The Jawbone of an Ass

Oscar Wilde? Lord Paget? Henry Watterson? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: In modern times a philistine is an uncultured anti-intellectual. In the Bible the Philistine people were enemies of the Israelites. Samson successfully fought against an army of Philistines while wielding the jawbone of an ass (donkey) as a devastating weapon. This background information allows one to understand one of the funniest anecdotes about Oscar Wilde, a tale in which he was outwitted.

Wilde became irritated during a lecture in the United States with the uncomprehending response he received while discussing the importance of aesthetics. He berated his audience and referred to them as philistines.

Finally, a voice in the back of the room called out, “Yes, we are Philistines, and now I see why for the past hour you have been assaulting us with the jawbone of an ass.”

I enjoy this story, but suspect that it is apocryphal. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: A version of this anecdote featuring Oscar Wilde was in circulation by 1883. The details are given further below. However, japes based on wordplay with the terms “jawbone” and “ass” were being disseminated many years earlier.

In 1833 “Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country” published a comical passage that was implicitly based on the dual meaning of the expression “jawbone of an ass”. In the following excerpt braying referenced the sound made by a donkey or ass. Also, “fall beneath the jaw” meant to be verbally chastised:[ref] 1833 June, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Volume 7, Number 42, “A Wind-up for Our Seventh Volume, Literary, Political, and Anti-Peelish”, Start Page 750, Quote Page 752, Published by James Fraser, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

As the Duke fell before the braying of Sir John Key, so shall Lord Grey fall beneath the jaw of Stockton the baker. The parental earl will be felled by the same weapon as that with which Samson smote the Philistines in the field of Ramath-Lehi.

The 1836 edition of a classic joke book titled “Joe Miller’s Jests with Copious Additions” included an instance of the tale in which the “jawbone of an ass” referred to the jawbone of a boastful individual:[ref] 1836, Joe Miller’s Jests with Copious Additions, Quote Page 73, Whittaker and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

A young fellow, not quite so wise as Solomon, eating some Cheshire cheese full of mites, one night at the tavern: Now, said he, have I done as much as Sampson, for I have slain my thousands and my ten thousands. Yes, answered one of the company, and with the same weapon too, the jawbone of an ass.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1866 a story in “The St. James’s Magazine” included a criticism aimed at a character who engaged in caustic verbal sparring:[ref] 1866 May, The St. James’s Magazine, Volume 16, Scarlet Recollections, Start Page 180, Quote Page 193, Published for the Proprietors by Houlston & Wright, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

“He fights his battles,” said Fullarton, sharply, “with the same weapon as that with which Samson smote the Philistines—the jawbone of an ass.”

In the 1870s a four volume work titled “The National History of England: Civil, Military, and Domestic” was published, and volume two included a disparaging anecdote about Lord Paget suggesting that a version of the quip was already in circulation circa 1641:[ref] 1871, The National History of England: Civil, Military, and Domestic by Frederick Martin, Volume 2 of 4, Section: Stuart Period, Quote Page 609, Column 2, Published by William Collins, Sons, & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

About 1641, coming to the court, talking with the queen, he boasted much of the power of the country lords, and said, ‘Madam, we are as strong as Sampson!’ ‘My lord,’ replied the queen, ‘I easily believe it, seeing you want not among you the jawbone of an ass.’ Ever after he was nicknamed ‘Sampson.’ This lord had a long lean face, not differing in length from that of an ass.

Oscar Wilde visited the United States and presented lectures in 1882. In 1883 a compilation titled “Wit and Humor of the Age” contained an unlikely tale about Wilde’s reception:[ref] 1883, Wit and Humor of the Age: Comprising Wit, Humor, Pathos, Ridicule by Mark Twain, Josh Billings, Eli Perkins, and others, Oscar Wilde Demolished, Quote Page 262, Star Publishing Company, Chicago. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Oscar Wilde Demolished

Oscar, the long haired esthete, was delivering himself of an eloquent tirade against the invasion of the sacred domain of art by the meaner herd of trades-people and miscellaneous nobodies, and finally rising to an Alpine height of scorn, exclaimed,

“Ay, all of you here are Philistines—mere Philistines!”

“Yes,” said an old gentleman, softly, “we are Philistines, and I suppose that is why we are being assaulted with the jawbone of an ass.”

