In “Dr. Johnson” (Literary Distractions, 1958), Monsignor Ronald Knox defends the lexicographer against the customary slurs, including gratuitous sesquipedalianism, an offense I’ve never associated with him. Some writers and speakers use long or exotic-sounding words to appear intelligent or to obscure the emptiness of what they are pretending to say, but that was never Johnson’s way. He remained ever on guard for cant and pomposity, linguistic and otherwise. Perhaps the accusation comes from increasingly unlettered readers and critics who prefer their prose with Dick-and-Jane plainness. Teasingly, Knox does not specify the sentence of monosyllables deployed by Johnson in Journey (1775), an account of his visit to Scotland with Boswell in 1773, but his casual aside moved me to look for likely candidates.
One quickly finds passages dense with one-syllable words and longer words that are nevertheless familiar. This is from the chapter titled “Coriatachan in Sky”: “The weather was next day too violent for the continuation of our journey; but we had no reason to complain of the interruption. We saw in every place, what we chiefly desired to know, the manners of the people. We had company, and, if we had chosen retirement, we might have had books.”
Some of Johnson’s sentences meet Knox’s criterion but hardly seem among his best: “The sea was smooth.” “The oats that are not parched must be dried in a kiln.” Here is a sentence (from “Mull”) with three common polysyllables, the rest all words of one syllable: “He that pines with hunger, is in little care how others shall be fed.” This sentence also possesses the virtue of being identifiably Johnsonian, even out of context. His compassionate realism shines through. This next sentence is all monosyllables but for two words: “The bed stood upon the bare earth, which a long course of rain had softened to a puddle.”
I have been unable to find the sentence Knox describes. Perhaps he was merely being provocative, hoping some fool would reread Journey with his observation in mind. But the search was not fruitless. I established that word length alone is indeterminate of prose quality, even in the hands of a master. A terse, nugget-like sentence is not necessarily good prose, nor is a behemoth of polysyllables necessarily bombast. Most of Johnson’s sentences are pre-Hemingway in length and complexity (even more so in his periodical essays and Live of the Poets than in his travel book). They defy today’s style manuals, making it even less likely that he would able to write them exclusively with multisyllabic words. Eighteenth-century clarity shares little with the twenty-first-century version.
On the page after the passage quoted at the top, Knox quotes this Johnsonian prodigy: “Among the anfractuosities of the human mind, I know not if it may be one, that there is a superstitious reluctance to sit for a picture.” Unsurprisingly, the OED cites Johnson’s usage, taken from Boswell’s Life, in its entry for anfractuosity. It means “involution, intricacy, obliquity” – an apt description of both the mind and the brain – from the Latin for “winding, roundabout.” In other words, we ought to laud Johnson for precision, not fault him for polysyllabic exhibitionism. The world is anfractuous, and so are we.