What Is the Difference Between a Misfortune and a Calamity?

Benjamin Disraeli? Napoleon III? French Academician? Mr. Snigger? Suffragette? Apocryphal?

thames08Dear Quote Investigator: The statesman Benjamin Disraeli was famous for his witticisms and barbs. Reportedly he was once asked about the difference in meaning between the words “misfortune” and “calamity”, and he constructed a jest aimed at his political rival William Ewart Gladstone:

Well, if Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity.

The reference works I examined gave citations in the twentieth century, but Disraeli died in 1881. Is this tale apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: There are many versions of this joke, and it has been circulating and evolving for more than 150 years. For example, the pair of contrasting words has included the following: accident versus malheur; accident versus misfortune; accident versus calamity; mischance versus misfortune; mishap versus misfortune; and misfortune versus calamity.

The hazardous event depicted has varied over time: falling into a pit, a pond, an unnamed river, the Seine, or the Thames. The identity of the endangered individual has also changed: the Emperor of the French, Plon-Plon, Mr. Bright, Sir Bilberry, Mr. Snippson, William Gladstone, or David Lloyd George.

This variability makes tracing the quip difficult. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in 1862, and the joke was expressed in French. The target of disdain was Napoleon III who at that time was the Emperor of the French. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A flash of wit to be recorded amongst the most successful is one for which credit has been given to a French Academician, one of the leaders of the Orleanist party, a quondam Minister of Louis Philippe. Being asked by a lady what was the exact difference between the word accident and the word malheur, he replied immediately:

“Supposons que l’Empereur tombe dans un puits, c’est un accident; supposons que vous l’en retiriez, c’est un malheur.”—“Suppose the Emperor falls into a pit, that’s an accident; suppose you help him out, that’s a misfortune.”

By 1865 a quite different version of the jest was in circulation. In this instance Napoleon III was not the butt of ridicule he was the humorist: 2

The little imperial prince once applied to his father to learn from him the difference between the words accident and malheur.

“My dear son,” the emperor answered, “if our cousin Napoleon, for instance, were to fall into the water, that would be an accident; but if he were fished out again, that would be a malheur.”

The earliest ascription located by QI of the quip to Benjamin Disraeli was printed in 1887, and this was a rather late date. Hence, the citation provided weak support for the Disraeli connection. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1867 the influential London humor magazine “Punch” published a version of the tale. The fictional setting of the dialog below was a dinner party at the home of Sir Bilberry Tunks, a Member of Parliament. 3

Mr. Snigger. … Have you heard this riddle?
Miss Millikins. O no, tell me. I adore riddles.
Mr. Snigger. What is the difference between an accident and a misfortune?
Miss Millikins (eagerly). I don’t know.
Mr. Snigger. I’ll give you an illustration. If Mr. Bright were to fall into a river, that would be an accident.
Miss Millikins. Ah, I don’t understand politics.
Mr. Snigger (aside). Stupid idiot! (To her.) But it isn’t exactly political. It may be anybody. (Sotto voce.) Let us say Sir Bilberry. If he were to fall into a river it would be an accident.
Miss Millikins. Yes.
Mr. Snigger (aside). O, she understands that. (To her.) But if he were to get out again, that would be a misfortune.
Miss Millikins. O, delightful!

The first name mentioned by “Mr. Snigger” was Mr. Bright. This was probably a reference to the prominent politician and orator John Bright who later became President of the Board of Trade in 1868 when William Gladstone was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

In 1868 “Lippincott’s Magazine” of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania printed an instance that identified the body of water as the Seine: 4

The following anecdote is also current in Paris, illustrative of the well-known ill-feeling existing between the Emperor and his Republican cousin, the Prince Napoleon: The Emperor’s son asked his father to explain the difference between the words accident and malheur. His Majesty replied: “If your cousin should fall into the river Seine, that would be an accident, but if he should be rescued, that would be a malheur.”

