Holbrook Jackson appends three epigraphs to Bookman’s Pleasure: A Recreation for Booklovers (1947), including one from The Rambler #159: “The utmost which we can reasonably hope or fear, is to fill a vacant hour with prattle and be forgotten.” No wonder Beckett loved Dr. Johnson, though the larger context moderates somewhat the blow to our vanity when the sentence is read in isolation:
“The truth is, that no man is much regarded by the rest of the world. He that considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself. While we see multitudes passing before us, of whom perhaps not one appears to deserve our notice or excite our sympathy, we should remember, that we likewise are lost in the same throng, that the eye which happens to glance upon us is turned in a moment on him that follows us, and that the utmost which we can reasonably hope or fear, is to fill a vacant hour with prattle and be forgotten.”
Some words seem genetically imbued with the DNA of a single writer and his sensibility. If sere, descry, tinct and pallid belong to Keats, Johnson owns cant and its second-cousin, prattle. The OED defines the noun form as “foolish, inconsequential, or incomprehensible talk; childish chatter; gossip or small talk,” rooted in the Middle Low German prātelen, “to chatter, to babble, to cackle.” The word is also used figuratively to mean “something resembling chatter or prattle, as the sound of birdsong, running water, etc.,” as in Louis MacNeice’s “Prattle of water, palaver [another “p” word meaning empty chatter, like persiflage and piffle] of starlings in a disused chimney.” In his Dictionary, Johnson defines prattle bluntly and memorably as “empty talk, trifling loquacity.” I like the sound of prattle, its echo of rattle (as in bones) and battle – further evidence of our vanity.
Jackson describes his anthology as a “composite portrait of a writer of books,” hinting at “what writers of books think of their predecessors, their contemporaries, and themselves.” Johnson is represented by more than twice as many quotations as Shakespeare, and the only writer showing up more often is Carlyle. Unsurprisingly, the cranky Scotsman also took a shine to prattle, though not in Jackson’s anthology. It shows up often in his letters, as in this one to his long-suffering wife, Jane Welsh Carlyle, on Aug. 24, 1831: “Lastly, write, write, O write abundantly, were it the merest prattle, it is better to me than all eloquence.” Of course, Ambrose Bierce christened his long-running newspaper column "Prattle." In its best-known appearance, Bierce wrote the definitive deflation of Oscar Wilde after the Irish gasbag’s visit to San Francisco in 1882:
“That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh.”