Tag Archives: John Dennis

They Will Not Let My Play Run, But Steal My Thunder

John Dennis? Alexander Pope? Apocryphal?

lightning07Dear Quote Investigator: To steal someone’s thunder means to take an idea, a strategy, or a policy created by another person and use it advantageously. It can also mean to grab attention by anticipating and pre-empting the strategy of another. This figurative phrase supposedly originated with an angry remark made by a frustrated dramatist. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The critic and playwright John Dennis wrote a tragedy “Appius and Virginia” which was staged in a London theater circa 1709. The effort was unsuccessful and the production closed rapidly; however, Dennis at the same time introduced an innovative new method for simulating the sound of thunder that won plaudits.

A short time later Dennis attended a performance of “Macbeth” at the playhouse and heard the distinctive sound of his simulated thunder. He leapt to his feet enraged and shouted, “They steal my thunder”. Accounts of the event vary, and the exact actions and words of Dennis are probably lost.

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in 1727 in Alexander Pope’s “The Dunciad: With Notes Variorum, and the Prolegomena of Scriblerus”. This was a second edition of the celebrated poem which included notes and commentary by Pope. The anecdote is referred to in a note and not within the poem. In Pope’s version Dennis did not use the word “steal”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Whether Mr. Dennis was the inventor of that improvement, I know not; but it is certain, that being once at a Tragedy of a new Author, he fell into a great passion at hearing some, and cry’d, “S’death! that is my Thunder.”

In an account from 1747 Dennis was depicted employing the verb “to steal”. The latter-day figurative phrase and the most popular modern versions of his remarks use that verb. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1729, The Dunciad: With Notes Variorum, and the Prolegomena of Scriblerus by Alexander Pope, Second Edition with Some Additional Notes, Book 2, Section: Remarks, Quote Page 115, Printed for Lawton Gilliver at Homer’s Head, against St. Dunstan’s Church, Fleet Street, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: John Dennis, Quote Page 194, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

He Who Would Pun Would Pick a Pocket

Alexander Pope? Samuel Johnson? Jonathan Swift? John Dennis? Anonymous?

popepocket06Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard several versions of a quotation that is beloved by people who dislike puns:

(1) He who would make a pun would pick a pocket.
(2) A man who will pun, will pick a pocket.
(3) A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket.
(4) Any man who would make such an execrable pun would not scruple to pick my pocket.

This saying has been attributed to the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson and the eminent poet Alexander Pope. Could you tell me who said it and what circumstance provoked the remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this quotation known to QI was published in a 1722 epistle by Benjamin Victor which told of a meeting in a tavern. Daniel Purcell employed a pun that caused the dramatist and critic John Dennis to react with anger and deliver a reproach. The name Dennis was partially disguised as “D—-s”; four letters were replaced with four hyphens.

To understand the pun one must know that in 1720s England the waiter in a tavern was called a “drawer”. The 1722 document adhered to a style in which nouns were capitalized. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

“Mr. Purcell and Mr. Congreve going into a Tavern, by chance met D—-s, who went in with ’em. After a Glass or two had pass’d, Mr. Purcell, having some private Business with Mr. Congreve, wanted D—-s out of the Room, and not knowing a more certain Way than Punning, (for you are to understand, Sir, Mr. D—-s is as much surpriz’d at Pun as at a Bailiff) he proceeded after the following Manner:

He pull’d the Bell, and call’d two or three Times, but no One answering, he put his Hand under the Table, and looking full at D—-s, he said, I think this Table is like the Tavern; says D—-s, with his usual prophane Phrase) God’s death, Sir, How is this Table like the Tavern? Why, says Mr. Purcell, because here’s ne’er a Drawer in it.

Says D—-s, (starting up) God’s death, Sir, the Man that will make such an execrable Pun as that in my Company, will pick my Pocket, and so left the Room.

In this tale John Dennis sharply criticized one particular pun, and he did not attack all puns. Nevertheless, the popular modern instances of the saying are universal in condemnation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. Year: 1722, Title: An epistle to Sir Richard Steele, on his play, call’d, The conscious lovers. By B. Victor, Author: Benjamin Victor (died 1778), Imprint: London: Printed for W. Chetwood at Cato’s-Head in Russel-Street, Covent-Garden; S. Chapman at the Angel in Pall-Mall; J. Stagg, Westminster-Hall; J. Brotherton at the Bible in Cornhill; M. Smith in Russel-Court, Red-Lyon-Square; Tho. Edlin, over-against Exeter Exchange in the Strand, Source Library: British Library. (Database: EECO: Eighteenth Century Collections Online; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake)