A Professor Is One Who Talks in Someone Else’s Sleep

W. H. Auden? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The acclaimed poet W. H. Auden popularized one of the funniest definitions for an academic:

A professor is one who talks in someone else’s sleep.

Do you know whether Auden crafted this quip?

Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that W. H. Auden did employ this joke by 1940, and a detailed citation is given further below. However, the well-known literary figure did not originate the remark.

A nascent version of the jape was in circulation in 1900, and the expression evolved for decades. Instances of the barb have been aimed at preachers, bores, clergymen, professors, lecturers, politicians, and teachers.

The earliest evidence known to QI was a precursor printed in “The Evening Post” newspaper of New York which acknowledged the “Boston Transcript”. The following variant did not disparage any particular profession; instead, the punch line was self-deprecating: 1

Brown—”Do you ever talk in your sleep? ”
Town—”Not that I know of. I have sometimes talked in other people’s sleep”

In 1900 and 1901 this comical filler item was reprinted in multiple newspapers, e.g., “The Washington Post” of Washington, D.C., “Santa Fe New Mexican” of New Mexico, and “The Cato Citizen” of New York. 2 3 4

In 1906 the “Amsterdam Evening Recorder” of New York and other newspapers printed a version of the joke featuring a preacher’s wife under the title “When He Talked”: 5 6

Mrs. Newlywed—Does your husband ever talk in his sleep, Mrs. Longwed?
Mrs. Longwed—No, dear; he talks in other people’s sleep. He is a preacher, you know.
—Woman’s Home Companion.

Thus, ecclesiastics were chided before the quip metamorphosed to target educators. The existence of these early instances was discovered by top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1916 “The Newtown Register” of Elmhurst, New York City printed a two-line dialog under the title “She Didn’t Mind Telling It” while acknowledging a Chicago paper: 7

“Does your husband talk in his sleep?”
“No; he talks in other people’s sleep. He’s a bore, you know.”
—Chicago News.

In August 1925 a version of the joke appeared in “The Nunda News” of Nunda, New York as a one-liner about clergy in a recurring column of “Wit and Wisdom”: 8

A clergyman is often a man who talks in other people’s sleep.

In September 1925 the quip was re-tailored to fit professors in a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper which acknowledged another periodical: 9

Doctor (examining life insurance prospect)—Do you talk in your sleep?
Prospect—No, I talk in other people’s sleep.
Doctor—How come?
Prospect—O, I’m a college professor!
—Washington Columns.

In 1928 a “college professor” was replaced by an “English teacher” in a modified version of the tale published in a Richardson, Texas newspaper: 10

Doctor (examining Mr. Hendrix as a life insurance prospect):
“Do you ever talk in your sleep?”
Mr. Hendrix: “No, but I often talk in other people’s sleep.”
Doctor: “But how can you do that?”
Mr. Hendrix: “I’m an English teacher.”

In 1929 the humorist Ben B. Johnston constructed a comical variant based on walking in another person’s sleep instead of talking: 11

You may think it strange, but it is much more complicating to walk in your sleep than to walk in somebody else’s sleep. Pardon, somebody’s else sleep. That really is what burglars are supposed to do, though burglars are in a different class—Housebreaking 3B, I think it’s called in the catalogue of most colleges and universities.

In 1939 the “Schenectady Gazette” of New York printed the following instance concerning lecturers: 12

Today’s definition—A lecturer is a person who talks in someone else’s sleep.

Professor Edward Mendelson who is an expert on the life and works of the poet W. H. Auden wrote a message about this quip on the website of “The W. H. Auden Society”. Mendelson described the earliest document linking Auden to an instance of the remark in 1940: 13

The first record of Auden’s use of the joke seems to be a weekly mimeographed single-page newsletter distributed by the Columbia University Press under the title The Pleasures of Publishing. The issue for 15 April 1940 (Volume VII, Number 15) opens with this item:

W. H. Auden, the poet, amused several of our professorial friends at a recent luncheon by defining their office. “A professor,” said he, “is one who talks in someone else’s sleep.”

The jest with its ascription to Auden achieved wider circulation when it appeared in the April 27, 1940 “Trade Winds” column of “The Saturday Review of Literature”: 14

Columbia University Press is amused by W. H. Auden’s definition of a professor, “one who talks in someone else’s sleep.”

In 1942 a newspaper in Massillon, Ohio published an instance in the political domain: 15

Zadok Dumbkopf says that a speech-making politician is a fellow who talks in someone else’s sleep.

In 1946 the comical remark was presented as a “daffynition”: 16

PROFESSOR: One who talks in someone else’s sleep.

In 1949 Evan Esar, the indefatigable compiler of sayings, included an instance in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” where he attributed the words to Auden: 17

AUDEN, Wystan Hugh, born 1907, English poet.
A professor is one who talks in someone else’s sleep.

In conclusion, this jest has been evolving for more than one hundred years. The initial instance in 1900 was self-mocking. By 1906 the barb was aimed at preachers, and the soporific qualities of multiple professions have been highlighted over the years.

W. H. Auden did employ a version of this joke referring to professors by 1940, and he was a locus of its popularization, but the expression was already in circulation.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro who located key citations. Special thanks to Barry Popik who also has examined this saying and located valuable citations.)

Notes:

  1. 1900 August 29, The Evening Post (New York Evening Post), Newspaper Waifs, Quote Page 6, Column 7, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1900 August 31, Washington Post, Precise Speech, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  3. 1900 December 3, Santa Fe New Mexican, Precise Speech, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1901 January 26, The Cato Citizen, Precise Speech, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Cato, New York. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1906 October 10, Amsterdam Evening Recorder, When He Talked, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Amsterdam, New York. (Old Fulton)
  6. 1906 December 18, St. Lawrence Plaindealer, When He Talked, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Canton, New York. (Old Fulton)
  7. 1916 December 28, The Newtown Register, She Didn’t Mind Telling It, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Elmhurst, New York City. (Old Fulton)
  8. 1925 August 28, Nunda News, Wit and Wisdom, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Nunda, New York. (Old Fulton)
  9. 1925 September 24, Boston Globe, Explained (Short filler item), Quote Page A23, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  10. 1928 January 13, Richardson Echo, School News: Jokes, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Richardson, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1929 August 25, Macon Telegraph, Struts and Frets by Ben B. Johnston, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Macon, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  12. 1939 February 21, Schenectady Gazette, You’re Telling Me! by Axel Storm, Quote Page 12, Column 7, Schenectady, New York. (Old Fulton)
  13. Website: The W. H. Auden Society, Article title: Who Wrote Auden’s Definition of a Professor?, Author: Edward Mendelson, Date on website: May 2013, Website description: Website of “The W. H. Auden Society” which “commemorates the life and work of one of the greatest poets in the English language”, (Accessed audensociety.org on April 21, 2014) link
  14. 1940 April 27, The Saturday Review of Literature, Trade Winds, Quote Page 24, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  15. 1942 January 15, Evening Independent, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 17, Column 1, Massillon, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  16. 1946 January 15, Long Island Star Journal, Daffynitions by Paul H. Gilbert, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Long Island City, New York. (Old Fulton)
  17. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Auden, Quote Page 20, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)