In 1869 the version of the story given immediately above was reprinted in “The New Eclectic Magazine” of Baltimore, Maryland. Thus, its dissemination continued and broadened. 5

In 1871 the jest reappeared in the pages of “Punch” magazine, and no prominent individuals were mentioned: 6

I have never been more struck with the merit of the illustration which a husband, asked by his wife what was the difference between an accident and a misfortune, gave the inquiring virago. “Why, my love, if you fell into a river, that would be an accident.” “Yes, well?” “And, my soul, if you got out again, that would be a misfortune.”

In 1873 “Appletons’ Journal” of New York printed an instance that identified the target of the joke using the nickname Plon-Plon: 7

Speaking of Prince Napoleon—Plon-Plon—a Paris correspondent says, in a recent letter: “The late emperor knew his relative well, as the following answer to his son proves: ‘What is the difference between an accident and a misfortune?’ ‘If,’ replied the emperor, ‘your cousin fell into the Seine, that would be an accident; but if any one pulled him out it would be a misfortune.'”

In 1880 “Judy, Or the London Serio-Comic Journal” and “Donahoe’s Magazine” of Boston, Massachusetts both printed a version of the tale in which a son asked his father a riddle. The father was unable to respond, and the son gave the answer. The object of sarcasm was a tailor named Mr. Snippson: 8 9

“Pa, dear,” asked his son and heir, “tell me what is the difference between an accident and a misfortune?”
“Pa, dear” gave it up.
“Well,” said his son and heir, “if my pressing tailor, Mr. Snippson, were to fall into a deep pond it would be an accident; but if anyone were to pull him out it would be a misfortune.”

In November 1880 the London periodical “Truth” printed an instance of the jest aimed at William Gladstone. The jester was an unnamed Conservative: 10

A lecturer of Conservative tendencies was recently holding forth on definitions, and he gave several examples. “If,” he said, “Mr. Gladstone were walking near a river, and were to fall in, this would be an accident; if any one were to pull him out of the river, this would be a misfortune.”

Benjamin Disraeli died in 1881, and by 1887 the joke had been assigned to him in the pages of “The Dial”, a magazine based in Chicago, Illinois. The identifier Lord Beaconsfield was employed in the following passage because Disraeli was the Earl of Beaconsfield. The contrasting words in the jape were mischance and misfortune: 11

The late Lord Beaconsfield was once asked if there was any difference of meaning in the words mischance and misfortune. After a moment’s reflection, the Liberal-hating Tory replied, “I think there is, but I can better illustrate than define it. For instance, if Mr. Gladstone should fall into the Thames, it would be a mischance; but if anyone should pull him out, it would be a misfortune.”

In 1890 another version of the tale was attributed to Disraeli using the contrasting words mishap and misfortune: 12

Of Beaconsfield’s wise wit and easy humor how many anecdotes gather in the memory! He once remarked of Gladstone—”A man without one redeeming vice, sir.” And again, when asked to define the difference between “a mishap and a misfortune” he replied with that suavity which subtilizes sarcasm,—”Oh! there’s nothing more simple; for instance, if Mr. Gladstone should fall into the Thames, that would be a mishap; but, if anybody should fish him out, that would be a misfortune.” (This shaft, by-the-by, has been lately stolen by Max O’Rell and applied to the much-abused “mother-in-law.”)

In 1903 the popular work “Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography” by Wilfrid Meynell was released, and it included an instance of the story that was similar to the common modern version given by the questioner: 13

“What is the difference between a misfortune and a calamity?”—somebody asked a new definition from Disraeli. The questioner, being no literalist, but a man of liberal understanding, got the reply: “Well, if Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that, I suppose, would be a calamity!”

When Wilfrid Meynell’s book was reviewed in “The House Beautiful” magazine of New York the anecdote was deemed noteworthy enough to recount. 14 The story was also reprinted in the book review section of “The Caledonian” periodical of New York. 15

In 1913 a publication of the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity in Massachusetts called “The Shield” printed a variant featuring suffragettes and the British politician David Lloyd George: 16

I do not know whether that was accidental or not, but it brings to mind the story that is told of several suffragettes who met on one occasion and referred to Lloyd George in the following way: One asked the other what the difference was between an accident and a calamity, and the other replied, “You see, it is this way, if Lloyd George, on leaving the House of Commons, would walk over the Westminster Bridge and looking over the bridge, lose his balance and fall into the Thames, that would be an accident, but if anyone should fish him out, that would be a calamity.”

