Noah Webster? Samuel Johnson? Chauncey Depew? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a ribald anecdote about one of the world’s greatest dictionary makers that I would like you to explore. The tale claims that the lexicographer Noah Webster had a secret libertine inclination. One day his wife returned home and was shocked to discover him caressing and osculating the chambermaid.
The wife cried out, “Noah! I am surprised!” The stunned man’s reflexive thought patterns were immediately engaged, and he replied, “My dear, you must study our beautiful language more closely. It is I who am surprised. You are astonished.”
There is a rival version of this story featuring another famous dictionary creator Samuel Johnson as the philanderer. Johnson lived between 1709 and 1784; Webster lived between 1758 and 1843. I would like to know which man was the true Lothario.
Quote Investigator: Tracing an anecdote is a difficult task, but QI will make an attempt and present a snapshot of the results. The earliest discovered instance was printed in a newspaper in 1896. The raconteur was Chauncey Depew, a famous after-dinner speaker: 1
At a recent dinner in New York a new story was sprung by Chauncey M. Depew. Speaking of the importance of humor, Mr. Depew declared that Noah Webster, though a lexicographer, was humorist. “His wife,” Chauncey went on to say, “caught him one day kissing the cook.
“‘Noah,’ she exclaimed, ‘I’m surprised!’
“‘Madam,’ he replied, ‘you have not studied carefully our glorious language. It is I who am surprised. You are astounded.'”
In 1903 “Everybody’s Magazine” published a curious version of the story in which Webster’s transgression was not carnal. Instead, his wife was unhappy with the informality of his attire. This bowdlerized version was fit for everybody as suggested by the magazine name: 2
A story is told of Noah Webster, the dictionary maker, who one day was found by his wife at dinner without coat or collar while entertaining two guests. His wife’s sudden and unexpected return and entrance to the room brought those present to their feet. “I am surprised,” said Mrs. Webster. And Mr. Webster rejoined, “My dear, I am surprised—you are astonished.”
The originator of this joke was not a linguist, and its construction was based on an artifice. The rationale of the humorous rejoinder hinged on a sharp delineation between the meanings of words such as: surprised, astounded, and astonished. Yet the definitions given in the 1830 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary revealed overlapping denotations: 3
SURPRISE v. t. 1. To come or fall upon suddenly and unexpectedly; to take unawares. 2. To strike with wonder or astonishment. 3. To confuse; to throw the mind into disorder by something suddenly presented to the view or to the mind.
SURPRISED pp. Come upon or taken unawares; struck with something novel or unexpected.
ASTONISH v. t. To stun or strike dumb with sudden fear, terror, surprise, or wonder; to amaze; to confound with some sudden passion.
ASTONISHED pp. Amazed; confounded with fear, surprise, or admiration
ASTOUND, v. t. To astonish; to strike dumb with amazement.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
By 1904 another version was placed in circulation via “The Idler” magazine that featured informal clothing and drinking instead of kissing: 4
A very good story explanatory of the correct meaning of words is told of Noah Webster, the learned compiler of America’s first big dictionary. Noah was an unconventional man who loved his unconventional friends, but his wife was a stickler for propriety, and so the somewhat henpecked Webster rarely got a good chance of making merry with his cronies.
Once the good lady left home on what was supposed to be a prolonged visit, but some interference caused her to return unexpectedly, and she found her husband in his shirt-sleeves, holding carnival over strong waters in company with a number of friends also in their shirt-sleeves. The shocked lady gazed at this disreputable gathering for a moment in silence then she said:—
“Well, I am surprised!”
“No, my dear,” said the lexicographer, mildly, “I am surprised; you are astonished.”
The anecdotes above all reported on the supposed behavior of Noah Webster, but by 1906 a variant with Samuel Johnson was published in a periodical called the “Midland Druggist” based in Columbus, Ohio: 5
The famous Dr. Johnson was discovered one day by Mrs. Johnson kissing one of her serving maids.
“Why, Dr. Johnson,” said his wife, “I am surprised.”
“No,” said the recreant husband, “that is not exactly right dear. I am surprised; you are astonished!”
