Drawing on My Fine Command of Language, I Said Nothing

Robert Benchley? Lon Robinson? Joseph Charles Salak? Bruce Caldwell? H. M. Stansifer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some people never know when to stop talking. I wish more people knew about the following quotation. Here are two versions:

Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.
Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.

I have seen this attributed to the humorist and movie actor Robert Benchley. I have also seen it credited to Mark Twain. Would you look into this question?

Quote Investigator: A comical statement related to this theme was printed in 1900: 1

“He has a fine command of language,” says Mr. Dooley; “he seldom lets any escape.”

The important precursor statement given below was in circulation by 1920. The expression was printed without attribution along with several other quips and adages in an article titled “Pithy Sayings From Glens Falls Now and Then”. During the ensuing decades the phrase was reprinted many times: 2

It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing.

In 1921 the saying was printed in a Kansas City, Missouri newspaper which gave an acknowledgement to another periodical: 3

“It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing,” observes the Jameson Gem.

Also in 1921 a rephrased and more elaborate version of the statement was printed in a Miami, Florida newspaper: 4

After all, nothing so much testifies to a fine command of language as an ability to say nothing at the right time.

In 1926 another version of the saying was printed in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania newspaper: 5

At times it requires a fine command of language to keep silent.

QI hypothesizes that the quotation under investigation evolved from these precursors.

Mark Twain died in 1910, and there is no substantive evidence that he made this remark. Robert Benchley died in 1945. The first ascription to Benchley located by QI appeared in 1949. The ascription to Benchley has weak support based on current knowledge.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1934 a newspaper in Hammond, Indiana published the following slightly altered version of the saying: 6

It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing at all.

In 1934 the mass-circulation Reader’s Digest printed the saying without ascription in a section called “Capsule Wisdom”. This instance used the same wording as the statement disseminated in 1920: 7

It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing.

In 1943 the quotation and aphorism collector Evan Esar published a version in “Esar’s Comic Dictionary”. The words were placed into the format of a definition for the word “say” and no attribution was listed: 8

say.
1. It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing.
2. When there’s nothing to be said, you can depend upon some people to say it.

In 1948 a version was attached to someone named Lon Robinson in a Hutchinson, Kansas newspaper: 9

A fine command of language often is demonstrated by saying nothing, says Lon Robinson in the Rush County News.

In 1949 the column “White Collar Girl” of the Chicago Tribune mentioned the expression as an example of a quotation that many people “remember readily and recognize as part of the fabric of their days.” But she also noted that the origin was unknown: 10

A quotation (you don’t know the source): “It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing.”

Also in 1949 the collector Evan Esar published “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” and it included the modern version of the saying credited to Robert Benchley. This instance simply said “language” instead of “the English language”, and it is the earliest connection to Benchley found by QI: 11

BENCHLEY, Robert, 1889-1945, American humorous editor, critic, actor, and author.
Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.

Note that Esar published a different version of the saying in 1943 without ascription.

The writer Arch Ward penned the long-lived column “In the WAKE of the NEWS” for the Chicago Tribune. In 1950 he printed an instance and ascribed the words to someone named Joseph Charles Salak: 12

Thought for the Day
Knowing when to be silent denotes a fine command of language. —Joseph Charles Salak

The phrasing continued to evolve as shown by the version printed in August 1950 in a Lubbock, Texas newspaper: 13

No one can be said to have a fine command of language unless he knows when it is time to say nothing.

In 1951 the syndicated feature “Daffynitions” by Paul H. Gilbert printed the following comical definition for a “diplomat”: 14

DIPLOMAT: A person who often shows a fine command of language by saying nothing.

In 1952 the “Daily Collegian” of Penn State in State College, Pennsylvania printed the following: 15

“Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.”—Robert Benchley

In 1954 Arch Ward tackled this topic again in his column “In the WAKE of the NEWS”. This time he assigned the saying to another person: 16

Sudden Thought
A fine command of language is to say nothing. —Bruce Caldwell

In 1955 the “Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms” by Herbert V. Prochnow credited the modern saying to Robert Benchley: 17

Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.
Robert Benchley

In 1956 a newspaper in Indiana, Pennsylvania published the following without ascription: 18

You often show your very best command of language when you say nothing.

