Thursday, May 13, 2021

'Facetiously But With Respect'

Some of the things we think we know are wrong. Other things we know without knowing how we know them, which sometimes makes them wrong. And sometimes we don’t bother to ask enough questions. Take the familiar nickname given to Dr. Johnson: “the Great Cham.” What does that mean? Who gave it to him? What’s a “Cham”? Until this week I never asked. The OED is straightforward about cham: “An obsolete form of khan, formerly commonly applied to the rulers of the Tartars and Mongols; and to the emperor of China.” 

It entered English as early as the fifteenth century. Shakespeare used it in Much Ado About Nothing (1598). Modern synonyms might include “head honcho,” capo dei capi, “top dog,” El Jefe. So, who applied it to Johnson, and in what spirit? The answer is pleasing: the author of Roderick Random and Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, who writes in a March 16, 1759 letter to John Wilkes:


“I am again your Petitioner in behalf of that Great Cham of Literature, Samuel Johnson. His Black Servant, whose name is Francis Barber, has been pressed on board the Stag Frigate, Capt. Angel, and our Lexicographer is in great distress. He says the Boy is a Sickly Lad of a delicate Frame, and particularly subject to a Malady in his Throat which renders him very unfit for his Majesty’s Service.”


Smollett’s appeal was successful, as Boswell reports in his Life of Johnson:


“Mr. Wilkes, who upon all occasions has acted, as a private gentleman, with most polite liberality, applied to his friend Sir George Hay, then one of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty; and Francis Barber was discharged, as he has told me, without any wish of his own. He found his old master in Chambers in the Inner Temple, and returned to his service.”


We know Smollett’s sobriquet for Johnson because Boswell dutifully transcribed the Scot’s letter to Wilkes. In his 1974 biography of Johnson, John Wain writes that Smollett applied the nickname “facetiously but with respect.” Smollett’s humor could be raucous and cruel, though not here. In 1964, Signet published a paperback edition of Roderick Random with an afterword by John Barth, whose eighteenth-century pastiche The Sot-Weed Factor had been published in 1960. He writes of Smollett’s novel:


“The novel’s humor is mainly of the bedroom-and-chamberpot variety, running especially to more or less sadistic and unimaginative practical jokes. Money and sex Roderick values—enough, at least, to fawn, bribe, intrigue, smuggle, seduce, deceive, dissemble, and defraud to have them—but what he really gets his kicks from is revenge.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

I read Roderick Random many years ago and was delighted by its knockabout energy, to say nothing of its store of odd and eccentric expressions and turns of speech, such as this one for going without a meal: "Dining with Duke Humphrey."