Category Archives: E. B. White

Humor Can Be Dissected, as a Frog Can, But the Thing Dies in the Process

Mark Twain? E. B. White? Katharine S. White? André Maurois? Marty Feldman?

frog07Dear Quote Investigator: A cogent simile about the cerebral examination of humor has been attributed to three clever individuals: humorist Mark Twain, children’s author E. B. White, and French author André Maurois. Here are four versions:

Analyzing humor is a bit like dissecting a frog: You learn how it works but you end up with a dead frog.

Studying humor is like dissecting a frog. You might learn a lot about it, but you wind up with a dead frog.

Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.

Explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better but the frog dies in the process.

Would you please explore this saying and determine who should receive credit?

Dear Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain employed this amphibian simile. Citations show that both E. B. White and André Maurois did use this striking analogy, but the data indicated that E. B. White together with his wife Katharine S. White were the likely originators:

In October 1941 the Whites published an essay in “The Saturday Review of Literature” 1 that included the figurative language. The same text was also used in the preface of an influential 1941 collection titled “A Subtreasury of American Humor” 2 edited by the Whites. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1941 October 18, The Saturday Review of Literature, The Preaching Humorist by E. B. White and Katharine S. White, Start Page 16, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Published by The Saturday Review Company, Inc., New York. (Unz)
  2. 1941, A Subtreasury of American Humor, Edited by E. B. White and Katharine S. White, Section: Preface, Quote Page xvii, Coward-McCann, New York. (The text in this Preface differed slightly from the text in The Saturday Review of Literature; the Preface had “pure” instead of “purely”) (Verified on paper)
  3. 1985, A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations, Compiled by Bernard E. Farber, Section Humor, Quote Page 139, Column 2 McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified on paper)