A Whining Pretension to Goodness
I had to smile the other day on finding out about the "re-purposing" of a favorite quote.
The quote is from Dr Johnson, one of the most quotable men that ever lived. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations — the good 1953 edition, not the crappy later ones — gives Johnson 9½ pages: not in the same league as Shakespeare (66 pages) or the King James Bible (28½), but competitive with Tennyson (14), the Book of Common Prayer (13½), Milton (13), and Kipling (10¾).
The quote is from a conversation Johnson had in his chambers with James Boswell on May 15th, 1783, which Boswell of course recorded in his diary. Johnson was 73 years old; Boswell, 42.
Boswell expresses a wish to go into Parliament, but wonders if it would make him less happy because he might "be vexed if things went wrong." Johnson pooh-poohs that, saying Boswell would be no more vexed as a legislator than he would be as a common citizen, adding: "Publick affairs vex no man."
Boswell counters that he thought Johnson had sometimes expressed vexation over politics. Johnson ripostes: "I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed."
To VEX: (1) To plague; to torment; to harass. (2) To disturb; to disquiet. (3) To trouble with slight provocations.
Boswell says he'd imagined himself vexed by politics: "But it was perhaps cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less."
Then comes the quote I cherish.
Says the sage: "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 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 italics in that opening commandment are absolutely necessary, as the rest make clear. Johnson did not object to people speaking insincerely for the purpose of lubricating social exchanges. Most of us agree with him on this, and the few who don't are annoying and unpersuasive.
What's happened there is that Johnson's word "cant" has been mistakenly read as, or deliberately transformed into, "can't," with an apostrophe, making it motivational: "Clear your mind of CAN'T!"
I wish I knew how many of the numerous instances of re-purposing I found are mistakenly-read, vs. how many deliberately-transformed. I darkly suspect that most are the former, and that the very useful and expressive word "cant" is less and less understood. Ngram confirms that usage has fallen off, showing "cant" as four times more frequent in 1800 than in 2000 (though there was an encouraging uptick from 1996 to 2008). An averagely-educated English-speaker of our time, seeing the word "cant," probably assumes that the apostrophe was accidentally dropped from "can't."
The word "cant" was commonly used in the 17th and early 18th centuries to mean the speech peculiar to some group. That's how Lord Chesterfield used it in a 1748 letter of life advice to his son:
Every company … has its particular cant and jargon; which may give occasion to wit and mirth within that circle, but would seem flat and insipid in any other.
By the 1766 edition of Johnson's Dictionary the word had gained another meaning, one with more bite:
A whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms.
The first meaning given today by Dictionary.com follows that one: "insincere, especially conventional expressions of enthusiasm for high ideals, goodness, or piety."
That's the meaning we need to recover; for if the word is in decline, the thing, as just defined, is ever more abundant. Modern political discourse consists of little more than the Tinkertoy assembly of cant phrases into speeches: Fix the schools! Out of the shadows! Our brave men and women in uniform! The schools are fine; the "shadow" people are demonstrating in front of TV cameras; and the average American mandarin would faint in horror on hearing that his child had joined the military. Yet still they cant.
Practically anything you read or hear about racism, sexism, and homophobia is cant. The most punctilious anti-racists flee like rats from black neighborhoods; the dearth of women mathematicians, in an age when women form an actual majority of college students, is widely understood to be a matter of female preferences, not discrimination; and sensible parents do not leave their kids alone with sexually eccentric adults. Yet the cant goes on.
The reason for this rising tide of cant is not hard to figure. Cant is a smokescreen obscuring unpleasant realities. When I greet a person with the cant phrase, "How are you?" I am signaling that I want to be on friendly terms with him, while obscuring the fact that in my current state of unleavened egocentricity — the state most of us are in most of the time — I couldn't care less about his precise physical condition.
Unpleasant realities have never been popular, and spoken cant smooths out social exchanges as well as it ever did. Reading and listening to the dominant voices in our society, though, I feel sure that a great many of their minds need clearing of cant.