A Verbal Contract Isn’t Worth the Paper It’s Written On

Samuel Goldwyn? Bryan O’Loghlen? Boyle Roche? Ed Wynn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A contract that is written and signed is easier to comprehend and enforce. But many people rely on unwritten promises. The following cautionary humorous remark is attributed to the famous movie producer Samuel Goldwyn:

A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Similar expressions replace “verbal” with “oral”. Also, some instances use “agreement” instead of “contract”. Here is an example:

An oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Is this an authentic Goldwynism?

Quote Investigator: The use of the word “verbal” in this quotation may be confusing to some readers. Strictly speaking a “verbal contract” would simply be a contract expressed in words, but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recorded another common meaning for “verbal”:

Verbal adj. Sense 4 a: Expressed or conveyed by speech instead of writing; stated or delivered by word of mouth; oral.

The OED presented a first citation dated 1617 indicating that this sense has been present in English for a very long time.

In 1937 the short biography “The Great Goldwyn” attributed this saying to Samuel Goldwyn, and in 1956 a denial from Goldwyn was printed. These two citations are detailed further below. Interestingly, the quip was already in circulation decades before the 1937 volume was published.

In June 1890 “The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal” printed an instance of the joke ascribed to an Australian/Irish politician named Bryan O’Loghlen. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1890 June 14, The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal, (Untitled short note), Quote Page 320, Column 1, John Falconer, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

In the adjoining colony of Victoria, Sir Bryan O’Loghlen, M.P., who has a national right to indulge in this sort of thing, gravely told the Supreme Court that “a verbal agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on.”

In September 1890 the “Rocky Mountain News” of Denver, Colorado published a version of the quip credited to “Pat”. The archetypal name and dialectical speech signaled that the speaker was Irish. In the following passage “indade” was “indeed”, “wid” was “with”, and “razon” was “reason”. The periodical “Texas Siftings” was acknowledged:[ref] 1890 September 12, Rocky Mountain News, Random Selections, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

It was verbal: Lawyer—Have you got a verbal contract with him? Pat:—Indade I have, but I didn’t bring it wid me, for the razon that I don’t believe it’s worth the paper it’s written on.—Texas Siftings.

The text immediately above was reprinted in other newspapers. For example, in 1893 it appeared in a section called “Smiles” of the “Northern Christian Advocate” newspaper of Syracuse, New York.[ref] 1893 December 6, Northern Christian Advocate, Smiles, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Syracuse, New York. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1894 the humor collection “Bulls and Blunders” was published in Chicago, Illinois, and the jest was credited to “an Australian lawyer”:[ref] 1894, Bulls and Blunders, Edited by Marshall Brown, Second Edition, Quote Page 218, S. C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

On another occasion he solemnly declared that a certain verbal agreement “was not worth the paper it was written on.”

In 1897 a periodical in London connected the quip to an Irish politician named Sir Boyle Roche who was well-known for uttering malapropisms:[ref] 1897 November, The Contemporary Review, Volume 72, The New Political Era by Dr. E. J. Dillon, Start Page 609, Quote Page 627, Isbister and Company Limited, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Yet this treaty, like the famous verbal agreement quoted by Sir Boyle Roche, proved to be not worth the paper it was written on.

In 1905 a newspaper in Ohio printed an instance of the joke under the title “Sounds Irish”, and used stock comical figures named “Petty Fogger, Esq.” and “Hiram Ezey”:[ref] 1905 April 25, Cleveland Leader Just By the Way: Sounds Irish, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Petty Fogger, Esq.—You wish to sue this man for breach of contract? Let’s see a copy of the contract.

Hiram Ezey—Well, they wasn’t nothin’ but a verbal contrack,

P. Fogger—A verbal contract? What’s that good for anyhow? My dear sir, a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on!

In 1926 the popular comedian Ed Wynn included a version of the gag in his syndicated newspaper column:[ref] 1926 December 12, Seattle Daily Times, “Ed Wynn’s Question Box: He Sees All: He Knows All” by Ed Wynn (The Perfect Fool), Quote Page 10, Column 1, (GNB Page 82), Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

DEAR MR. WYNN: I am an actor of twelve years’ experience, and am now negotiating with a new manager to play in one of his plays. We are having a discussion regarding my contract. I want a written contract and the manager insists on a verbal contract. Would you be kind enough to advise me as to your opinion of a verbal contract? Yours truly,

Answer—A verbal contract, in my opinion, is not worth the paper it is written on.

In 1934 a newspaper in Nebraska printed a set of remarks that reportedly were spoken in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. The instance of the saying below used “oral” instead of “verbal”:[ref] 1934 November 10, Omaha World Herald, Parliamentary Jewels, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Parliamentary Jewels.
(Items culled from speeches in the British House of Commons by the Manchester Guardian.)

An oral agreement is not worth the paper it is written on.
There was I, standing prostrate at the feet of royalty.
A thorny subject which has long been a bone of contention among us.

In 1937 “The Great Goldwyn” by Alva Johnston was published, and it included a large number of malapropisms ascribed to the film producer Samuel Goldwyn:[ref] 1937, The Great Goldwyn by Alva Johnston, Page 16, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper in 1978 Arno Press, New York Times reprint edition which carefully reproduced the 1937 edition)[/ref]

It would be impossible to make a more pointed remark than Goldwyn’s, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

In 1956 a newspaper columnist covering show business stated that Goldwyn had denied the accuracy of numerous comical sayings that had been attributed to him. The set of disacknowledged quotations included the one under investigation:[ref] 1956 February 12, Dallas Morning News, Section: Part 7, The Passing Show: Best Call Sam a Film Artist by John Rosenfield, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

The accumulated legend of his malapropisms now makes him furious. He denies vehemently that he ever said, “In two words, impossible,” or “Include me out,” or “Anybody who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined” or “An oral agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on”.

The 1969 book “The Moguls” by Norman Zierold included a section about Samuel Goldwyn. Zierold suggested that a genuine statement spoken by Goldwyn had been altered over time to yield the widely-distributed amusing remark:[ref] 1969, The Moguls by Norman Zierold, Quote Page 128, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Even a clever authentic phrase improves with time. Many in Hollywood considered Joe Schenck absolutely trustworthy. Goldwyn said of him: “His verbal contract is worth more than the paper it’s written on,” which transmuted to: “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

In conclusion, based on current evidence QI believes that it is reasonable to credit Bryan O’Loghlen with this saying. Yet, the line was delivered by an anonymous figure in jokes from the same time period. Hence, it is possible the ascription was manufactured. The comedian Ed Wynn used the jest when it was already in circulation.

QI hypothesizes that Goldwyn never employed this phrase. It was simply reassigned to him by a publicist or wit because Goldwyn functioned as a magnet for malapropisms.

Image Notes: Contract image from Nemo on Pixabay (modified). Handshake image from OpenClips on Pixabay.

(Special thanks to Rich Greenhill ‏@RichGreenhill for pointing to the ambiguity of the word verbal.)

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