Military Intelligence is a Contradiction in Terms or an Oxymoron

Groucho Marx? George Carlin? John Charteris? Theodor Reik? Doctor Who? Shirley Hazzard? Niall MacDermot? Sam Ervin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous comedians Groucho Marx and George Carlin are both credited with a joke that can be expressed in many ways. Here are some examples:

Military Intelligence is an oxymoron.
Military Intelligence is a contradiction in terms.
Military Intelligence are two mutually exclusive words.
Military Intelligence are two terms that do not go together.

Did either of these well-known humorists make a remark of this type?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that both Groucho Marx and George Carlin employed a version of this quip. However, the earliest evidence located by QI points to a surprising person. John Charteris was a British Brigadier-General and the primary intelligence officer for Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the leader of the British Expeditionary Forces during World War I. 1

In 1931 Charteris wrote “At G.H.Q.” which described his experiences at the military general headquarters during the war. Charteris employed an instance of the expression when he recounted the dismissive attitude of a statesman toward information obtained via intelligence work. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 2

Curzon did not give much time to Intelligence work. I fancy Military Intelligence to him is a contradiction in terms.

The entry containing the text above appeared in a section dated February 5, 1916, but it may have been updated and amplified later, sometime between 1916 and 1931.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The statement was eye-catching and when a short review of the book was published in Punch magazine in 1931 the words were reprinted: 3

From his daily jottings the writer kept back nothing. The Generals who thought all politicians crooked are there, and so are the statesmen to whom Military Intelligence was a contradiction in terms

In 1963 a prominent psychoanalyst named Theodor Reik used the distinctive term “contradictio in adjecto” which meant a logical inconsistency between a noun and its modifier: 4

There is even an institution called Military Intelligence, which is the perfect example of a contradiction in adjecto.

In 1966 The New Yorker magazine published a short story by Shirley Hazzard that contained an instance of the saying: 5

“Contradiction in terms.” Algie was collecting contradictions in terms: To a nucleus of “military intelligence” and “competent authorities,” he had added such discoveries as “the soul of efficiency,” “easy virtue,” “Bankers Trust,” and “Christian Scientist.”

In 1967 Time magazine employed the expression while reviewing a film called “Young Torless” set in an Austrian military school: 6

Hardly has he buttoned up his tunic when he begins to sense that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms. His professors are interested in order, not in knowledge; most of his fellow students are toadies and bullies who pervert the authority over them by victimizing those under them.

Also in 1967 a book titled “Quotemanship” by Paul F. Boller discussed a specialist periodical called “Quote” which attributed a version of the remark to a British Financial Secretary: 7

But the handiest source for the latest words of wisdom emanating from the world’s notables and quotables is Quote, the Weekly Digest, published in Richmond, Indiana, whose motto, taken from Charles Haddon Spurgeon, is: “He who never quotes, is never quoted.” …

… on the back page of each issue, a department called “Quote-ettes” consisting of brief bits of wisdom from around the world (“‘State intelligence,’ like ‘military intelligence’ and ‘woman friend,’ is a contradiction in terms”—Niall MacDermot, Financial Secretary to British Treasury).

In January 1971 the popular long-running British television series “Doctor Who” broadcast a multi-part episode called “Terror of the Autons”. After the Doctor (played by Jon Pertwee) encountered an unhelpful military man he expressed his disappointment to his companion Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning): 8

Doctor Who: Do you know, Jo, I sometimes think that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.

Jo Grant: You’re not very grateful are you?

Doctor Who: What? For having my time wasted?

In February 1971 the legal commentator Alan Dershowitz writing in the New York Times ascribed the saying to famed humorist Groucho Marx: 9 10

Groucho Marx once commented that military intelligence is a contradiction in terms; Sherrill says the same about military justice.

Also in 1971 U.S. Senator Sam Ervin mentioned the expression: 11

The hearings resume next week with Defense Department officials given the chance to rebut widespread accounts, which Ervin has said lend credence to the observation that “military intelligence is a contradiction in terms.”

In 1973 a writer in the journal “Television Quarterly” used the label oxymoron instead of “contradiction in terms”: 12

Television talk shows are inherently schizoid. To yoke together the word “talk” — something any child over two can manage — and “show” — implying a dazzling display of talent — is to produce what pedants call an oxymoron. No, not an eight-sided fool, but a term that appears to contradict itself, i.e., “stupid genius,” “cruel kindness,” some might even say “military intelligence.”

In March 1974 a newspaper article titled “Timely Quotes” included a quotation from a Groucho interview: 13

“Military intelligence … isn’t that a contradiction in terms?”
—Comedian Groucho Marx to an interviewer asking his reactions to the Pentagon spying ring uncovered in the White House.

