Swedish Councilor? Benjamin Disraeli? Australian Alderman? Casey Motsisi? Dennis Skinner? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently on twitter I saw a joke about the limits placed on unparliamentary language in Britain. A photo depicted an unhappy contemporary politician in the House of Commons with a caption similar to the following:
Politician: Half the members of the opposition are crooks.
House of Commons Speaker: Please retract.
Politician: OK. Half the members of the opposition are not crooks.
In the past, I heard an anecdote that followed the same outline and finished with the punch line:
Half the Cabinet members are not asses.
These words were attributed to the prominent British statesman Benjamin Disraeli. However, I haven’t been able to find a good citation. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: An anecdote about Benjamin Disraeli following the template of this joke has been in circulation for decades. However, the earliest evidence located by QI linking the tale to Disraeli appeared in 1958, and the statesman died in 1881. Details for this citation are given further below.
The first instance of the jape found by QI was printed in a newspaper story in July 1927 set in an unnamed town near Uppsala, Sweden. A government official reportedly lost his temper and rebuked his fellows. Boldface has been added: 1
A municipal councilor … remarked that certainly half of his colleagues were fools. An apology was demanded. He promised to make reparation and caused bills with the following correction to be posted on boardings in the town: “I said that half of the town councilors are fools. I now declare that half of the town councilors are not fools.”
Over the years the jest has evolved and has been aimed at a variety of people, including town councilors, aldermen, cabinet members, and members of the House of Commons.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
By 1930 a variant of the anecdote was circulating in Australia as recounted in “The Sydney Mail”. The item was printed on the humor page of the paper which was titled “In Lighter Vein”. The coerced apology was extracted from a journalist instead of a politician. 4
Feeling was very high in the little country town and the editor of the local newspaper bluntly wrote in the columns that “half the aldermen were fools.”
There was an outcry and the aldermen demanded a withdrawal. He did as they requested in his next issue. It read: “I wish to apologise and say that half the aldermen are not fools.”
In 1933 “The Montreal Gazette” of Canada printed a version that closely matched the instance from 1927. The item appeared in a column called “A Little Nonsense”, and no location was specified for the comical incident. 5
In 1958 “An Encyclopaedia of Parliament” by Norman Wilding and Philip Laundy was published, and the authors attributed a version of the quip to Benjamin Disraeli while asserting that the event was famous: 6
Many an anecdote can be related involving the use of an unparliamentary expression. One of the most famous concerns the occasion when Disraeli was called to order for declaring that half the Cabinet were asses. ‘Mr. Speaker, I withdraw,’ he apologized, ‘half the Cabinet are not asses!’
QI has searched the Parliamentary transcripts in the Hansard database and has not yet found evidence of this humorous retraction. The word “asses” may have been censored. QI has also searched for variant expressions using words such as “fools, “knaves”, and “idiots”. If the remark was spoken then its phrasing has proved elusive.
In 1963 the book “In the Fiery Continent” was published by Tom Hopkinson who was the editor of DRUM magazine of Johannesburg, South Africa. Excerpts from DRUM were printed in the book including a passage written by Casey Motsisi depicting a humorous fictional event: 7
A leading official had just remarked that half the members of the Opposition were asses, whereupon someone asked him to withdraw. He withdrew by saying that half the members of the Opposition were NOT asses, whereupon he was roundly congratulated for being the first person to withdraw a remark instead of stamping out of the house like a bull.
In 1964 “The New York Times” discussed words and phrases that were disallowed in the U.K. Parliament and presented the Disraeli version of the anecdote: 8
Speakers have decided, for example, that “jackass” is unparliamentary but “goose” is acceptable and that “dog,” “rat” and “swine” are out of order, but “halfwit” and “Tory clot” are in order. …
Some insults bear the stamp of greatness. Disraeli was called to order once for declaring that half the Cabinet members were asses. “Mr. Speaker, I withdraw,” he said. “Half the Cabinet are not asses.”
In 1967 a volume of linguistic history titled “The Story of the English Language” discussed restrictions on unparliamentary language and referred to the quip: 9
But there are ways of circumventing the prohibitions. Disraeli once remarked that “half the Cabinet members are not asses,” while Aneurin Bevan, at a later date, used the banned words in quotations from literary sources.
In 1968 a former U.S. Congressman and governmental administrator named Brooks Hays published a memoir that included an instance of the quip: 10
A member of the Israeli Parliament tried a different tactic. During a hot debate he was called to order for declaring that half the cabinet were asses. “Mr. Speaker, I withdraw the remark,” he said, “half the members are not asses.”
