Don’t Wrestle with a Chimney Sweep or You Will Get Covered with Grime

William Adams? James Boswell? Walter Scott? Jonah Barrington? Viscount Bolingbroke? Henry Van Dyke? John Bright? John J. Keane? William Wedgwood Benn? Tony Benn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When you are attacked with falsehoods and invective it is natural to respond with abusive language; however, viewers of the interaction may feel revulsion for both the attacker and the defender. This notion has been expressed using a vivid analogy. Here are three examples:

  1. You can’t wrestle with a chimney sweep and come out clean.
  2. He who wrestles with a sweep must expect to be begrimed with soot.
  3. Never wrestle with a chimney sweep.

The British politician Tony Benn employed this saying. Would you please examine its history?

Quote Investigator: The celebrated multi-volume biography “The Life of Samuel Johnson” by James Boswell included a pithy instance of the expression in a section recounting events in 1776. The saying was spoken to Samuel Johnson by William Adams who was Master of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. Interestingly, Johnson disagreed with the advice. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Johnson coincided with me and said, “When a man voluntarily engages in an important controversy, he is to do all he can to lessen his antagonist, because authority from personal respect has much weight with most people, and often more than reasoning. If my antagonist writes bad language, though that may not be essential to the question, I will attack him for his bad language.”

ADAMS. “You would not jostle a chimney-sweeper.”

JOHNSON. “Yes, Sir, if it were necessary to jostle him down.”

Adams employed a version of the metaphor without elaboration, and Johnson understood it readily; hence, both may have already heard similar phrases.

QI has an article on an entertaining variant adage that appeared later: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1808 the prominent Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott published “The Life of John Dryden” which included a discussion of the dispute between Dryden and fellow poet Elkanah Settle. Scott employed an instance of the analogy: 2

It was obvious, that the weaker poet must be the winner by this contest in abuse; and Dryden gained no more by his dispute with Settle, than a well-dressed man who should condescend to wrestle with a chimney-sweeper.

In 1825 the editors of a newspaper in Cheshire, England printed a reply to a correspondent that included the analogy and mentioned a “dirty jacket”: 3

We have no wish to “run a muck” with the Chronicle; for “if you wrestle with a sweep” says the adage, “you must expect a dirty jacket.”

In 1832 the “Mayo Constitution” newspaper of Mayo, Ireland printed a letter containing a concise reference to the analogy: 4

To reply to such an abusive production would be, indeed, “to wrestle with a sweep.” There is no falsehood too glaring; nor is even the awful sanction of an oath respected, when hatred to the truth demands the sacrifice.

Also, in 1832 “The Waterford Mail” of Waterford, Ireland published the following: 5

Doubtless there is little honour to be gained by the conflict—for he who wrestles with a sweep must expect to be begrimed with soot . . .

In 1835 a letter to the editors of a newspaper in Berkshire, England attributed the saying to the Irish judge Jonah Barrington: 6

I am very certain that no respectable reader of your Paper, will expect a reply to a letter signed “Thomas Vincent,” which appeared in the last Mercury. I will not notice a syllable of it; observing what the late Sir Jonah Barrington said, “If you wrestle with a chimney-sweeper, it is true, you may throw your antagonist; but your own coat will certainly be dirtied by the encounter.”

In 1854 “The Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser” of Down, Northern Ireland printed an elaborate instance. In the following passage “sable” means having the color of soot: 7

One’s garments cannot escape a supply of soot who undertakes to wrestle with a sweep, and you may roll the sweep in the mud from morning until night without any serious detriment to his sable raiment.

The words of William Adams recorded by James Boswell were reprinted many years later in 1879 in “The Westminster Review”: 8

Adams: “You would not jostle a chimney sweeper.” Johnson: “Yes, sir, if it were necessary to jostle him down.” That was a capital retort of Johnson’s; but if his chimney sweeper had persisted in constantly getting up again—as black as ever and quite as formidable—would not the Doctor have tired of this jostling process?

In 1902 an essay in “The Living Age” of Boston, Massachusetts attributed the saying to Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke who died in 1751: 9

Or take the notable answer of Bolingbroke when it was suggested to him that he should make some rejoinder to the virulent assaults of Bishop Warburton: “I never wrestle with a chimney sweeper.”

