William James? Dorothy Parker? Ogden Nash? Mrs. Amos Pinchot? Alice Duer Miller? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I read a wild story about William James, the prominent psychologist, educator, and philosopher. One night he experimented with the psychoactive gas nitrous oxide, commonly known as laughing gas. While experiencing a reverie James became convinced that he had developed a profound insight into the universe. The next day when he examined the paper on which he scrawled his precious wisdom he read this bit of doggerel:
Man is polygamous,
Woman is monagamous.
Could this comical tale about the famous psychologist be correct?
Quote Investigator: Probably not. This poem has been attributed to Mrs. Amos Pinchot, William James, Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and others. The earliest citation located by QI appeared in 1939 and credited Pinchot, but a cite in 1942 claimed that she denied the attribution. No decisive candidate for authorship has yet emerged in QI’s opinion.
William James did experiment with psychoactive agents, but his name was not connected to this verse until many years after his death. The earliest attribution to James located by QI was dated 1953, yet his life ended in 1910.
The first known evidence of this unusual anecdote appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper in November 1939. The article “Thanksgiving Nightmare” by Claire MacMurray discussed dreams and not drugs. MacMurray presented a supposed episode in the mental life of a person named Mrs. Amos Pinchot [APCM]:
She dreamed one night that she had written a poem so beautiful, so wise, so close to the ultimate truth of life that she was immediately acclaimed by all the peoples on the earth as the greatest poet and philosopher of all the ages. Still half asleep as the dream ended, she stumbled out of bed and scribbled the poem down, realizing that she must take no risk of forgetting such deathless lines. She awoke in the morning with the feeling that something wonderful was about to happen—oh, yes! Her poem.
She clutched the precious paper and, tense with excitement, read the words she had written. Here they are:
Men are Polygamous
The spelling and wording of this poem do differ from the most common modern versions, but QI believes that the words above likely correspond to the ancestral verse. The dream state is certainly an altered state, and it does generate insights, both genuine and spurious. But it is a relatively conventional mental excursion.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In May 1940 The Reader’s Digest reprinted the poem together with the prefatory story provided by MacMurray in the Plain Dealer under the title “Masterpieces of the Subconscious” [APRD]. This mass-circulation periodical helped to disseminate the verse which was again credited to Mrs. Amos Pinchot.
Also in 1940 a book titled “A.R.P. and All That (and Other Wartime Stories)” by C. Kent Wright was published in London. In 1941 the volume was reviewed in a British periodical called “Public Administration”, and a short discussion of the verse was included, but no attribution was provided [KWPA]:
There are pictures of the weird dreams and reactions of the subconscious that might be expected in times so disturbing. A lady in her dreams is inspired to verse, and, half asleep, gets up to record the deathless lines. In the morning they read thus:—
“Hogamus Higamus men are Polygamous,
Higamus Hogamus women Monogamous.”
In 1942 “Unconsciousness” by James Grier Miller was published, and it included a chapter on “Subliminal Unconsciousness” with a subsection on “Dream States”. In a footnote the author contended that Pinchot had denied authoring the poem [UNAP]:
For instance, there is the story of the composing of a jingle which has since become so much public property that no one seems to know who wrote it []. As the story goes, the author dreamed one night that he had written a poem of such ultimate truth that he was immediately acclaimed to be the greatest poet and philosopher of all time. He immediately rose and scribbled it down, and the next morning found that he had written:
Men are Polygamous
[[Footnote 69]] Mrs. Amos Pinchot has repeatedly been incorrectly said to have been the author of this quatrain. She denies any responsibility for it, however, and the true author appears to be shrouded in anonymity.
Also in 1942 the important compendium “Thesaurus of Anecdotes” by Edmund Fuller included the poem and the story of its creation. The entry credited Mrs. Amos Pinchot, and the tale recounted was quite similar to that in the Plain Dealer. The poem used the same spelling and punctuation [EFAP].
In addition, in 1942 the popular composer of comic verse Ogden Nash published a collection that included a work mentioning polygamy though the word was deliberately misspelled “polygmy”. The poem also contained the nonsense word “hogmy” used in a pun. The existence of this poem may help to explain why the verse under investigation is sometimes attributed to Nash [ONJB]:
Why does the Pygmy
Indulge in polygmy?
