‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance’ – Johnson (Samuel, not Boris)

Samuel Johnson, renowned man of letters in the eighteenth century, wrote, almost single-handed, the first great reliable dictionary of English.  It was published in 1755 by a consortium of printers, among whom were the founders of Longman, the publishers I worked for, publishing dictionaries, for over 30 years.

Johnson was famous for his acerbic wit, as well as for usually thinking he was always right … But he had made a mistake in the dictionary.  He had defined the word pastern (part of a horse’s leg near the hoof) as the knee of a horse, which was wrong. 

When a woman asked him why he had done this, his answer was: ‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.’  At one stroke, he put the woman in her place for asking such a silly question, yet also took full responsibility for the mistake.

I wonder if that other famous Johnson (Boris) would be so honest and straightforward in admitting he was wrong …

But is this a mistake?

I heard a winning chef say this on the Great British Menu TV programme:

‘I didn’t expect that to happen, whatsoever.’

Well, yes, it is a mistake. The chef should have said ‘I didn’t expect that to happen, at all.’ However, this use of whatsoever is increasingly common in spoken or casual British English.

Why is it wrong?

It’s wrong because in correct English, you can only use whatsoever to emphasize a noun, usually in a negative sentence, but also in certain other types of sentences or clauses. So you can say: ‘If I can help you in any way whatsoever, just let me know.’ Or: ‘Can I help you in any way whatsoever?’ But there has to be a noun (in this case way) if you want to use whatsoever to emphasize what you’re saying.

NB It’s always acceptable to use at all, with both nouns and verbs, as in: ‘If I can help you in any way at all, just let me know.’

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2 thoughts on “‘Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance’ – Johnson (Samuel, not Boris)

  1. Interesting Della. It prompted two memories: of my lexicographer days on the Harrap German-English dictionary in the 1960s and, of course Blackadder…

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