A sermon by Henry Van Dyke published in 1904 included a version of the saying: 10

In the third place, the method of fighting evil by force has a tendency to spoil the character of those who fight it. If you wrestle with a chimney-sweep you get blacked; if you throw back mud your hands will get dirty. Many a man has entered upon a crusade against intemperance, for example, and proved himself just as intemperate in feelings and language as others in their potations.

In 1908 another advocate for temperance condemned saloons: 11

Archbishop John J. Keane—
“As a man and a Christian, I say, ‘Damn the saloons!’ If I could cause the earth to open and swallow up every saloon in the world, I would feel that I was doing humanity a blessing. We must protest against this thing! It has no redeeming feature. It is bad for the home, for humanity, for the Church and for the country. It is a power we cannot wrestle with, for, says the old adage, ‘Don’t wrestle with a chimney sweep or you will get covered with grime.'”

In 1913 a biography of the prominent nineteenth century politician John Bright attributed the saying to him within a section discussing events in 1867: 12

Bright was well able to defend his honour against definite false charges, but he was not of a disposition to rush into controversy with those who made personal attacks upon him. He was combative in the public interest, but not quarrelsome on his own behalf. On one occasion when a celebrated antagonist was reviling him with marked animosity, one of his family exhorted him to reply, but in vain: ‘a man in a clean coat should never wrestle with a sweep,’ he said.

In 1929 “The Western Daily Press” of Bristol, England reported a remark from William Wedgwood Benn who was the Secretary of State for India: 13

Asked by a member the audience if he had anything to say about Lord Birkenhead’s recent speech, he replied: “In regard to that I follow, an excellent motto, which is this “Never wrestle with a chimney sweep.”

In 1994 “The Times” of London published a profile of British politician Tony Benn whose father was William Wedgwood Benn. The young Benn recalled the advice of his parents: 14

At 69 he is still the personification of filial devotion. His parents’ adages “Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, Dare to let it known” and “Never wrestle with a chimney-sweep” (if someone plays dirty, don’t retaliate or you get covered in soot) remain useful.

In conclusion, this eloquent analogy has been in use for more than 240 years. The earliest evidence located by QI was recorded by Boswell in his “The Life of Samuel Johnson”. Oxford academic William Adams spoke a version circa 1776. The metaphor was popular and used by many. In modern time, politician Tony Benn has employed it while crediting his father.

Image Notes: Silhouette of chimney sweep from Clker-Free-Vector-Images at Pixabay. Silhouette of house with chimney from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay.

(This investigation was initiated as part of an exploration into the origin of a similar phrase: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig enjoys it.)

Notes:

  1. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Time period specified: 1776, Quote Page 24 and 25, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1808, The Works of John Dryden, Volume 1 of 18, The Life of John Dryden by Walter Scott, Section IV: Dryden’s controversy with Settle, Quote Page 191, Printed for William Miller, Albemarle Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1825 December 13, Chester Courant, To Correspondents, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Cheshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 1832 March 1, Mayo Constitution, Letter to the Editor of the Mayo Constitution, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Mayo, Republic of Ireland. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1832 December 19, The Waterford Mail, College Election (From the Evening Mail of Friday), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Waterford, Republic of Ireland. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1835 July 20, Reading Mercury, Wilts and Berks Canal: Letter to the Editor of the Reading Mercury, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Berkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  7. 1854 March 29, The Newry Examiner and Louth Advertiser, The Louth Election—The Begging Box, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Down, Northern Ireland. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1879 January, The Westminster Review, Dr Johnson: His Biographers and Critics, Start Page 1, Quote Page 5, Leonard Scott Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1902 February 8, The Living Age, Biography, Page 330, Column 1, Number 3005, Littell, Son and Company (Living Age Company) Boston, Massachusetts (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1904 April, The Homiletic Review, Volume 47, Number 4, Section: Sermons and Addresses, The Christian Conflict by Henry Van Dyke (Presbyterian, Princeton University), Start Page 296, Quote Page 297, Funk and Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1908 Copyright, The Legalized Outlaw by Samuel R. Artman, Quote Page 284, Press of Levey Bros. & Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  12. 1913, The Life of John Bright by George Macaulay Trevelyan, Quote Page 369, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  13. 1929 December 20, The Western Daily Press, “Never Wrestle with a Sweep”: Secretary for India and Lord Birkenhead, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Bristol, England. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1994 August 26, The Times, Article: ‘They say I’m a hypocrite rich, mad and ill but it’s only to stop people listening’ – Tony Benn, Author/Byline: Valerie Grove. Section: Features. Quote Page 14, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)