… skip …
If he sticks to monogmy
A Pygmy’s a hogmy.
In 1946 the tale was printed in “A Treasury of Laughter” edited by Louis Untermeyer. Mrs. Amos Pinchot was credited, and the anecdote about her dream was similar to the one given in the 1942 “Thesaurus of Anecdotes”, but a distinctive double-g spelling was used [LUAP]:
Men are polygamous.
Also in 1946 a newspaper article mentioned a new candidate for authorship: Alice Duer Miller. The New York Times reported on a United Nations meeting concerned with the “question of equal rights for women in marriage”. There was disagreement about polygamy, but a compromise resolution was adopted. The double-g spelling was used in this poem version [NYAM]:
The resolution seemed to some to confirm the philosophy of the short poem (ascribed by some experts to Alice Duer Miller): “Hoggamus, higgamus, men are polygamous: higgamus, hoggamus, women monogamous.”
In 1952 the poem was printed in “The Diplomat”, a periodical that was based in Washington D.C. and aimed at individuals concerned with foreign policy and diplomacy. The words were credited to a “literary lady” [TDLL]:
A literary lady dreamt that she had composed a wonderful poem. So convinced was she of the poem’s value to humanity that she woke up and sleepily committed the masterpiece to paper. In the morning she scanned her writing-pad eagerly and read:
Men are polygamous;
In 1953 the prominent psychologist Hans J. Eysenck published “Uses and Abuses of Psychology” and included a version of the anecdote. Eysenck referred to the poem as: “the famous quatrain which W. James wrote down during a drug-induced dream,” and this reference is the first that QI has found naming William James as the creator. This book was released more than four decades after his death, and the drug catalyst was unnamed. This instance of the verse uses the singular verb “is” instead of “are”, and it switches the common order of hogamus and higamus [WJHE]:
Experimenting with various methods of influencing consciousness, this famous philosopher several times dreamed during these states that the secret of life had been imparted to him, only to find that upon waking he had forgotten it again. He resolved to write it down immediately, and succeeded in doing so. When he woke up he hurriedly picked up the sheet of paper, and found that the secret of life, as written down by him, amounted to this:
Higamus, Hogamus, Woman is monogamous; Hogamus, Higamus, Man is polygamous.
He was somewhat disappointed, although it is difficult to see why. There is probably more truth in this verse than in most philosophical writings.
In 1957 a variant of the poem was printed in a newspaper column on “Folklore” by William Wade [WWAH]:
A mock Latin rhyme on the same topic which probably originated in American colleges goes:
Men are polygamous,
Women are monogamous.
An Illinois newspaper report in 1966 suggested that the poem was influencing the world of concert music [EIAF]:
Following will be the St. Louis area premier of “Hogamus, Higamus” by the young American composer Arthur Frackenpohl. Arranged as a double fugue for speaking voices and percussion, this light, musically novel work has a meaningless title made up purely of nonsensical syllables chosen to rhyme with the words “monogamous” and “polygamous.”
In 1968 the author Robert S. De Ropp wrote a book with the subtitle: Pathways to Higher Consciousness Beyond the Drug Experience. De Ropp identified James as the creator of the doggerel and stated that nitrous oxide evoked the odd epiphany [WJRD]:
William James thought he had recorded the ultimate mystery under the influence of nitrous oxide. On returning to his normal state, he eagerly consulted the paper on which he had scrawled the great message. It read:
Man is polygamous.
Woman is monagamous.
In 1971 a textbook on developmental psychology assigned the verse to the clever wordsmith Dorothy Parker [DPDP]:
Dorothy Parker once dreamed the Answer to the Problem of the Universe. Wisely, she wrote the insight down so that she would remember it in the morning. The next day she found that she had scribbled:
Hoggamous, higgamous, men are polygamous.
Higgamous, hoggamous, women monogamous.
We know that this brilliant summation of the state of the sexes has held true for many years.
