Tag Archives: Merle Oberon

She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them

Who Said the Quote? Dorothy Parker? Richard Henry Little? Alexander Woollcott?

Who was the Polyglot? Winifred Stackville Stoner? Merle Oberon?

Dear Quote Investigator: My question differs from most. Here is a quotation of admiration with a stinger that I would like you to investigate:

That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say “No” in any of them.

Dorothy Parker receives credit for this quip in multiple reference books. What interests me is the identity of the polyglot woman. Can you figure out who Parker was talking about?

Quote Investigator: Like many of the sayings assigned to Parker that have persisted in the cultural milieu this phrase is risqué. The earliest attribution of the quote to Parker located by QI occurs in 1933.

But QI has also found an earlier citation for a close variant of this joke in 1931 that is not credited to Parker. The witticism was written by a Chicago Tribune columnist, Richard Henry Little, who was writing about a former child prodigy named Winifred Stackville Stoner, Jr. The text of the article reveals a different interpretation to the notion of saying “No”. Little’s gag is not focused on promiscuity; instead, it refers to multiple marriages [RLWS]:

… it was proudly proclaimed that Winifred could speak twelve languages. But apparently Winifred never learned to say “No” in any of them and hiked up to the altar as fast as anybody suggested the idea.

It is possible that Little heard a joke from Parker and then modified it to create a less provocative version that applied to Winifred Stackville Stoner. Alternatively, Little’s jest may have been modified to create a ribald version that fit the wisecracking persona of Parker.

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