondly, there are some who suggest it's an Italian proverb. So I'm calling this apocryphal. I'm happy to retract that classification if anyone can point to a legitimate source in Johnson's writings or his biographies.

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