[Ads-l] Quote: Clear your mind of cant (can't)

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue Dec 22 22:36:54 UTC 2015

Geoffrey Nunberg wrote:
> My favorite modern misquotation is from Boswell's Life of
> Johnson. Boswell delivers himself of some conventional
> political platitudes, and Johnson tells him: "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 talk in this
> manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don't think
> foolishly."

> In recent years the first sentence of Johnson's reproach has
> acquired an apostrophe in its last word, as "Clear your mind of
> can't," and now enjoys a second life as a slogan on inspirational
> posters featuring pictures of triumphant athletes, mountain
> climbers and the like.

This is a wonderful example of a homophone-based (or eggcorn-based)
misquotation. Below are some citations with "can't" beginning in 1929.

For some early citations I am uncertain of the meaning that the writer
(or excerpter) was attempting to convey with "can't". Perhaps the
writer, editor, or typesetter was simply misspelling "cant" as
"can't". Alternatively, the writer may have intended "can't" to be
interpreted as "cannot". Clearly, the modern inspirational posters
have shifted the semantics to "cannot".

In the first example below the writer is encouraging the reader to
join a contest.

[ref] 1929 May 28, Woodland Daily Democrat, Eyes Shut to Chance
Offered by Plane Gift, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Woodland, California.

[Begin excerpt]
The man or woman who WAKES UP to the fact that the fear of competition
that is keeping the next fellow out, is PRECISELY the thing that is
going to help him or her most is working for the prize, WILL ENTER THE

It's Fiddlesticks

Samuel Johnson used to say "Clear your mind of can't." That is exactly
what this competition complex is--CAN'T, FIDDLESTICKS. NONSENSE
[End excerpt]

In 1939 the altered quotation from Johnson was used as a filler item

[ref] 1939 October 19, The Albert City Appeal, Clearing the Mind
(Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Albert City, Iowa.

[Begin excerpt]
Clearing the Mind

My dear friend, clear your mind of can't. You may talk as other people
do . . . but don't think foolishly.--Samuel Johnson.
[End excerpt]

[ref] 1953 January 15, Los Angeles Times, An Airing of Minds by Holmes
Alexander (McNaught Syndicate), Quote Page A5, Column 5, Los Angeles,
California. (ProQuest)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
The Eisenhower administration will make its first major mistake if it
fails to recognize the change in climate which has been taking place.
Samuel Johnson's advice to young writers--"Clear your mind of
can't"--is a perfect admonition for the incoming Secretary of State,
Mr. Dulles. He could profitably spend several days doing nothing else
than clearing out the cobweb theories and the Simple Simon slogans of
his predecessor.
[End excerpt]

[ref] 1996 December 6, Rocky Mountain News, This Genius Opens Minds,
Author/Byline: Gary Massaro, Quote Page 50A, Denver, Colorado.
(NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
This could be Todd Siler's philosophy of thinking:
Clear your mind of "can't."
Siler, 43, is an author, artist and deep thinker.
He said anyone can be a deep thinker. And he has written Think Like a Genius.
[End excerpt]


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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