In 1964 a variant was credited to a person named H. M. Stansifer in a Grand Prairie, Texas newspaper: 19

Prove that you have a fine command of language by keeping your mouth shut.
—H. M. Stansifer

By 1974 the expression was being written on walls, and it was included in a collection of graffiti. This version used the phrase “the English language”: 20

It often shows a fine command of the English language to say nothing.
(University of Michigan)

In 1990 the saying appeared in the fourth volume by Robert Byrne of “637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”. This instance was attributed to Benchley and used the phrase “the English language”: 21

Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.
Robert Benchley (1889-1945)

A webpage at the Goodreads website credited the saying to Mark Twain: 22

“Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.”
Mark Twain

In conclusion, a precursor to the modern saying was in circulation by 1920 without ascription. The wording of the expression metamorphosed during many decades. QI believes that the common modern expression was derived from these earlier sayings. In 1949 Evan Esar credited Robert Benchley with the saying. It is possible that Benchley did employ the quotation indicated by Esar. However, it was simply a modified version of an existing quip.

Notes:

  1. 1900 August 11, New York Times, A “Practical” View of Mr. Coler, Quote Page 6, Column 2, New York. (The original printed text used the spelling “anny” instead of “any”) (ProQuest)
  2. 1920 December 6, The Indicator, Volume XLVI, Number 23, Pithy Sayings From Glens Falls Now and Then, Page 360, Column 1, Indicator Publishing Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1921 April 14, Kansas City Times (Morning edition of Kansas City Star), Missouri Notes, Page 16, Column 6, Kansas City, Missouri. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1921 April 19, Miami Herald, The Galley, (Short item), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Miami, Florida. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1926 September 10, Gettysburg Times, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 7, Column 4, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1934 March 26, Hammond Times, The Passing Show, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Hammond, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1934 June, Reader’s Digest, Volume 24, Capsule Wisdom, Quote Page 59, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  8. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 242 and 243, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1948 March 16, Hutchinson News-Herald, Southwest Breezes, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Hutchinson, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive)
  10. 1949 June 4, Chicago Tribune, White Collar Girl by Ruth MacKay, Quote Page 16, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  11. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Robert Benchley, Quote Page 28, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  12. 1950 July 17, Chicago Tribune, In the WAKE of the NEWS by Arch Ward, Quote Page B1, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  13. 1950 August 7, Lubbock Evening Journal, The Plainsman, Section 3, Quote Page 2, Column 1, (NArch Page 20), Lubbock, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 1951 December 30, Seattle Daily Times, Section: Seattle Sunday Times Magazine, Daffynitions by Paul H. Gilbert, Start Page 12, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1952 March 19, Daily Collegian, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, State College, Pennsylvania. (Penn State college newspaper), (Accessed on October 21, 2013; newspaper archive at digitalnewspapers.libraries.psu.edu)
  16. 1954 February 17, Chicago Tribune, In the WAKE of the NEWS by Arch Ward, Quote Page B1, Column 1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  17. 1955, Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms by Herbert V. Prochnow, Section: Conversation, Quote Page 61, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  18. 1956 October 2, Indiana Evening Gazette, Teddy (Upper right adjacent to newspaper name banner), Quote Page 1, Indiana, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  19. 1964 February 23, Grand Prairie Daily News Texan, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 7, Column 2, Grand Prairie, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  20. 1980 (Copyright 1974), Encyclopedia of Graffiti, Collected by Robert Reisner and Lorraine Wechsler, Section: Utterance, Quote Page 357, (Reprint of 1974 edition from Macmillan, New York), Galahad Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  21. 1990, The Fourth—and by Far the Most Recent—637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 570, Page not numbered, (Quotations are numbered, but pages are not numbered), Atheneum, New York. (Verified on paper)
  22. Website: Goodreads, Section: Mark Twain > Quotes > Quotable Quote, Date on website: The first Like is dates March 17, 2010, Website self-description: Goodreads is the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations, (Accessed goodreads.com on October 22, 2013) link