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