Kiss: A Trick of Nature to Stop Speech When Words Are Superfluous

Ingrid Bergman? Evan Esar? Paul H. Gilbert? Hal Boyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of my favorite websites recently presented a collection of “Ten Favorite Quotations about Words”. Number one was about osculation:

A kiss is a lovely trick, designed by nature, to stop speech when words become superfluous.

These words were attributed to the lovely Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman, but no citation was given. Oddly, most of the other ten quotes incorporated precise citations. Can you tell me when and where this was said?

Quote Investigator: This statement was credited to Bergman in a syndicated newspaper column written by Hal Boyle in 1970, and this was the earliest connection to Bergman located by QI. The actress lived until 1982, so it was possible that she did speak or write this line.

However, the clever definition was in circulation a few decades earlier. In 1943 Evan Esar, the inveterate phrase collector, published “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” which included the following meaning for the word kiss [EECD]:

kiss. A trick of nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.

Esar did not list credits for any of the definitions in his book proclaiming that the contents were “of popular origin and therefore unattributed”. He also complained about the ubiquity of false attributions in his Foreword [EECF]:

Now more than ever is it a wise crack that knows its own father, for the general practice of apocryphal ascription has been aggravated by the rise of radio.

Yet, Esar also admitted that some of the jokes in his book should have been ascribed:

Some of the unattributed items in this work doubtless derive from present-day humorists and men of letters, and for their inadvertent inclusion the writer wishes to apologize in advance.

The humorous remark about kissing was reprinted without ascription for many years until a version was finally assigned to Bergman by 1970.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1943 Ingmar Bergman appeared in a famous movie scene about kissing that combined humor and passion. She co-starred in the film “For Whom the Bell Tolls” with a screenplay by Dudley Nichols based on a novel by Ernest Hemingway. The kiss between Bergman and Gary Cooper was prefaced with this line from Bergman [FWBT]:

I don’t know how to kiss, or I would kiss you. Where do the noses go? (Laugh) Always I wonder, where the noses would go?

This line differed markedly from the saying under investigation, but a connection between Bergman and funny remarks about kissing was established in the 1940s. This may have facilitated later ascriptions.

In 1954 the words in Esar’s book were reprinted under the title “Today’s Definition” in a West Virginian newspaper, and no credit was listed [CGKI]:

A trick of nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.

Also, in 1954 the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times printed the same gloss for “kiss” under the title “Comic Dictionary” without ascription [BGKI]. All three of these 1954 citations were printed on the front pages although the Los Angeles Times instance appeared in the second section. A copyright notice for Evan Esar accompanied the item in the Los Angeles Times.

In 1962 the quip was published in a Schenectady, New York newspaper within an advertisement for a food store. The phrase was labeled a Daffynition [SNDF]. In 1963 the joke was published in a Long Island City, New York newspaper. The definition was grouped with five Daffynitions and the article author was Paul H. Gilbert [LJDF].

In 1970 the syndicated columnist Hal Boyle published a quotation he ascribed to Bergman. The wording differed slightly from the version in Esar’s book. Boyle did not provide any details about when the quote was spoken [IBHB]:

Quotable notables: “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.”—Ingrid Bergman.

The ascription to Bergman was repeated many times in the decades after 1970. For example, in 1980 the columnist L. M. Boyd wrote [IBLB]:

Item No. 738C in our Love and War man’s file on kissing is an observation by none other than Ingrid Bergman: “A kiss is a lovely trick designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.”

In 2011 the same expression was credited to Bergman in The Express newspaper of London, England [IBLE]

In conclusion, the earliest known instance of this saying appeared in 1943 and was anonymous. The connection to Ingrid Bergman was established at a relatively late date, 1970. Perhaps Bergman heard the definition and repeated it. Alternatively, some publicist or newsperson simply assigned the saying to Bergman to create an entertaining news item. As databases grow, future researchers may learn more.

[EECD] 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 154, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)

[EECF] 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Foreword, Quote Page vii, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)

[FWBT] 1943, Movie: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Director: Sam Wood, Screenplay by Dudley Nichols, [Line spoken by Ingmar Bergman as Maria], Paramount Pictures. (IMDB entry; Verified with video clip) link

[CGKI] 1954 July 31, Charleston Gazette, Today’s Definition, Page 1, Column 3, Charleston, West Virginia. (NewspaperArchive)

[BGKI] 1954 August 3, Boston Globe, Comic Dictionary: Kiss, Page 1, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

[LTKI] 1954 August 30, Los Angeles Times, Comic Dictionary: Kiss, [Copyright by Evan Esar], Part 2, Page 1, Column 6, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[SNDF] 1962 May 3, Schenectady Gazette, [Advertisement for Shurfine Buy-Rite Food Store], “Fun or Facts?”, Daffynition, Quote Page 8, Schenectady New York. (Old Fulton)

[LJDF] 1963 October 7, Long Island Star-Journal, Daffynitions by Paul H. Gilbert, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Long Island City, New York. (Old Fulton)

[IBHB] 1970 February 9, Owosso Argus-Press, Boyle’s Mail by Hal Boyle, [Associated Press], Quote Page 11, Column 1, Owosso, Michigan. (Google News Archive)

[IBLB] 1980 November 13, Omaha World Herald, Trends Show in Pawnshops by L. M. Boyd, Quote Page 20, Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

[IBLE] 2011 February 14, The Express, The Express: It’s what makes the world go round, [No Page Number], Express Newspapers plc, [Source: The Financial Times Limited], London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)