Elizabeth I. Adamson? Ronald Knox? Ronald Reagan? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a definition that refers to the two ends of a baby. One end consists of a loud voice or a big appetite, and the other end is given a comical description. Are you familiar with this joke? Would you please research its origin?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance located by QI appeared in the July 1937 issue of “The Reader’s Digest”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
BABY: An alimentary canal with a loud voice at one end and no responsibility at the other.—Elizabeth I. Adamson
QI does not have any biographical information for Adamson, but based on current evidence she was the most likely creator of this quip. In 1965 future president Ronald Reagan extended the metaphorical framework to construct a barb aimed at government.
Details are given below together with selected citations in chronological order.
Monthly magazines such as “The Reader Digest” are usually available one or two weeks before the cover date. This helps to explain how a newspaper in Amarillo, Texas was able to print the same joke and ascription on June 30, 1937: 2
But speaking of new arrivals I heard of a new description the other day. It was by Elizabeth Adamson and was something like this:
A baby is an alimentary canal with a loud voice at one end and no responsibility at the other.
On July 1, 1937 a newspaper in Algona, Iowa published a variant that used “loud mouth” instead of “loud voice” and “without responsibility” instead of “no responsibility”. Interestingly, “The Reader’s Digest” received credit for the slightly garbled instance: 3
Exchanges Opened the Readers’ Digest this morning fresh from the mail to find this one: “A baby is an alimentary canal with a loud mouth at one end and without responsibility at the other.”
On July 13, 1937 an exact match to the text and ascription in “The Readers Digest” appeared in The Longview Daily News of Longview, Texas although the magazine was not acknowledged: 4
In 1945 Bennett Cerf, the prominent publisher and energetic quotation collector, placed the quip in his collection “Laughing Stock: Over Six-hundred Jokes and Anecdotes of Uncertain Vintage: 5
Baby: An alimentary canal with a loud voice at one end and no responsibility at the other. (E. Adamson)
In 1956 the “Nashua Telegraph” of Nashua, New Hampshire printed a variant using the phrases “loud noise” and “absolutely no sense of responsibility”: 6
The average two-months-old baby appears to be either wet or hungry all the time, and, in general, could be defined as an organism consisting of a loud noise at one end, and absolutely no sense of responsibility at the other.
In March 1965 Ronald Reagan who was planning to run for the Governorship of California delivered a speech at the California Republican Assembly, He told a version of the joke with an application to government: 7
“I’ve never seen a temporary tax. Government is like a baby—it’s got an alimentary canal at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.”
The statement of the joke above appeared to be garbled. In November 1965 “The New York Times” reported on a stump speech by Reagan that included an improved version of the quip: 8
Reagan’s standard speech is a homespun spiel about farmers persecuted for violating their crop quota allotments and business enterprises harried by Government red tape. It is spiced with wisecracks: “The Government is like a baby’s alimentary canal, with a healthy appetite at one end and no responsibility at the other.”
Quotation expert Nigel Rees noted that the 1969 reference work “Quotations for Speakers and Writers” by Allen Andrews credited the instance below to Ronald Knox who was an English priest and writer: 9
Definition of a baby: A loud voice at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.
In conclusion, QI would provisionally credit Elizabeth I. Adamson with the quip about babies based on “The Reader’s Digest” citation. In addition, QI would credit Ronald Reagan with the joke about government based on the “Los Angeles Times” and “The New York Times” citations.
Image Notes: Baby picture from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Illustration of U.S. Capitol Building from UzbekIL at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe who told this gag during a radio interview which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Grothe, Barry Popik, Nigel Rees, and Fred Shapiro for their valuable research.)
- 1937 July, Reader’s Digest, Volume 31, Patter, Quote Page 101, Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified using hardcopy) ↩
- 1937 June 30, The Amarillo Globe, The Tactless Texan, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Amarillo, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1937 July 1, The Algona Upper Des Moines, Without Responsibility, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Algona, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1937 July 13, The Longview Daily News (Longview News-Journal), Here ‘n’ There, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Longview, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1945, Laughing Stock: Over Six-hundred Jokes and Anecdotes of Uncertain Vintage, Edited by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 183, Grosset and Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive) ↩
- 1956 September 7, Nashua Telegraph, Around the Town, Quote Page 8, Column 6 and 7, Nashua, New Hampshire. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1965 March 28, Los Angeles Times, Conservatives Rallied: Goldwater Can Win Presidency in 1968, CRA Convention Told by Carl Greenberg (Time Political Writer), Quote Page B5, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1965 November 14, The New York Times, The Ronald Reagan Story; Or, Tom Sawyer Enters Politics by Leo E. Litwak, Start Page SM46, Quote Page 174, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 2011, The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations by Nigel Rees, (Updated, expanded, and revised version of “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”, 2003), Publication Date: September 6, 2011, Topic: Babes and sucklings, Kindle Location: 1820, Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC. (Kindle Ebook) ↩