Category Archives: Chauncey Depew

You Are Astonished. I Am Surprised

Noah Webster? Samuel Johnson? Chauncey Depew? Apocryphal?

websterkiss01Dear Quote Investigator: There is a ribald anecdote about one of the world’s greatest dictionary makers that I would like you to explore. The tale claims that the lexicographer Noah Webster had a secret libertine inclination. One day his wife returned home and was shocked to discover him caressing and osculating the chambermaid.

The wife cried out, “Noah! I am surprised!” The stunned man’s reflexive thought patterns were immediately engaged, and he replied, “My dear, you must study our beautiful language more closely. It is I who am surprised. You are astonished.”

There is a rival version of this story featuring another famous dictionary creator Samuel Johnson as the philanderer. Johnson lived between 1709 and 1784; Webster lived between 1758 and 1843. I would like to know which man was the true Lothario.

Quote Investigator: Tracing an anecdote is a difficult task, but QI will make an attempt and present a snapshot of the results. The earliest discovered instance was printed in a newspaper in 1896. The raconteur was Chauncey Depew, a famous after-dinner speaker: 1

At a recent dinner in New York a new story was sprung by Chauncey M. Depew. Speaking of the importance of humor, Mr. Depew declared that Noah Webster, though a lexicographer, was humorist. “His wife,” Chauncey went on to say, “caught him one day kissing the cook.

“‘Noah,’ she exclaimed, ‘I’m surprised!’

“‘Madam,’ he replied, ‘you have not studied carefully our glorious language. It is I who am surprised. You are astounded.'”

In 1903 “Everybody’s Magazine” published a curious version of the story in which Webster’s transgression was not carnal. Instead, his wife was unhappy with the informality of his attire. This bowdlerized version was fit for everybody as suggested by the magazine name: 2

A story is told of Noah Webster, the dictionary maker, who one day was found by his wife at dinner without coat or collar while entertaining two guests. His wife’s sudden and unexpected return and entrance to the room brought those present to their feet. “I am surprised,” said Mrs. Webster. And Mr. Webster rejoined, “My dear, I am surprised—you are astonished.”

The originator of this joke was not a linguist, and its construction was based on an artifice. The rationale of the humorous rejoinder hinged on a sharp delineation between the meanings of words such as: surprised, astounded, and astonished. Yet the definitions given in the 1830 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary revealed overlapping denotations: 3

SURPRISE v. t. 1. To come or fall upon suddenly and unexpectedly; to take unawares. 2. To strike with wonder or astonishment. 3. To confuse; to throw the mind into disorder by something suddenly presented to the view or to the mind.

SURPRISED pp. Come upon or taken unawares; struck with something novel or unexpected.

ASTONISH v. t. To stun or strike dumb with sudden fear, terror, surprise, or wonder; to amaze; to confound with some sudden passion.

ASTONISHED pp. Amazed; confounded with fear, surprise, or admiration

ASTOUND, v. t. To astonish; to strike dumb with amazement.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1896 April 21, Daily Iowa Capital, A New One by Chauncey, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1903 September, Everybody’s Magazine, With “Everybody’s” Publishers, A Surprising Letter, Quote Page 419, Column 2, Volume 9, The Ridgway-Thayer Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1830, An American Dictionary of the English Language: Exhibiting the Origin, Orthography, Pronunciation, and Definitions of Words by Noah Webster, (Abridged from the Quarto edition by the author), Entry SURPRISE: Page 813, Entry ASTONISH and ASTOUND: Page 58, Published by S. Converse, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Whenever I Feel the Urge to Exercise I Lie Down Until It Goes Away

Jimmy Durante? Edna Mae Oliver? Robert M. Hutchins? Chauncey Depew? Mark Twain? Paul Terry? Robert Benchley? Max Beerbohm? J. P. McEvoy?

Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest quotation about exercise is usually credited to Mark Twain:

Whenever I get the urge to exercise, I lie down until the feeling passes away.

But this statement is also attributed to Robert Maynard Hutchins who was the President of the University of Chicago and to a passel of other people. The idea can be expressed in several ways but the basic quip is the same. Can you determine who was responsible for this valuable guidance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a syndicated gossip column based in New York on June 13, 1937. The statement was ascribed to Paul Terry who was the founder of the Terrytoons animation studio. The ellipsis in the following is in the original text [PTPD]:

GOTHAM GOINGS ON: Paul Terry, who does the animated cartoons, shares Chauncey M. Depew’s contempt for exercise … “When I feel like exercising,” he says, “I just lie down until the feeling goes away.”

Two weeks later on June 28, 1937 another gossip columnist based in New York credited the joke to the film and stage actress Edna Mae Oliver. In the following passage “Mori’s” referred to a popular restaurant in Greenwich Village [EOLL]:

“Being away from home gives me a great urge to exercise,” Edna Mae Oliver admits at Mori’s. But whenever I feel that way, I just lie down until the foolish notion goes away.”

