He Who Would Pun Would Pick a Pocket

Alexander Pope? Samuel Johnson? Jonathan Swift? John Dennis? Anonymous?

popepocket06Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard several versions of a quotation that is beloved by people who dislike puns:

(1) He who would make a pun would pick a pocket.
(2) A man who will pun, will pick a pocket.
(3) A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket.
(4) Any man who would make such an execrable pun would not scruple to pick my pocket.

This saying has been attributed to the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson and the eminent poet Alexander Pope. Could you tell me who said it and what circumstance provoked the remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this quotation known to QI was published in a 1722 epistle by Benjamin Victor which told of a meeting in a tavern. Daniel Purcell employed a pun that caused the dramatist and critic John Dennis to react with anger and deliver a reproach. The name Dennis was partially disguised as “D—-s”; four letters were replaced with four hyphens.

To understand the pun one must know that in 1720s England the waiter in a tavern was called a “drawer”. The 1722 document adhered to a style in which nouns were capitalized. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

“Mr. Purcell and Mr. Congreve going into a Tavern, by chance met D—-s, who went in with ‘em. After a Glass or two had pass’d, Mr. Purcell, having some private Business with Mr. Congreve, wanted D—-s out of the Room, and not knowing a more certain Way than Punning, (for you are to understand, Sir, Mr. D—-s is as much surpriz’d at Pun as at a Bailiff) he proceeded after the following Manner:

He pull’d the Bell, and call’d two or three Times, but no One answering, he put his Hand under the Table, and looking full at D—-s, he said, I think this Table is like the Tavern; says D—-s, with his usual prophane Phrase) God’s death, Sir, How is this Table like the Tavern? Why, says Mr. Purcell, because here’s ne’er a Drawer in it.

Says D—-s, (starting up) God’s death, Sir, the Man that will make such an execrable Pun as that in my Company, will pick my Pocket, and so left the Room.

In this tale John Dennis sharply criticized one particular pun, and he did not attack all puns. Nevertheless, the popular modern instances of the saying are universal in condemnation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1728 the book “The Arts of Logick and Rhetorick” discussed a contest between Daniel Purcel and Mr. Swan to select the most capable punster. The contest inspired an unidentified person to employ the saying under investigation: 2

The Punster will divert the Company with one Ambiguity after another for three or four Hours together; their Hearers all the While not knowing what they wou’d be at, nor what themselves laugh at. The most noted Man, in this Way, in our Time, was Daniel Purcel, Brother to Henry. Swan, mention’d by Dryden, as one of the chief Knights of this Order, challeng’d Purcel, but was out-pun’d by him in less than two Hours. He wou’d string a hundred Words together on a Line, every one of ‘em meaning two Things, and the Auditory seldom fail’d of being transported with that Confusion of Ambiguities.

I have heard a Gentleman say on this Occasion, that a Man who will Pun, will pick a Pocket, and the Saying is not so much out of the Way as some People imagine it; Pere Bouhours comparing these Equivocals and Ambiguities to false Money and false Jewels, to put off which is as great a Crime, as to pick a Pocket.

In 1729 the “Dunciad Variorum” by Alexander Pope was published. This was the second edition of Pope’s famous satirical poem “The Dunciad”, and it included supplementary commentary about the body of the poem. One expository remark by Pope presented a version of the quote which he attributed to Dennis. Pope chided Dennis for inconsistency by claiming that Dennis had employed a pun based on the term Papal bull: 3

It may not be amiss to give an instance or two of these operations of Dulness out of the Authors celebrated in the Poem. A great Critick formerly held these clenches in such abhorrence, that he declared, “he that would pun, would pick a pocket.” Yet Mr. Dennis’s works afford us notable examples in this kind. “Alexander Pope hath sent abroad into the world as many Bulls as his namesake Pope Alexander.”

In 1734 an anonymously written biography titled “The Life of Mr. John Dennis: The Renowned Critick” included an instance of the expression. The author contended that the satirical lines in “The Dunciad” aimed at Dennis caused him to craft some puns that were aimed at Pope: 4

The Provocation he received from these, and some other Lines, made him, to be revenged, fall into the henious Offence of Punning. This Crime he had once in so great Abhorrence, that he said, no Man would make a Pun that would not pick a Pocket

In “The Gentleman’s Magazine” of July 1781 a different tale was told about the origin of the expression. The two primary participants were Dr. Garth and the poet Nicholas Rowe. Garth became irritated when Rowe asked to borrow his ornate snuff-box too many times. The pun in the following passage is based on the two Greek symbols Φ (Phi), Ρ (Rho) and on the comment of exasperation “Fie! Rowe!” John Dennis observed the interaction between Garth and Rowe and then delivered his harsh evaluation: 5

This reminds us of a pun of Garth to Rowe, who making repeated use of his snuff-box, the Doctor at last sent it to him with the two Greek letters written in the lid, Φ Ρ (Phi Ro). At this the sour Dennis was so provoked as to declare that “a man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket.”