In 1981 a U.K. politician named Dennis Skinner speaking in the House of Commons complained that another member had not been attending committee meetings conscientiously: 11
Mr. Skinner: …the Liberal spokesman was not there half the time.
The member who was criticized disagreed and asked for the comment to be withdrawn:
Mr. Alton: …I can assure him that what he said is certainly not the case, and I hope that he will withdraw that comment immediately.
Skinner then employed a quip that was partially analogous to the remark under investigation:
Mr. Skinner: …The hon. Member for Edge Hill seems a bit upset about my saying that he was not there half the time. Will he settle for my agreeing that he was there the other half? That is an advance.
In 1985 a version of the tale was presented in “Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter”. The punch line was delivered by an “English columnist, noted for the sharpness of his pen” and used the word “idiots” instead of “fools” or “asses”: 12
A spate of angry mail from readers has denounced the author of this column for saying that half the members of the House of Commons are idiots. I have been urged to apologize for so harsh and incorrect a statement. Herewith, my apology, I am happy to correct my observation: half the members of the House of Commons are not idiots.
In 1991 a textbook designed for aspiring journalists presented an instance of the anecdote set in a U.S. state legislature that was evenly divided between contending parties: 13
During a budget session, a lawmaker attacked members of the opposite party and said, “Half the members of this house are fools.” Immediately, his opponents objected to the unparliamentary “fools” and urged the member to withdraw his statement. He replied, “I withdraw my statement. Half the members of this house are not fools.”
In 2014 a tweet was broadcast with an attached image showing politician Dennis Skinner. The superimposed text presented an instance of the joke under investigation: 14
Dennis Skinner: “Half the Tories opposite are crooks.”
Speaker: “Please retract”:
Skinner: “OK, half the Tories opposite aren’t crooks.”
In conclusion, the earliest evidence of the joke in 1927 suggested a Swedish origin with an unnamed protagonist. Because the town and the other participants in the incident were also not specified the credibility of the anecdote was not high. Over the decades the jest was retold with modifications to the location and the cast of characters.
Currently, QI has been unable to find substantive support for the tale featuring Benjamin Disraeli. Yet, QI believes that the 1927 story probably can be antedated and looks forward to hearing about progress by other researchers.
Image Notes: Benjamin Disraeli painted by Francis Grant. Palace of Westminster from Mattgcreate on Pixabay. Image cropped.
(Special thanks to Andrew Hickey who brought a tweet on this topic to the attention of QI which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to PJM QC for sending the tweet. Great thanks to Ian Preston who pointed to a comment at the Language Log website by Mark Etherton that identified the 1981 remark by Dennis Skinner.)
Update History: On May 21, 2014 the 1991 citation was added. On November 12, 2014 the 1981 citation was added
- 1927 July 20, Altoona Mirror, The Better Half, Quote Page 12, Column 1, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1927 July 21, Syracuse Herald, The Better Half, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Syracuse, New York. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1927 July 27, The Milwaukee Journal, His Apology Was Not Appreciated, Section: The Green Sheet, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1930 November 26, The Sydney Mail, Page Title: In Lighter Vein, Half and Half, Quote Page 50, Column 1, Sydney, Australia. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1933 August 22, The Montreal Gazette, A Little Nonsense, Quote Page 10, Column 7, Montreal, Canada. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1958, An Encyclopaedia of Parliament by Norman Wilding and Philip Laundy, Entry: Unparliamentary Expressions, Start Page 580, Quote Page 581, Cassell and Company, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1963, In the Fiery Continent by Tom Hopkinson, Quote Page 83, Published by Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1964 November 8, New York Times, In Commons, A Lie Is ‘Inexactitude’: When Briton Slurs Briton, Code Dictates Gentility by James Feron, Quote Page 30, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1967 Copyright, The Story of the English Language: Revised Edition by Mario Pei, Quote Page 268, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1968, A Hotbed of Tranquility: My Life in Five Worlds by Brooks Hays, Quote Page 209, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1981 April 01, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons Sitting, SAVING FOR THINGS DONE UNDER A LICENCE, Speaking: Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover), HC Deb, volume 2, cc433-70. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on November 12, 2014) link ↩
- 1989 (Copyright 1985), Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter, Compiled by Leo Rosten, Section: Sarcasm, Quote Page 457, Published by Bonanza Books, New York; Distributed by Crown Publishers, New York. (Originally published by Crown, New York in 1985) (Verified with scans of 1989 edition) ↩
- 1991, Newswriting: from lead to “30” by William Metz, Third Edition, Quote Page 116, Published by Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- Tweet with image, From: PJM QC @pjm1kbw, Time: 11:37 AM, Date: April 7, 2014, Text: This did make me laugh…… (Accessed on twitter.com on April 19, 2013) link ↩