The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

by James Boswell

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"A Jest Breaks No Bones"

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Context: A group of men who practised law in the lower courts of Edinburgh had obtained a royal charter, In that document they took great care to have their old designation of "procurator" changed to "solicitor," on the foolish basis that the latter title was more genteel. They quickly made great public use of their new title in advertising their meetings. The group's undue emphasis upon their name, plus the other meanings attached to the words "procurer" and "solicitor," gave rise to at least one instance of ridicule: The Caledonian Mercury, a Scottish newspaper, printed a paragraph which made the group the butt of its humor. The Society of Solicitors proceeded to prosecute the publisher of the newspaper, a Mr. Robertson, for damages to their reputation. The court dismissed the original action, but the Society of Solicitors petitioned for a new trial in the Court of Session; for the second trial James Boswell was counsel for the defense. Boswell reports that Dr. Johnson, when told of the whole matter by Boswell, offered the following opinion of the case:

"All injury is either of the person, the fortune, or the fame. Now it is a certain thing, it is proverbially known that a jest breaks no bones. They have never gained half-a-crown less in the whole profession since this mischievous paragraph has appeared; and, as to their reputation, What is their reputation but an instrument of getting money? If, therefore, they have lost no money, the question upon reputation may be answered by a very old position,–De minimis non curat Praetor."

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