"Who's for POONSH?"

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Samuel Johnson's anti-Scots prejudices are well know, as Wikipedia notes:

Although Boswell, a Scotsman, was his close companion and friend, Johnson, like many of his fellow Englishmen, had a reputation for despising Scotland and its people. Even during their journey together through Scotland, Johnson "exhibited prejudice and a narrow nationalism". Hester Thrale, in summarising Johnson's nationalistic views and his anti-Scottish prejudice, said: "We all know how well he loved to abuse the Scotch, & indeed to be abused by them in return."

I have a dim (perhaps false?) memory that his prejudices included a complaint about the use of final rises on declarative sentences, a documented feature of Scottish English (see e.g. the examples in this 2008 post). But I (very lightly) skimmed Johnson's A Journey to the Western Isles of Scotland, Boswell's parallel The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, and Boswell's Life Of Johnson, without finding any basis for my belief. If anyone can do better, I'll be grateful.

However, I did stumble on an interesting fragment about Johnson's own accent, from a passage in Boswell's Life of Johnson about their visit to Lichfield:

I saw here, for the first time, oat ale; and oat cakes not hard as in Scotland, but soft like a Yorkshire cake, were served at breakfast. It was pleasant to me to find, that Oats, the food of horses, were so much used as the food of the people in Dr. Johnson's own town. He expatiated in praise of Lichfield and its inhabitants, who, he said, were 'the most sober, decent people in England, the genteelest in proportion to their wealth, and spoke the purest English.' I doubted as to the last article of this eulogy: for they had several provincial sounds; as THERE, pronounced like FEAR, instead of like FAIR; ONCE pronounced WOONSE, instead of WUNSE, or WONSE. Johnson himself never got entirely free of those provincial accents. Garrick sometimes used to take him off, squeezing a lemon into a punch-bowl, with uncouth gesticulations, looking round the company, and calling out, 'Who's for POONSH?'





  1. Terry Hunt said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 6:03 pm

    I have sometimes wondered if Johnson's anti-Scottishness was genuine, or at least in part a long-sustained joke, particularly at Boswell's expense.

    As an Englishman, I myself have encountered and participated in a feigned shared distain of all things French from the Normans onward, even though in reality I – and I'm sure my fellow interlocutors – respect French culture, the French language, and French people (OK, maybe not Parisians :-) ).

  2. Dick Margulis said,

    February 29, 2024 @ 6:32 pm

    Regarding "THERE, pronounced like FEAR, instead of like FAIR; ONCE pronounced WOONSE, instead of WUNSE, or WONSE," I encountered that feature one time when flying on Air New Zealand. The flight attendant making the preflight announcements (and thankfully not the rest of the crew) was from Weeeelington, and we were going to be earborne shortly. He was the only crew member I had trouble understanding, although I got used to it after a few minutes. But it leads me to wonder whether there's a historic connection between the settling of Wellington and Johnson's hometown of Lichfield.

  3. RfP said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 1:36 am

    Also from an Air New Zealand flight attendant, cautioning passengers about to stow their carry-ons: “Mind your heed!”

    If only I could heed my mind…

  4. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 6:02 am

    @Terry Hunt

    It would be chauvinistic to allege that banter is a uniquely British phenomenon, but it seems to me that it is more pervasive and accepted in the islands.

    I've heard Germans express surprise at how far it can go between British friends .

  5. AntC said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 6:30 am

    But it leads me to wonder whether there's a historic connection between the settling of Wellington and Johnson's hometown of Lichfield.

    Ex-Brit now living in NZ speaking. And although I lived in London and Yorkshire, I worked for several years in Lichfield. I hear no similarity between the accents. New Zealand English Phonology — and the top of that article links to the history of NZ English: Irish and Scottish influence is notable; I see no special mention of Midlands English.

    Also beware a large proportion of AirNZ flight attendants (especially on International) are not NZ-born. So the accent you heard might have been a mashup of originally UK with only traces of NZ.

    The Lichfield accent (NE. Midlands) is notably different from mainstream Midlands accents like Birmingham. A bit more like Wolverhampton — but that is decidedly its own thing.

    There's a few places around NZ named for Lichfield, but none in Wellington AFAICT.

  6. Philip Anderson said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 8:22 am

    Boswell was clearly alluding to Johnson’s own famous quote in his description of Lichfield: “Oats. A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.”
    Re banter in Britain (particularly England): this is often a bone of contention since one man’s banter is another man’s racism or misogyny.

  7. KeithB said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 9:44 am

    "one man’s banter is another man’s racism or misogyny."
    Otherwise known as "punching down", the bane of conservative comedians everywhere.

  8. Terry Hunt said,

    March 1, 2024 @ 11:11 am

    @ Philip Anderson – re "especially in England": while English, I lived for most of my late teens and twenties in Scotland, and experienced a good deal of anti-English banter. Initially this surprised me, because I had previously encountered almost no anti-Scottish attitudes in England.

    The last two or three decades seem to me to have featured a general rise in nationally directed banter. As Peter Grubtal suggests above, interpersonal banter has long been a feature of British male culture, where mutual insult levels are inversely proportional to friendship. National (or county) origins once played no greater part in this than physical or personality characteristics, just one more peg on which to hang a quip. Perhaps the increasing prominence of independence movements has added an edge.

  9. Philip Anderson said,

    March 2, 2024 @ 4:28 am

    @Terry Hunt
    I have heard the same about Wales, but that wasn’t my experience when I lived there as an Englishman. Whereas jokes about nobody speaking Welsh until an English person arrives are pretty common in the media.

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    March 2, 2024 @ 10:34 am

    @Peter Grubtal:

    See the section on the (very different) social roles of teasing among Torguud and Kazakh pastoralists in Mongolia, described in Francisco Gil-White's 2005 paper "Is ethnocentrism adaptive?" (especially the discussion and anecdotes on pages 12-23).

  11. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 2, 2024 @ 11:43 am

    @Mark Liberman
    Thanks for the interesting link, although I haven't fully digested it yet.
    I liked this:

    learning to enjoy public teasing and ridicule is quite a feat if one
    grows up in a community where this is usually a personal attack rather than a comradely
    show of affection.

  12. Peter Taylor said,

    March 4, 2024 @ 3:13 pm

    Philip Anderson wrote:

    one man’s banter is another man’s racism or misogyny

    … or terrorist threat.

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