Definition: Anecdote – A Revealing Account of an Incident That Never Occurred in the Life of Some Famous Person

Evan Esar? Jan Harold Brunvand? Bennett Cerf?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was speaking with a friend about all the misinformation and misattributions in the world of quotations, and he said that he was familiar with this phenomenon of unreliability because he enjoys reading about urban-legends. He also gave his own quotation on this theme which he thinks might be from the urban-legend specialist Jan Harold Brunvand. The quote is a facetious definition:

Anecdote: A revealing account of an incident that never occurred in the life of some celebrity.

We both would like you to investigate this funny saying.

Quote Investigator: QI will be happy to try and trace this humorous description for you. Jan Harold Brunvand did include a variant of this quote in an article he wrote in 1991, but he did not take credit for it. The words are sometimes attributed to the humorist and quotation collector Evan Esar.

QI could weave an entertaining story about the precise circumstances that caused Esar to create this jest. But he won’t because the tale would just be another imagined anecdote of the type mentioned above since Esar did not craft the quotation nor did he claim to have done so. The earliest instance of this remark that QI has found is dated 1912, and the words have no attribution. Here are selected citations in reverse-chronological order.

In December 1991 Jan Harold Brunvand wrote an article about anecdotes and gave an example of a saying, “Early to rise and early to bed makes a man healthy, wealthy and dead.” Brunvald noted that these words have been attributed to both Oscar Wilde and James Thurber, and he continued [JHB]:

Whichever writer uttered that witticism, if in fact either one did, we have in the story the essence of what we folklorists call an anecdote – a concise account of some well-known person who supposedly said or did something rather wise or witty.

Or, as another wit defined the genre, “An anecdote is a brief account of an incident that has never occurred in the life of some famous person.”

Anecdotes may, of course, be true, but if the same action or witticism is attributed to more than one person, the story qualifies as a folk anecdote, whether it’s spread orally or in print.

Note that Brunvald does not claim that he originated the witticism. In 1976 a name is attached to the quip in an article titled “The Migratory Anecdote and the Folk Concept of Fame” in the journal Mid-South Folklore which contains the following reference [MSFE]:

Evan Esar’s facetious definition: “An anecdote is a brief account of an incident that has never occurred in the life of some famous person.” See The Humor of Humor (New York: Bramhall House, 1952), p. 32.

Before QI follows this trail to 1952 a quick pause in 1965 shows that Bennett Cerf includes the quip in his syndicated newspaper column “Try and Stop Me”. Cerf’s variant uses the modifier “revealing” instead of “brief” [REA]:

Anecdote: A revealing account of an incident that never occurred in the life of some famous person.

Continuing along the trail leads to a pungent essay about anecdotes by prolific collector and author Evan Esar and a pointer to an earlier work by Esar [HHE]:

It is standard practice to ascribe to popular contemporaries all sorts of funny stories in order to heighten the comic effect or the readers’ interest. Such anecdotes are frequently switched from old items that had described celebrities of the past, and magazines constantly make use of such apocryphal stories as fillers. As the Comic Dictionary says, an anecdote is a brief account of an incident that has never occurred in the life of some famous person.

The format of the Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar is an alphabetical listing of terms with companion quips. (Thanks to top researcher Stephen Goranson for verifying this citation and the previous one on paper) [CDE]:

anecdote. A brief account of an incident that has never occurred in the life of some famous person.

Esar does not claim authorship of this remark nor of the other material in his collection. A passage in the foreword suggests the importance of anonymous material in the domain of comedy:

The wit and humor which constitute the contents of this dictionary are of popular origin and therefore unattributed. They stem, in the main, not from professional humorists or celebrated wits but rather from the world of anonymity, from unknown persons in all walks of life and departments of activity.

Continuing backward in time the joke appears in the Australian paper The Sydney Mail in April of 1914 [SMA]. In February of the same year the joke appears in The Windsor Magazine of London, Melbourne, and Toronto [WLA]. The earliest citation found by QI so far is dated 1912 and occurs in a New York periodical. These instances all use the term “famous man” instead of “famous person” [LLL]:

Anecdote—A brief account of an incident that never occurred in the life of some famous man.

For now the contributor of this sharp definition is still anonymous. QI thanks you for your question.

An additional note for completeness, the quote with uncertain attribution that is mentioned by Jan Harold Brunvand is used by James Thurber in 1939. The saying appears in “Fables for Our Time – III” in the New Yorker as the moral to a story about chipmunks and a shrike: Early to rise and early to bed makes a male healthy and wealthy and dead [JTC].

[JHB] 1991 December 6, The Deseret News, “Anecdotes are Tales That Celebrities Can’t Shake” by Jan Harold Brunvand, Page C2, Section Today, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewsBank Access World News)

[MSFE] 1976 Summer, Mid-South Folklore, “The Migratory Anecdote and the Folk Concept of Fame” by Mac E. Barrick, Page 44, Published by Arkansas State University. (Google Books snippet, Verified on paper)

[REA] 1965 October 28, Reading Eagle, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Page 18, Column 5, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)

[HHE] 1954, The Humor of Humor: the Art and Techniques of Popular Comedy by Evan Esar, Page 32, Phoenix House, London. (Verified on paper by Stephen Goranson at Duke)

[CDE] 1951, “Esar’s Comic Dictionary: completely revised and enlarged edition” by Evan Esar,  anecdote, Page 24, Horizon Press, New York. (Verified on paper by Stephen Goranson and QI; The 1943 Harvest House edition has no alphabetical entry for anecdote)

[SMA] 1914 April 1, Sydney Mail, Some Definitions by a Modern Cynic, Page 2, Column 3, Sydney, Australia. (Google News archive)

[WLA] 1914 February, The Windsor Magazine: an Illustrated Monthly for Men and Women, Page 442, Column 1, Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd., London. (HathiTrust) link

[LLL] 1912 September 12, Life, Life’s Lucid Lexicon, Page 1774, Volume 60, Issue 1559, New York. (ProQuest American Periodical’s Series Online; Article title in ProQuest database “An Erroneous Statement”)

[JTC] 1939 February 18, The New Yorker, “Fables for Our Time – III” by James Thurber, Page 19, F-R Pub. Corp., New York.