In November 1974 a critic in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana reviewed a show by George Carlin and described one of his comedy routines: 14

He also complained that many words don’t have real meaning. Hot-water heater is one term he misunderstands. “If the water was hot, you wouldn’t have to heat it,” he said. Other phrases, such as jumbo shrimp, guest host and military intelligence, have no meaning because the terms are mutually exclusive, according to Carlin.

In 1975 George Carlin appeared on the premiere episode of the television show “Saturday Night Live” and told a version of the joke: 15

The term Jumbo Shrimp has always amazed me. What is a Jumbo Shrimp? I mean, it’s like Military Intelligence – the words don’t go together, man.

In 1976 a writer in a Portland, Oregon newspaper attributed the version of the quip that uses the word oxymoron to Groucho Marx: 16

…an oxymoron is a paradoxical or contradictory descriptive phrase, like quiet shouts, aggressive laziness, deliberate accident and, according to Groucho Marx, military intelligence.

In conclusion, currently the earliest evidence located by QI suggests that John Charteris should be given credit for this remark. The television show “Doctor Who” along with top comedians Groucho Marx and George Carlin also used versions of this joke and helped to popularize it.

(Special thanks to the librarians at Denison University for obtaining scans from the 1931 book by John Charteris. Also, thanks to Professor Jonathan Lighter for his feedback. Many thanks to Christopher Becke who told QI about the 1971 “Doctor Who” episode.)

Notes:

  1. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Entry: John Charteris, (1877–1946) by J. M. Bourne, Oxford University Press. (First published 2004; online edition dated October 2008) (Accessed oxforddnb.com on June 20 2012) link
  2. 1931, At G.H.Q. by John Charteris, (Diary entry is dated February 5, 1916 but the content may have been amplified at a later date), Quote Page 135 and 136, Cassell and Company, Ltd., London. (Verified on paper; Thanks to the librarians at Denison University)
  3. 1931 October 21, Punch, Or The London Charivari, [Short book review of: At G.H.Q by John Charteris], Page 448, Column 2, Punch Publications Ltd., London. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1963, The Need to be Loved by Theodor Reik, Page 86, The Noonday Press, Division of Farrar, Straus and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1966 March 26, The New Yorker, Nothing in Excess by Shirley Hazzard, Start Page 48, Quote Page 49, The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (The New Yorker online archive)
  6. 1967 September 29, Time, “Cinema: Festival Attraction, Side-Show Action”, Time Inc., New York. (Time magazine online archive)
  7. 1967, Quotemanship: the use and abuse of quotations for polemical and other purposes by Paul F. Boller, Quote Page 9, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas. (Verified on paper)
  8. Dailymotion video, Title: Terror Of The Autons (Pt. 3), Uploaded on November 1, 2014, Uploaded by: Mr. Meat Science, (Quotation starts at 5 minutes 50 seconds of 23 minutes 29 seconds)(This video is from the “Doctor Who” television series; it was originally broadcast as episode 3 of season 8 in January 1971)(Accessed on dailymotion.com on January 18, 2016)
  9. 1971 February 21, New York Times, Crimes of Degree: Law and Order by Alan M. Dershowitz, Start Page BRA4, Quote Page BRA12, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Julius Henry ‘Groucho’ Marx, Page 498, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1971 February 27, Aberdeen American-News, [Aberdeen Daily News], Conflict of Spies Aired at Inquiry by Lee Byrd, [Associated Press], Page 11, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (Genealogybank)
  12. 1973 Winter, Television Quarterly, Volume 10, Number 2, The Schizoid Talk Show by Robert Benard, Start Page 56, Quote Page 56, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, California. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1974 March 28, Harlan Daily Enterprise, Timely Quotes, Page 4, Column 2, Harlan, Kentucky. (Google News Archive)
  14. 1974 November 5, Advocate, The Lively Arts: X-Rated Maybe But He’s Funny by Phil LaRose (Advocate Staff Writer), Quote Page 7-A, Column 2, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  15. Website: Saturday Night Live Transcripts, Episode Information: Season 1: Episode 1, Air Date of Episode: October 11, 1975, Article Title: George Carlin Stand-Up II, Website Description: SNL Transcripts is not affiliated with Saturday Night Live or NBC. (Accessed snltranscripts.jt.org on October 2, 2013) (QI had not verified this transcript with the video) link
  16. 1976 January 6, Oregonian, ‘Lucky Lady’ Light of Heart by Ted Mahar (The Oregonian Staff), Quote Page C7, Column 2, Portland, Oregon (GenealogyBank)