In 1884 the popular humor magazine “Life” mentioned an instance of the joke:[ref] 1884 March 27, Life, Volume 3, Number 65, The Return of Mr. Arnold, Start Page 171, Quote Page 172, Office of Life, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

…to call men Philistines is a courageous act, inasmuch as they may retort with withering sarcasm by saying that they have been attacked with the same weapon as that with which Samson slew the enemy.

In 1891 the Oscar Wilde anecdote was retold in a slightly more elaborate fashion. In this version Wilde’s antagonist was identified as Henry Watterson:[ref] 1891, Wise, Witty, Eloquent Kings of the Platform and Pulpit by Melville D. Landon (Melville De Lancey Landon), Henry Watterson on Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 568, Published by F. C. Smedley & Co., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]


One night Oscar Wilde was in Washington, and there were many senators and congressmen present. The long-haired aesthetic was delivering himself of an eloquent tirade against the invasion of the sacred domain of art by the meaner herd of trades-people and miscellaneous nobodies, and finally, rising to an Alpine height of scorn exclaimed:

“Ay, all of you here are Philistines—mere Philistines!”

“What does Oscar call us?” asked Henry Watterson of John Sherman, who sat in front.

“He calls us Philistines,” said Sherman, softly.

“I see,” said Watterson, “we are Philistines, and that, I reckon, is why we are being assaulted with the jawbone of an ass.”

In 1921 a biography of the prominent British statesman Robert Gascoyne-Cecil was published by his daughter Lady Gwendolen Cecil. Gascoyne-Cecil who died in 1903 had served as Prime Minister for more than thirteen years cumulatively. The London humor magazine “Punch” referred to his “brilliant and occasionally biting wit” as reflected in the following excerpt from the biography:[ref] 1921, Life of Robert, Marquis of Salisbury by Lady Gwendolen Cecil, Quote Page 128, Published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Questia Gale Cengage)[/ref][ref] 1921 November 23, “Punch, or The London Charivari”, Volumes 161, Our Booking-Office by “Mr. Punch’s Staff of Learned Clerks”, (Book Review of “Life of Robert, Marquis of Salisbury” by Lady Gwendolen Cecil), Start Page 419, Quote Page 419, London. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

He accepted and indeed gloried in the epithet of Philistine. When the nickname was being bandied about in his presence and a definition had been asked for, he interposed swiftly with the suggestion — “He who is assailed by the jaw-bone of an ass.”

In 1929 an Illinois newspaper reprinted a short comical item from another Illinois paper. This simplified variant of the quip did not mention the Philistines:[ref] 1929 March 16, 1929, Rockford Republic, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 7, Column 7, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

The jawbone of an ass is just as dangerous a weapon today as it used to be.—Clinton Journal.

In 1942 the collection “Thesaurus of Anecdotes” edited by Edmund Fuller printed an instance of the Wilde story:[ref] 1942, Thesaurus of Anecdotes by Edmund Fuller, Quote Page 74, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

To Boston is attributed the credit of having retorted to the superciliousness of Oscar Wilde in kind. “You’re Philistines,” Wilde accused his Boston audience, “who have invaded the sacred sanctum of Art.”

A voice in the audience called out, “And you’re driving us forth with the jawbone of an ass.”

In 1953 “The Speaker’s Treasury of Stories for All Occasions” edited by Herbert V. Prochnow published the following version:[ref] 1953, The Speaker’s Treasury of Stories for All Occasions by Herbert V. Prochnow, Quote Page 289, Prentice-Hall, Inc., New York. (Internet Archive [/ref]


OSCAR WILDE: “And so you Philistines have invaded the sacred sanctums of art!”

A BYSTANDER: “I suppose that’s why we are being assaulted with the jawbone of an ass.”

In conclusion, there is a family of jokes based on the phrase “jawbone of an ass” that has a long history with instances in circulation by the 1830s. The earliest anecdote located by QI featuring Oscar Wilde was published in 1883. QI hypothesizes that this story was deliberately constructed as a fictional variant of the pre-existing family of japes. QI believes that it is unlikely Wilde told his audience that they were philistines and facilitated a clever riposte.

(Great thanks to Barry Popik who explored other thematic variants in this family such as that given in the 1929 citation.)

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