Who was fighting? Russians? French? Zulus? English? Prussians? Boers?
Dear Quote Investigator: When I worked on a student newspaper in college I was told a story about a late night editor at a major newspaper who received a terse wire report saying the “Russians Have Taken Umbrage”. The editor did not know the meaning of this phrase, and his attempt to locate “Umbrage” on a map failed. However, he was certain that this was a significant news item. The next day the paper bannered something like:
Umbrage Captured; Defenders Retreat in Disarray
I have never seen a copy of the actual news article, but the time period was World War II. Is this a newspaperman’s legend, or is there some truth in this anecdote?
Quote Investigator: First, to understand this humorous tale it is helpful to know that “to take umbrage” means “to take offense” or “to be displeased”.
Jokes based on misunderstanding “umbrage” in a military context stretch far back in time. QI has located a variant that uses this form of wordplay in “The Town and Country Magazine” in 1782. The setting of this jape is “During the war between France and England in the last reign.” The following narrative describes the experiences of a newspaper reader who is initially made unhappy by what he reads. In the text the word “Damn” is represented by “D—n” [TCFE]:
Coming to a paragraph which informed him that the French had taken umbrage, he removed his spectacles from his nose with unusual precipitation, and exclaimed, with an eagerness which evidently proceeded from the strength of his feelings, though it was at the expence of his understanding–“D–n these fellows, they will have every town they come to if they go on at this here rate.”
When he had vented his indignation at the taking umbrage, he resumed his paper, and finding, soon afterwards, in another page that the English had taken cognizance, his face brightened up amazingly; looking round the room with an air of satisfaction he said, “Aye, aye, this is something like; now we are even with the powder-puffs; aye, aye, tis’ high time to put a spoke into Mounsheer’s wheels.”
“To take cognizance” means “to take notice” or “to acknowledge”. “Mounsheer” is a deliberate misspelling of the French word “Monsieur” which is a courtesy title equivalent to the English ‘Mr.’ The passage appears in a section called “Letters to the Delineator’ and the letter writer is named Samuel Snug.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1787 the yarn appeared in a document printed in Dublin, Ireland. A footnote was provided to give an explanation for the wordplay [DITU]:
In this manner, at a distance from the scene of action, were numbers alarmed at the report of the taking of Umbrage [footnote]. To give a history of the false accounts propagated in the public papers, and of the manoeuvres of tithe-dealers, would be an endless talk.
[footnote] As the words require an explanation, for the instruction of several, it is fit to remark, that when it was reported in the papers that the French had taken Umbrage at the proceedings of the English, some wiseacres imagined that Umbrage was the name of some great city. The mistake of the meaning of a word often leads into error.
In 1795 the jest was retold by a British adventurer, and the context was switched to the American Revolutionary war [RWTU]:
During the late American War, … a worthy Alderman in Dublin, reading the newspaper, observed a paragraph, intimating, that in consequence of British cruisers having stopped some French vessels at sea, and searched them, France had taken umbrage! The sagacious Alderman, more patriotic than learned, took the alarm, and proceeded, with the paper in his hand, directly to a brother of the Board, and, with unfeigned sorrow, deplored the loss his Country had sustained, in having a place of such consequence as UMBRAGE ravished from it! — desiring, of all things, to be informed in what part of the world Umbrage lay.
The elaborate anecdote concluded with the Alderman’s mistake being widely publicized. Mockery by the general populace was his unfortunate fate.
In 1828 the story appeared in an Albany, New York periodical that covered Masonry and miscellaneous topics. This version referred to a different belligerent nation, the Dutch, and one clever salesman claimed that the fall of Umbrage had already caused an increase in the price of sugar. The dialog featured a Scottish dialect [AMTU]:
During the American revolutionary war, a country laird made his appearance in a certain market town, not one hundred miles distant from the border. A few idlers (no very unusual thing,) were lounging in front of the shop of the Bailie of the burg, amongst whom the laird espied the village Aesculapius, who was his political oracle, and thus addressed him:- “How’s a’ wi’ ye the day, Doctor? Ony political news?” “Nothing very particular,” replied the Doctor; “only it is said, that the Dutch have taken umbrage at –.”
Here the Doctor got a touch on his shoulder from his shop-boy, who acquainted him that a valuable patient was waiting for him, and he broke off abruptly from his political laird. “Taken Umbrage!” exclaimed the laird; “mercy upon us! hae they ta’en Umbrage! Bailie, ken ye if it’s a wa’d town or no?” “A wa’d town!” says the Bailie; “nae sic thing; it’s a sugar island, and ane o’ the sweetest o’ them; the article’s up already; but ye shall hae a stane weight hame wi’ ye at the auld price.”