The saying has sometimes been credited to the well-known author Jonathan Swift. Here is an example in 1816 from “The Theatrical Inquisitor and Monthly Mirror” that corrected the misapprehension and pointed to the 1722 document given previously: 6

The remark that a man who will make a pun will pick a pocket, though frequently attributed to Swift, originated with Dennis. The circumstance which gave rise to the remark is thus related in a pamphlet written by Victor, entitled “an Epistle to Sir Richard Steele, on his play called The Conscious Lovers.” 1722…

The saying has also been ascribed to the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson. For example, an 1847 biography attached the saying to Johnson, but the volume also described Johnsonian wordplay: 7

Johnson is said to have affirmed, that “a man who would make a pun, would pick a pocket.” Once, however, he accidentally made a singular one. A person who affected to live after the Greek manner, and to anoint himself with oil, was one day mentioned. Johnson, in the course of conversation on the singularity of his practice, gave him the denomination of “this man of Greece,—or grease, as you please to take it.”

The ascription to Johnson continued to circulate for many years. Here is an example from 1922 in the “Boston Herald”: 8

Dr. Samuel Johnson, as we all know, detested plays on words. The saying, “A man that will pun will pick a pocket,” is attributed to him, but will some kind gentleman tell us where and when Dr. Johnson said or wrote it?

Wordsmith H. L. Mencken included the saying in his intriguing collection “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”: 9

He that would pun would pick a pocket.
ALEXANDER POPE: The Dunciad, note,
1728 (Ascribed to “a great critic”)

In conclusion, the earliest known published anecdote in 1722 ascribed the saying to the critic John Dennis. The original remark condemned one particular pun and not all puns, but the version denouncing all puns is sharper and more memorable. Alexander Pope helped to popularize a simplified and concise version of the saying, but he credited the words to Dennis.

Image Notes: Portraits of Alexander Pope and John Dennis via Wikimedia Commons. Blue figures from Nemo on Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Edward Banatt @ArmaVirumque whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Hat tip to William J. Molinari @WJMolinari who triggered Banatt’s inquiry. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for accessing the 1722 citation. Thanks also to Joel S. Berson for help locating the 1722 citation.)


  1. Year: 1722, Title: An epistle to Sir Richard Steele, on his play, call’d, The conscious lovers. By B. Victor, Author: Benjamin Victor (died 1778), Imprint: London: Printed for W. Chetwood at Cato’s-Head in Russel-Street, Covent-Garden; S. Chapman at the Angel in Pall-Mall; J. Stagg, Westminster-Hall; J. Brotherton at the Bible in Cornhill; M. Smith in Russel-Court, Red-Lyon-Square; Tho. Edlin, over-against Exeter Exchange in the Strand, Source Library: British Library. (Database: EECO: Eighteenth Century Collections Online; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake)
  2. Year: 1728, Title: The Arts of Logick and Rhetorick, Author: Interpreted and Explain’d by Father Bouhours (Dominique Bouhours), Translator and Adapter: John Oldmixon, Quote Page: 18, Imprint: Printed for John Clark and Richard Hett, John Pemberton, Richard Ford and John Gray. (Database: Google Books) link
  3. 1729, The Dunciad: With Notes Variorum, and the Prolegomena of Scriblerus by Alexander Pope, Section: Remarks, Quote Page 60, Printed for Lawton, Gilliver, London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1734, The Life of Mr. John Dennis: The Renowned Critick, Not written by Mr. Curll (Not written by Edmund Curll), Quote Page 56, Printed for J. Roberts, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1781 July, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 51, Impartial and Critical Review of New Publications, Start Page 323, (Asterisk footnote), Quote Page 324, Printed by J. Nichols for D. Henry, London. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1816 July, The Theatrical Inquisitor and Monthly Mirror, Volume 9, The Collector No XXXI: 11.—Punning, Start Page 30, Quote Page 33, Published for the Proprietors by C. Chapple, Pall-Mall, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1847, The Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson by Rev. J. F. Russell, Quote Page 319, James Burns, London. (Google Books full view) link
  8. 1922 January 16, Boston Herald, Defenders and Objectors, Quote Page 10, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken [Henry Louis Mencken], Section: Pun, Quote Page 992, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)