Saturday, November 1, 2008
[seen on wall of prison schoolhouse, Elmira, NY, 2008]
It's not "can't" with an apostrophe, but the noun "cant," as in overly expressive, extreme thoughts. Johnson has reminded Boswell to moderate his words. It comes from this exchange in Boswell's Life of Johnson:
Boswell. "Have not they vexed yourself a little, Sir? Have not you been vexed by all the turbulence of this reign, and by that absurd vote of the House of Commons, 'That the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished'?" Johnson. "Sir, I have never slept an hour less, nor eat an ounce less meat. I would have knocked the factious dogs on the head, to be sure; but I was not vexed." Boswell. "I declare, Sir, upon my honour, I did imagine I was vexed, and took a pride in it; but it was, perhaps, cant; for I own I neither ate less, nor slept less." Johnson. "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 may say, 'These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times." You don't mind the times. 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."