Johnsonese: Definition, Examples in Literature

What is Johnsonese? Give Examples


Johnsonese Definition

The use of bombastic words and expression by Dr. Samuel Johnson and his followers is called Johnsonese.  The terms surely refers to the pedantic, learned and sesquipedalian words such as phenomenon, diphtheria, intellectual, latitudinarian, parricide, nuclei etc. and the long involved sentences such as


Johnsonese Examples in Literature

1) “ The last of men was Dr. Johnson to have abetted squandering the delicacy of integrity by nullifying the labours of talent.”


2) “He ranks from inanition into nonentity.” (i.e. he was starved to death)


3) “to agitate the communicators” (i.e. to ring the bell)


4) “A sanguinary nasal protuberance” (i.e. a red nose)


5) Otto Jespersen has quoted in his book entitled Growth and Structure of the English Language the following extract to illustrate the effects of extreme Johnsonese.:


‘The proverbial oracles of our parsimonious ancestors’ 


6) Macaulay has given some delightful samples of Johnsonese:


a) Mr. Thrale was “provoked by the dullness of tactiturnity that, in the midst of such interlocutors, produced as narcotic torpor as could have been caused by a death the most barren of all human faculties.”


b) Sir Isaac Newton “is the developer of the skies in their embodied movements, exterior twin appendages, handsome volutes to the human capital.”(used to produce a humorous effect by Charles Lamb)


Use of Latin and Greek words in jocular or ironical speech: hylactism (barking), histrion (actor), edacious (greedy), the genus Homo (mankind).


In the 19th century a most happy reaction set in against Johnsonese. Charles Lamb favoured simple words and natural expressions as against pedantic and learned expression. But still now Johnosonese survives especially with the half-educated and the showy scholars. Jesperson quotes the following story from a newspaper to illustrate the lingering disease (i.e. Johnsonese)


“The young lady home from school was explaining: ‘Take an egg’, she said, and make a peforation in the base and a corresponding one in the apex. Then apply the lips to the aperture, and by forcibly inhaling the breath the shell is entirely discharged of its contents.’ An old lady who was listening exclaimed: “It beats all how folks do things nowadays. When I was a gal they made a whole in each end a sucked.”

Also Read:

The worst thing that can be said against the so-called pedantic sesquipedalian words and expressions is their undemocratic character. A great many of these words will never be used and understood by the majority.


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