In 1999 the New York Times reporter Natalie Angier wrote an article mentioning three of the candidates for authorship of the verse who were well-known [NYNA]:
Life is short but jingles are forever. None more so, it seems, than the familiar ditty, variously attributed to William James, Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker: “Hoggamus, higgamus,/Men are polygamous,/Higgamus, hoggamus,/Women monogamous.”
In conclusion, there is no substantive evidence that William James crafted this verse during a drug-induced reverie or while experiencing any state of consciousness. The earliest citation in the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1939 told a fun story, but it appeared to be fanciful. Mrs. Amos Pinchot was credited in the first cite, but three years later a cite claimed that Pinchot disavowed authorship of the verse.
The tale of the poems composition and the text of the poem itself evolved through replication and mutation. The identity of the author remains uncertain today, but well-known wits Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker are unlikely.
(Valuable pioneering work on this topic was performed by Tony Percy and published in the journal Verbatim [TPVB]. Many thanks to Mike J. Dorn who also performed excellent research on this question [MDBI]. Dorn’s inquiry provided the impetus for QI to finish his work exploring this poem and share the results on the QI blog. Thanks to Victor Steinbok for his fine results and willingness to help.)
[APCM] 1939 November 23, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Thanksgiving Nightmare by Claire MacMurray, Page 20, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
[APRD] 1940 May, The Reader’s Digest, “Masterpieces of the Subconscious”, Page 104, Volume 36, [Reprint of excerpt from Claire MacMurray article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The poem is the same. The prefatory text is very similar but not identical], The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
[KWPA] 1941 January, Public Administration: The Journal of the Institute of Public Administration, Volume 19, Reviews: A.R.P. and All That, Page 75, Institute of Public Administration, [Oxford University Press], Great Britain. (Verified on paper)
[UNAP] 1942, Unconsciousness by James Grier Miller, Page 131-132, John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Internet Archive) link link
[EFAP] 1942, Thesaurus of Anecdotes by Edmund Fuller, Page 161-162, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
[ONJB] 1942 (reprint 1944), Good Intentions by Ogden Nash, The Third Jungle Book, Page 52, Little, Brown and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper in 1944 reprint)
[LUAP] 1946, A Treasury of Laughter, Selected and Edited by Louis Untermeyer, Section: Mrs. Amos Pinchot, Page 91, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
[NYAM] 1946 May 12, New York Times, Women, Page 74, New York. (ProQuest)
[TDLL] 1952 March 15, The Diplomat, Town Talk, Page 7, Diplomat Pub. Co., Washington D.C. (Verified with scans; Thanks to the librarians at the Herman Wells Library of Indiana University)
[WJHE] 1953, Uses and Abuses of Psychology by H. J. Eysenck, Page 192, Penguin UK, London. (Questia)
[WWAH] 1957 December 13, Anderson Herald, “Folklore” by William Wade, Page 13, Column 2, Anderson, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
[EIAF] 1966 August 13, Edwardsville Intelligencer, SIU Chorus Concert Sunday, Page 3, Column 8, Edwardsville, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive)
[WJRD] 1968, The Master Game: Pathways to Higher Consciousness Beyond the Drug Experience by Robert S. De Ropp, Page 62, A Delta Book: Dell Publishing, New York. (Verified on paper)
[DPDP] 1971, Involvement in Developmental Psychology Today, Contributing consultants, T. G. R. Bower and Robert Merrill Springer, Page 152, CRM Books, Del Mar, California. (Verified on paper)
[NYNA] 1999 February 21, New York Times, Women, Sex And Darwin by Natalie Angier, Page SM48, New York. (ProQuest)
[TPVB] 2004 Autumn, Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, [verbatimmag.com], Editor Erin McKean, “Hogamous, higamous!” by Tony Percy, Chicago, Illinois. (Online at findarticles.com and coldspur.com; Accessed March 28, 2012) link
[MDBI] 2009 July 8, the dorn blog, [Blog of Mike J. Dorn], “Bloggus Interruptus… Altered States, Altered Quotes and the Lost Art of Fact Checking”. (Online at thedornblog.wordpress.com; Accessed March 28, 2012) link