The Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language Are “Check Enclosed”

Dorothy Parker? Douglass Malluch? Douglas Malloch? Henry James? Credit Man for a New York Hat House? Anonymous?

parkerchk04Dear Quote Investigator: During a recent discussion with friends we tried to construct a list of great jokes that will be obsolete within a few decades. Here is one that is credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker who worked as a freelance writer and received payments via the mail:

The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘cheque enclosed’.

With the growth of electronic payments and the reduction in mail delivery this quip may become anachronistic. I was unable to find a good citation. Could you tell me when Parker wrote this?

Quote Investigator: In 1932 an Associated Press article reported on a list of words compiled by Wilfred J. Funk, the president of the dictionary company Funk & Wagnalls. The list presented Funk’s conception of the “10 most beautiful words in the English language”: dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, and melody. Many commentators criticized the collection and when the reporter queried Parker she suggested an alternative: 1

Dorothy Parker, poet, said she considered cellar-door the most beautiful word but that those she liked to see best were cheque and enclosed.

Note that Parker did not actually claim that cheque and enclosed were beautiful words. She simply indicated that she liked to see them. Nevertheless, by 1958 Parker’s name was attached to the common modern version of the quip. Here is an example in the “Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor”: 2

DOROTHY PARKER, when asked for the two most beautiful words in the English language: “Check enclosed.”
—Bernardine Kielty in Book-of-the-Month Club News

Many years before Parker’s 1932 remark several versions of the basic joke were already in circulation. In December 1903 the monthly trade publication The American Hatter published an instance. The adjective “sweetest” was used instead of “most beautiful” and the key phrase was four words instead of two: 3

A good story is being told of a prominent credit man for a New York hat house which runs thus: A Philadelphia magazine having offered a prize for the best answer to the question “Which are the four sweetest words in the English language?” our friend the credit man secured the prize by sending in a slip on which he wrote these words: “Enclosed please find check.”

This same witticism about the “four sweetest words” was further disseminated in the Washington Post on December 10, 1903 and in other newspapers. 4 5 Special thanks to Andrew Steinberg who identified and located this early version of the joke.

In March 1906 the Boston Globe of Massachusetts printed a version which used three words for the key phrase: 6

The sweetest words of typewriter or pen: “Inclosed find check.”

In the same month of 1906 the quip was presented in a short poem format in a Maryland paper which acknowledged a Wisconsin paper: 7

I love to get letters,
But the sweetest, by heck,
Are the ones that begin with:
“Inclosed please find check.”
Milwaukee Sentinel.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1910 the humor column of the Chicago Tribune called “A Line-O’-Type Or Two” printed the gag under the title “The Three Sweetest Words”. This version was reprinted in several newspapers and periodicals, with an acknowledgement to the Tribune, e.g., the Flint Journal of Flint, Michigan 8 and The State of Columbia, South Carolina: 9

Three sweetest words? They are, by heck,
That lovely phrase, “Enclosed find check.”
E. W.

An allusive instance of the humorous statement was printed on Valentine’s Day of 1911 in the Boston Globe. The phrase “Minot’s light” in the following passage referred to a lighthouse off the coast of Massachusetts. The flashing light from the lamp used the pattern of 1-4-3, and this sequence of numbers also corresponded to the number of letters in the expression “I Love You”; a fact known to the Boston Globe readership: 10

To the lover perhaps the most beautiful words in the English language are those spelled out by the flash of Minot’s light “1-4-3,” but the heart of the married man is often gladdened more by “Enclosed please find check.”

In 1913 The Judge reprinted a short verse from a college magazine that comically contrasted the saddest and the sweetest words: 11

The Sweetest Words

The saddest words of tongue or pen
May be, perhaps, “It might have been.”
The sweetest words we know, by heck!
Are only these, “Inclosed find check!”
—Minnesota Minne-Ha-Ha.