H. L. Mencken included the anecdote in his benchmark compendium “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. Mencken suggested a date of 1867, but he provided no supporting citation: 17

If Gladstone fell in the Thames, that would be a misfortune. But if someone fished him out again, that would be a calamity.

Ascribed to BENJAMIN DISRAELI, c. 1867 (Similar sayings have been levelled at many other statesmen since)

In conclusion, based on current evidence this joke template originated in France. The London magazine “Punch” was a locus for its popularization in the United Kingdom. The variability of the tale suggests to QI that deliberate modifications were made to conform to current events and to the political preferences of the teller.

It is conceivable that Disraeli told this joke about Gladstone but the supporting evidence is weak, and he would have been employing an existing template.

Image notes: Benjamin Disraeli painted by Francis Grant in 1852 from Wikipedia. Portrait of Napoleon III by Franz Xaver Winterhalter from Wikimedia. Westminster and Thames by Alan at Pixabay. Cropped public domain images.

Notes:

  1. 1862 November 15, The Spectator, Volume 35, Political Power of the French Salons, (From Our Special Correspondent, London, November 12, 1862) Start Page 1273, Quote Page 1273, London, England. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1865, Napoleon the Third and his Court by a Retired Diplomatist, Accident and Malheur, Quote Page 253, John Maxwell and Company, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1867 January 19, Punch, or The London Charivaria, Volume 52, Polite Conversation, Start Page 22, Quote Page 22, Column 2, Published at the Punch Office, London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1868 December, Lippincott’s Magazine of Literature, Science and Education, Volume 2, Our Monthly Gossip, Start Page 670, Quote Page 674, Column 1 and 2, J. B. Lippincott and Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1869 January, The New Eclectic Magazine, Volume 4, Facetiae, Start Page 106, Quote Page 109, Turnbull & Murdoch, Baltimore, Maryland. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1871 January 14, Punch, or The London Charivaria, Volume 60, Strawberry Leaves by Sir Horace Mann, Start Page 11, Quote Page 12, Column 1, Published at the Punch Office, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1873 November 15, Appletons’ Journal, Volume 10, Number 243, Sayings and Doings at Home and Abroad, Start Page 639, Quote Page 639, Column 3, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  8. 1880 February 18, Judy, Or the London Serio-Comic Journal, Edited by Chas. H. Ross, Volume 26, Precisely, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 82, Column 2, Published by the Proprietor at Shoe Lane, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books full view) link
  9. 1880 May, Donahoe’s Magazine, Volume 3, Number 5, The Humorist, (Short item), Start Page 506, Quote Page 506, Column 2, T. B. Noonan & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  10. 1880 November 4, Truth, Volume 8, Section: Entre Nous, Start Page 565, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 568, Column 1, Published in Queen Street, London. (Google Books full view) link
  11. 1887 January, The Dial, Volume 7, Mexico Ancient and Modern, Start Page 224, Quote Page 225, Column 2, A. C. McClurg & Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  12. 1890 April, The Arena, Volume 1, Number 5, Of David’s House by James Realf, Jr., Start Page 577, Quote Page 586, The Arena Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  13. 1903, Benjamin Disraeli: An Unconventional Biography by Wilfrid Meynell, Quote Page 146, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  14. 1903 May, The House Beautiful, Volume 13, (Advertising section), Quote Page xxxvi, Column 2, Hearst Corp., New York. (Google Books full view) link
  15. 1904 January, The Caledonian, Volume 3, Number 9, Section: Book Reviews, (Review of Wilfrid Meynell’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli), Start Page 437, Quote Page 438, Caledonian Publishing Company, Bible House, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  16. 1913 April, The Shield, Volume 29, Number 2, The Banquet of the 65th Annual Convention, Speech by Rudolf Tombo, Jr., Start Page 91, Quote Page 92, (Official Publication of the Theta Delta Chi Fraternity), Published by Theta Delta Chi Press, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  17. 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: W. E. Gladstone, Quote Page 458, Column 2, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified on paper)