A few months later in October 1937 an induction ceremony was held for the new president of Williams College in Massachusetts. The President of the Society of Alumni gave a speech, and he ascribed the saying to the luminary Mark Twain.  This the earliest connection to Twain located by QI; however, Twain died in 1910, so this is a late ascription, and it provides weak evidence [WCJJ]:

Mr. President: Mark Twain once remarked that whenever he felt an irresistible urge coming over him to take exercise, he always lay down until the feeling went away.

The number of people credited with this saying has grown over the decades to include: humorist J. P. McEvoy, University President Robert Maynard Hutchins, politician Chauncey Depew, comedian Jimmy Durante, and others.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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I Take My Only Exercise Acting as a Pallbearer to My Friends Who Exercise

Mark Twain? Chauncey Depew? Ring Lardner? William Allen White? Big Jim Watson? Joseph Hodges Choate? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: New Year’s resolutions often feature plans for more exercise. Mark Twain was once asked if he engaged in exercise, and he supposedly said:

I take my only exercise acting as a pallbearer at the funerals of my friends who exercise regularly.

But this same joke is also credited to Chauncey Depew, a United States Senator and renowned after-dinner speaker, who reportedly said:

I get my exercise acting as a pallbearer to my friends who exercise.

While searching I found that this quip was phrased in many other different ways. Could you determine if Twain, Depew, or someone else originated this funny saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Mark Twain made this remark. In 1905 Harper’s Weekly reprinted a speech given by Twain at his 70th Birthday party. In the passage below Twain expressed his dislike of exercise. But he did not employ the expression under investigation. Nevertheless, the hostility he evinced may have caused later individuals to assume that clever statements on this topic should be reassigned to Twain: 1

I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome. And it cannot be any benefit when you are tired; I was always tired. (Laughter.) But let another person try my way, and see where he will come out.

I desire now to repeat and emphasize that maxim: We can’t reach old age by another man’s road. My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.

A precursor of the quip appeared in 1922 in an article by the popular humorist Ring Lardner titled “My Week In Cuba” that was published in the magazine Cosmopolitan. Lardner’s remark included the notion of obtaining exercise by acting as a pallbearer, and his words were used in the caption of an illustration for the article which is shown below. In the following passage taxis are referred to as Flivingos: 2

We also visited the new country club and golf course which is patronized chiefly by Americans. As yet golf has not been generally took up by the natives who get plenty of exercise dodging Flivingos and acting as pall bearers.

exercisepallbearer

In 1925 a version of the joke was printed in a syndicated news article about William Allen White who was a prominent American newspaper editor. White told the quip to his interviewer, but the phrasing he used differed from the common modern version. This key citation was located by Andrew Steinberg: 3

“You see in me the rocking chair expert of the Neosho Valley,” White says. “I have won every cup offered for long distance rocking chair prowess, and I get my exercise by acting as pallbearer for golfers who exercise to prolong useless lives.”

In 1926 another version of the joke appeared in a syndicated column about health titled “Play Safe in Taking Physical Exercise” written by a medical doctor named Royal S. Copeland. This instance was closer to the modern version. Copeland was recounting the remarks of an anonymous “old man”, and it is possible that he was reformulating the comments of William Allen White given above: 4

Somebody told a story about an old man so remarkably well that a newspaper reporter asked why he had lived so long and kept so strong. “I suppose it is because you take systematic exercise,” said the reporter.

The startling reply of the old gentleman was, “The only exercise I take is acting as pall-bearer to my friends who have indulged in strenuous exercise!”

This is a ridiculous yarn, but it has in it a suggestion of value. Exercise is useful so long as it really is exercise and not violent and difficult work.

Too many athletes die of heart or blood vessel trouble. Too much strain on the organs of circulation will do real and lasting harm.

By 1930 the humorous remark was credited to Chauncey Depew, and by 1950 the jest was assigned to Mark Twain.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1905 December 23, Harper’s Weekly, [Supplement to Harper’s Weekly], Mark Twain’s 70th Birthday: Record of a Dinner given in Celebration thereof at Delmonico’s on the Evening of December 5, 1905, Start Page 1884, Quote Page 1885, Column 2, Volume 49, Number 2557, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1922 August, Cosmopolitan, Volume 73, Number 2, My Week In Cuba by Ring W. Lardner, Start Page 48, Quote Page 51, International Magazine Company, New York, President: William Randolph Hearst. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1925 January 14, Evening Republican, “Thank Heaven It Was Sally” Says White: Kansan Admits He Was Ready to Wed Anyone, Page 1, Column 1, Mitchell, South Dakota. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1926 June 26, Chester Times, Play Safe in Taking Physical Exercise by Royal S. Copeland, M.D., Page 7, Column 7, Chester, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)