In 1914 the periodical American Lumberman published a satirical poem titled “Three Words” which embellished the jape. The verse was placed in “The Lumberman Poet” section, and an advertisement in the November 28, 1914 issue identified Douglas Malloch as “The Lumberman Poet”: 12

There are three words, the sweetest words
In all of human speech—
More sweet than are the songs of birds
Or pages poets preach.

This life may be a vale of tears,
A sad and dreary thing—
Three words, and trouble disappears
And birds begin to sing.

Three words, and all the roses bloom,
The sun begins to shine.
Three words will dissipate the gloom
And water turn to wine.

Three words will cheer the saddest days.
“I love you”? Wrong, by heck!—
It is another, sweeter phrase,
“Enclosed find check”.

When the poem above was reprinted the ascription sometimes misspelled the author’s name. For example, a South Carolina newspaper provided this acknowledgment: 13

Douglass Malluch in American Lumberman

In 1932 Dorothy Parker was asked to comment on the topic of beautiful words as noted previously in this article:

Dorothy Parker, poet, said she considered cellar-door the most beautiful word but that those she liked to see best were cheque and enclosed.

In 1934 the prominent writer Edith Wharton described a conversation she had with the literary figure Henry James during which he invoked the notion of beautiful words with serious intent: 14

For a long time no one spoke; then James turned to me and said solemnly: “Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” They were the essence of that hushed scene, those ancient walls: and I never hear them spoken without seeing the towers of Bodiam mirrored in their enchanted moat.

In 1958 the Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor ascribed a version of the remark to Parker as mentioned previously. In 1984 the Cynic’s Lexicon by Jonathon Green also credited a version of the saying to Parker: 15

DOROTHY PARKER
1893-1967 American poet and screenwriter
The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘Cheque Enclosed’.

In conclusion, in 1932 Dorothy Parker did indicate that the words she liked to see best were “cheque and enclosed”. The current version of the quip attached to her name probably evolved from her 1932 remark. However, the joke has a long history and versions of it were being disseminated by the early 1900s. Simple instances of the jape should probably be labeled anonymous. The multi-stanza poem given above was composed by Douglas Malloch.

(Thanks to correspondent Andrew Steinberg who notified QI of the December 1903 version of the quip.)

Update history: On March 1, 2013 the 1903 citations to the American Hatter, Washington Post and Warren Republican were added.

Notes:

  1. 1932 December 12, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Poet’s ’10 Most Beautiful Words’ Start an Argument, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1958, Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor, Selected by the Editors of the Reader’s Digest, Quote Page 362, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1903 December, The American Hatter, (Freestanding short article), Quote Page 54, Column 1, The Gallison & Hobron Company, 13 Astor Place, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1903 December 10, Washington Post, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1903 December 31, The Warren Republican (Williamsport Warren Republican), (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Williamsport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1906 March 4, Boston Sunday Globe (Boston Globe), Editorial Points, Quote Page 36, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) (The newspaper image shows “Inclosed”)
  7. 1906 March 23, Baltimore American, In the Best of Humor, Quote Page 8, Column 8, Baltimore, Maryland. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1910 February 24, Flint Daily Journal, Just A Smile Or Two, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Flint, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1910 March 2, The State, Spice, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Columbia, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  10. 1911 February 14, Boston Globe, Editorial Points, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  11. 1913 March 22, The Judge, Volume 64 Section: Advertising pages near back of issue, With The College Wits: The Sweetest Words, Unnumbered Page, Published by Leslie-Judge Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  12. 1914 October 31, American Lumberman, The Lumberman Poet: Three Words, Quote Page 45, Column 2, Published by The American Lumberman, Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust) link
  13. 1915 April 30, The State, Three Words, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Columbia, South Carolina.
  14. 1934, A Backward Glance by Edith Wharton, Quote Page 249, D. Appleton-Century Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  15. 1984, The Cynic’s Lexicon by Jonathon Green, Section: Dorothy Parker, Page 152, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified on paper)