In 1909 the taboo act committed by Webster was “pressing the hand” of a “pretty cook” instead of kissing a maid. 6
Prof. Robert Herrick, of the University of Chicago, desired to point out to a young sonneteer the difference between the words “astonish” and “surprise.”
“Noah Webster,” Prof. Herrlck said, “was once caught by his wife in the act of pressing the hand of the pretty cook.
“The cook, blushing like a rose, fled at once to her kitchen. Mrs. Webster said in a sad, tremulous voice:
“‘Why, Noah, I’m surprised.’
“But the philologist, from, over his glasses at his wife, answered reprovingly:
“‘Madam, you have not studied our glorious language as you should. It’s I who am surprised. You are astonished.'”
In 1921 an instance was published in which neither Webster nor Johnson appeared. A couple with the generic names John and Mary exchanged the lines of dialog: 7
It seems a wife and man, after living together some five years, decided to adopt into the family a help-mate—a very beautiful maid. One day, as the wife was passing through the parlor, she found the beautiful maid sitting upon the knee of her husband. She drew the curtain aside and said: “John, I am surprised.” He said: “No, Mary, you are not. You are astonished. I am surprised.” (Laughter.)
In 1930 the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest printed a version with Samuel Johnson being confronted by another husband: 8
It is stated that Dr. Samuel Johnson, the lexicographer, while caressing another man’s wife, was unexpectedly caught in the act by the woman’s husband.
“Dr. Johnson,” he exclaimed, “I am surprised.”
“No,” said Johnson, “you are astonished; I am surprised.”
In 1971 the anecdote appeared in “Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor” with the comment that it was “possibly apocryphal”. Asimov ascribed the following punchline to Noah Webster: “I am surprised, my dear. You are merely astonished.” He also attempted to explain the reasoning behind Webster’s statement: 9
The point of this joke has, alas, grown feeble with the years. Nowadays, the proper meaning of surprised (caught unprepared) has become secondary, with Mrs. Webster’s improper meaning (astonished) in universal use.
In conclusion, the earliest known evidence of this jape dates to 1896, and QI thinks that it probably was created after both Noah Webster and Samuel Johnson were already dead. Currently, Chauncey Depew is the leading candidate for originator of the tale. The Webster version appeared about a decade before the Johnson version in 1906. These details may change if additional citations are discovered.
(Special thanks to Daniel Gackle who sent the query that inspired the formulation of this question and motivated this exploration. Thanks also to Sylvia Milne who commented about this anecdote on a mailing list.)
- 1896 April 21, Daily Iowa Capital, A New One by Chauncey, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1903 September, Everybody’s Magazine, With “Everybody’s” Publishers, A Surprising Letter, Quote Page 419, Column 2, Volume 9, The Ridgway-Thayer Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1830, An American Dictionary of the English Language: Exhibiting the Origin, Orthography, Pronunciation, and Definitions of Words by Noah Webster, (Abridged from the Quarto edition by the author), Entry SURPRISE: Page 813, Entry ASTONISH and ASTOUND: Page 58, Published by S. Converse, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1903 October to 1904 March, The Idler, Volume 24, Section: The Idlers’ Club by Robert Barr, Subtilities of Meaning, Quote Page 560, Column 2, Chatto & Windus, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1906 January, Midland Druggist [Interstate Druggist], Volume 7, Number 5, Sense and Nonsense: The Difference, Page 446, Column 1, Midland Publishing Company, Columbus, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1909 December 28, The Post-Standard, A Noah Webster Joke, (Acknowledgement to The Philadelphia Record), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1921, Proceedings of the Illinois Pharmaceutical Association, (Forty-Second Annual Meeting held at Chicago, Illinois on June 21 to 23, 1921), (Remark by W. H. H. Miller, Director of the Department of Registration and Education of the State of Illinois), Quote Page 29, Illinois Pharmaceutical Association. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1930 August, Reader’s Digest, Volume 17, Repartee, Start Page 381, Quote Page 382, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1971 copyright, Isaac Asimov’s Treasury of Humor, Joke Number 241, Quote Page 169, Houghton Mifflin, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