The memeification of Dr. Johnson

Or, resurrecting history’s most quotable man

When a man is tired of memes, he is tired of life.

Samuel Johnson’s original observation pertained to his hometown of London, the streets of which he knew better than most. As a man of letters and author of a best-selling dictionary, he wrote volumes. But nowadays, in the words of one English professor, “Samuel Johnson is one of those figures whom everyone quotes and no one reads.” (The use of “whom” is how you know an English professor wrote that.) 

That’s perhaps as it should be: As the subject of the first modern biography, Johnson (1709-84) was known as the best social talker who ever lived. And 228 years after his death, referencing Johnson’s portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds became a universally recognized expression of this profane sentiment: 

Samuel Johnson Reaction. reaction image OC i just made.. DAFUQ DID I JUST READ?. I saved that one. Kudos to you.

First used in 2012, according to the scholars at Know Your Meme, the captioned pics of Dr. J “circulated online, typically used as reaction images to express disgust or bewilderment.” In some variations, the paper reading material is replaced with a monitor, which is frankly too literal. The best version is animated, mashing up two of Reynolds’ paintings to bring Johnson flickering back to life:

Why did Dr. Johnson become, for a few years in the mid-2010s, the avatar of message-board befuddlement? Was he chosen for the meta-cleverness of wordlessly quoting and thus rendering speechless a great talker? Or was the simple genius of Sir Joshua’s painting all that mattered? Let’s assume that his digital resurrection was purposeful, as Johnson did say:

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”

Which could well work as a more polite caption for that image. Of those who post reaction gifs rather than respond with an original retort, though, he might have said:

“I hate a fellow whom pride, or cowardice, or laziness drives into a corner, and who does nothing when he is there but sit and growl; let him come out as I do and bark.”

And in a letter to the painter Reynolds, Johnson remarked that: 

Every man has a lurking wish to appear considerable in his native place.”

He appears considerable in this Imgur post, wherein a young couple is delighted to find that old guy from the memes hanging in a museum. In a way, Samuel Johnson continues to be quoted. And that seems as it should be.


Quick quips; lightning

Like Shakespeare, many of Johnson’s observations are so well known it’s easy to forget someone originally said them. A few chart-topping hits and some deep cuts:

Hell is paved with good intentions.

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

(Though Ambrose Bierce later corrected him: “With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.”)

No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.

Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable. 

Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.

I hate mankind, for I think myself one of the best of them, and I know how bad I am.

A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.


So I guess that was the 43rd issue of Get Wit Quick, the Internet’s leading source of cucumber recipes. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting is a scheme of merriment. What the ♥️ did you just read?