Laughter Would Be Bereaved If Snobbery Died

James Ussher? Peter Ustinov? Arland Ussher? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Times of London has a regular Quote-of-the-Day feature called “Last Word”. My question is about the following insightful quotation [TLJU]:

Laughter would be bereft if snobbery died.

The newspaper credited this remark to Archbishop James Ussher who lived between 1581 and 1656. Ussher was famous for intensely studying sacred and secular texts and then calculating the date of the creation of the universe which he gave as October 23, 4004 BC. Evidence today suggests that Ussher’s chronology was not completely accurate.

But this query was prompted by another anomalous chronology. According to the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary the noun “snob” was first recorded in 1785, at which time it meant: “A shoemaker or cobbler; a cobbler’s apprentice”. Also, the noun “snobbery” dates from 1833 long after after Ussher’s death. Stylistically, the quotation seems modern to me. If Ussher wrote this statement then someone else must have substantially modified it. Could you tell me who authored this quotation and when?

Quote Investigator: The UK newspaper The Times on June 16, 2011 did publish the following quote and ascription [TLJU]:

“Laughter would be bereft if snobbery died.”
James Ussher, Irish prelate, 1581-1656

But Ussher had nothing to do with this aphorism. Congratulations to the questioner for her perceptive analysis of the anachronistic vocabulary. The earliest known evidence of this maxim appeared in 1955 more than three hundred and fifty years after the death of Ussher.

The English actor, writer, and humorist Peter Ustinov is the most likely creator.  In March 1955 the UK Sunday newspaper The Observer printed the quotation in a section called “Sayings of the Week”. The original wording was slightly different [TOPU]:

Laughter would be bereaved if snobbery died. —Mr. Peter Ustinov

What caused this bizarre mistake? There is a known error mechanism that provides a plausible explanation. In an alphabetical listing the names “Ussher” and “Ustinov” would be close to one another. In fact, in some lists of quotations the entries for the two names would be adjacent. A hurried and harried individual who was rapidly searching for a name to assign to a quotation might look above and below an entry and then select any visible name.

For example, here is a hypothetical list of quotations lexically ordered based on ascription that might cause confusion:

The sound of Brahman is OM. At the end of OM is silence. It is a silence of joy.
— Upanishads
Which beginning of time [the Creation] according to our Chronologie, fell upon the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of October in the year of the Julian Calendar, 710 [4004 B.C.].
— James Ussher
Laughter would be bereaved if snobbery died.
— Peter Ustinov
All business sagacity reduces itself in the last analysis to a judicious use of sabotage.
— Thorsten Veblen
Never have children, only grandchildren.
— Gore Vidal

The Upanishads did not claim that the universe began in 4004 BC. James Ussher was not commenting about humor. Thorsten Veblen was not advocating childlessness. One must look below each statement and not above to determine the proper attribution.

The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations [PGPU] and the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations [OXPU] both listed Ustinov’s remark properly ascribed and containing the word “bereaved”.

There is another Ussher that may have caused confusion. The Irish essayist and translator Arland Ussher is featured in some compilations of memorable phrases. For example, the 1997 book “Dictionary of Quotations in Communications” assigns the following to Ussher [QCAL]:

Humor is the sense of the Absurd which is despair refusing to take itself seriously.

This statement might have appeared immediately adjacent to the quote from Ustinov. Indeed, a thematically organized quote collection would have placed both sayings into the “humor” section. The type of ordering error already discussed might have forged an incorrect linkage between Ustinov’s comment and Arland Ussher. Further sloppiness might have swapped Arland with James Ussher.

In conclusion, evidence indicates that Peter Ustinov crafted the expression under investigation. The confusion between Ustinov and Ussher might have been facilitated by spatial proximity on a book page.

(This post was inspired by a wonderful email from Victoria Solt Dennis. She identified the spurious ascription to Ussher, and she also proposed the most likely error mechanism to explain the mistake. In the past, QI has seen other examples of incorrect assignments that fit this pattern. But acknowledgment goes to Dennis for discovering and diagnosing this misattribution. Great thanks to her for an entertaining missive.)

[TLJU] 2011 June 16, The Times (London), Section: Diary, The Last Word, Page 34, London. (LexisNexis Academic)

[TOPU] 1955 March 13, The Observer (UK), Table Talk by Pendennis, Subsection: Sayings of the Week, London. (Guardian/Observer ProQuest) (Many thanks to Mike at Duke for verifying this data)

[PGPU] 1977 [reprint of 1976 revision of 1971 edition] The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations edited by J.M Cohen and M.J. Cohen, Section Peter Ustinov, Page 231, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified on paper)

[OXPU] 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations edited by Ned Sherrin, Category: Humour, Page 168, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

[QCAL] 1997, Dictionary of Quotations in Communications, Compiled by Lilless McPherson Shilling and Linda K. Fuller, Page 107, Greenwood Press, Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, Connecticut. (Google Books preview)