In 1882 Frank Leslie’s Ladies’ Magazine published a version of the tale that was somewhat closer the variant presented by the questioner. In this anecdote a newspaper sub-editor made a mistake instead of a newspaper reader [FLTU]:
He was a man of considerable wit. During the Franco-Prussian War he was much annoyed by the stupidity of a country sub-editor with whom he had to do, and he determined to play him a trick. So, late one evening, when he knew nobody else would be handy to keep the obtuse one from making a blunder, he telegraphed through to him, “The Prussians have taken umbrage.” The sub-editor, glad of a piece of news, however late, came out with large bills and headings, “Capture of Umbrage by the Prussians.” He never bothered the contributor any more.
In 1889 James Matthew Barrie used the trope in his novel “When a Man’s Single: A Tale of Literary Life”. The Scottish dramatist and author is best known today as the creator of the enduring figure Peter Pan. In Barrie’s novel a character had been given the nickname Umbrage and the author explained why in the following paragraphs [JBTU]:
Rob heard now how Tomlinson came to be nicknamed Umbrage.
“He was subediting one night,” Walsh explained, “during the time of an African war, and things were going so smoothly that he and Penny were chatting amicably together about the advantage of having a few Latin phrases in a leader, such as dolce far niente, or cela va sans dire–”
“I can believe that,” said Rob, “of Penny certainly.”
“Well, in the middle of the discussion an important war telegram arrived, to the not unnatural disgust of both. As is often the case, the message was misspelled, and barely decipherable, and one part of it puzzled Tomlinson a good deal. It read: ‘Zulus have taken Umbrage; English forces had to retreat.’ Tomlinson searched the map in vain for Umbrage, which the Zulus had taken; and Penny, being in a hurry, was sure it was a fortress. So they risked it, and next morning the chief lines in the Mirror contents bill were: ‘Latest News of the War; Capture of Umbrage by the Zulus.'”
In 1899 during the period of the Boer Wars the anecdote is retold in The Literary Digest. Oddly, the joke in the novel by J.M. Barrie is reinterpreted as if it referred to the Boers instead of the Zulus [LDTU]:
MR. J.M. BARRIE appears to have anticipated in quite wondrous fashion the war news that has appeared in some of the London papers of late, according to The Westminster Gazette. Says that journal: “Readers of ‘When a Man’s Single’ will remember a sub-editor who acquired the nickname of Dicky Umbrage. One of the telegrams with which he had to deal concluded with the news that ‘the Boers have taken umbrage.’ The conscientious journalist searched several atlases in vain to discover the locality of this latest achievement, and then courageously headed the paragraph with the line ‘Capture of Umbrage by the Boers.'”
In 1906 a book aimed at journalists published by The Press Guild told the anecdote as if it were non-fiction [NWTU]:
The importance of word study cannot be too strongly insisted upon, especially in English which often presents many different significations in the same word. Such study will save you from repeating the error of a certain British editor, who, when informed by wire that the “Zulus had taken umbrage,” featured the story as a sensation under the heading. “Capture of Umbrage by the Zulus.”
The funny tale has retained popularity, and in 1990 “American Literary Anecdotes” printed the following variant [ALTU]:
There is a story about the editor of a small newspaper who quickly read a wire service story during World War II stating that the Russians had taken umbrage at something, as they often did. Not knowing what the phrase meant, he headlined the story: “Russians Capture Umbrage.”
In conclusion, QI thinks that the umbrage-type story began as an amusing tall tale and evolved over more than two-hundred years. However, it probably remained in the realm of fiction. Thanks for an entertaining question.
[TCFE] 1782 November, The Town and Country Magazine; Or Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction, and Entertainment, Letter to The Delineator from Samuel Snug, Page 593, Printed for A. Hamilton, Jr., London. (Google Books full view) link
[DITU] 1787, Mr. O’Leary’s Defence; Containing a Vindication of His Conduct and Writings During the Late Disturbances in Munster, Pages 56-57, Printed by P. Byrne, Dublin. (Google Books full view) link
[RWTU] 1795, “A Journey Over Land to India, Partly by a Route Never Gone Before by Any European” by Donald Campbell, Pages 8-9, Printed for Cullen and Company, London. (Google Books full view) link
[AMTU] 1828 November 1, “American Masonick Record, and Albany Saturday Magazine”, The Gatherer: Taking Umbrage, Page 315, Printed and Published by E.B. Child, Albany, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[FLTU] 1882 October, Frank Leslie’s Ladies’ Magazine, A String of Beads, Page 383, Number 4, Frank Leslie’s Publishing House, New York. (HathiTrust) link
[JBTU] 1889, When a Man’s Single: A Tale of Literary Life by James Matthew Barrie, Page 62, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[LDTU] 1899 November 11, The Literary Digest, Notes, Page 584, Column 2, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[NWTU] 1906, The Newspaper Worker by James McCarthy, Chapter XIX, Page 74, The Press Guild, New York. (Google Books full view) link
[ALTU] 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Section: Anonymous, Page 12, Facts on File, New York. (Verified on paper)