You Can’t Teach an Old Dogma New Tricks

Dorothy Parker? Life Magazine? Maxson Foxhall Judell? Edwin G. Nourse? Tom Lehrer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about age and recalcitrance is familiar to many:

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I am trying to trace a comical wordplay variant:

You cannot teach an old dogma new tricks.

This statement is usually attributed to the notable acerbic writer Dorothy Parker. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The saying was ascribed to Dorothy Parker in the 1968 volume “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan. The section about Parker included a miscellaneous collection of her witticisms, and the following was listed without any additional context: 1

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

Parker died in 1967, and it would be nice to have an earlier linkage. Perhaps future research will discover a better citation for her. The earliest evidence of this wordplay schema located by QI employed a positive version of the saying instead of the common modern negative version.

In 1928 the humor magazine “Life” published a special issue that contained several sections that parodied popular contemporaneous periodicals such as “The Saturday Evening Post”, “True Stories”, “Collier’s”, “Time”, and “McCall’s”. The section based on the “Christian Herald” included an article titled “The Message of Clara Bow: How One Man Heard That Message and What He Did About It” that discussed the very popular movie star Clara Bow. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Clara Bow comes to us like a breath of fresh air at a time when the lungs of civilization are clogged with the accumulated backwash of centuries of age-old traditions, age-old concepts, age-old dogmas. She has proved that you can teach an old dogma new tricks!

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1929 the article in “Life” was partially rewritten to feature someone named “Clara Jane” instead of “Clara Bow”. The modified text was published in a column called “The Fun Shop” by Maxson Foxhall Judell in the “Providence News” of Rhode Island, and the quip was further disseminated: 3

Clara Jane comes to us like a breath of fresh air at a time when the lungs of civilization are clogged with the accumulated backwash of centuries of age-old traditions, age-old concepts, age-old dogmas. She has proved that you can teach an old dogma new tricks!

Alcohol prohibition ended in 1933 in the United States, and in that year another instance of the wordplay was published in a newspaper in Portland, Oregon. The following passage included the term “John Barleycorn”, a personification of alcohol. The task of teaching an old dogma new tricks was deemed “very difficult”, but the text suggested that it was not impossible: 4

So here we are again, and the golden era begins, the era of convivial sanity. Preliminary experience teaches, however, as do the episodes of the past, that we must proceed with care and circumspection. It is a crafty old pot-thumper, this John Barleycorn. And very difficult it is, indeed, to teach an old dogma new tricks.

In 1940 an address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Economic Association employed wordplay based on the saying “There’s life in the old dog yet” and the replacement of “dog” with “dogma”. In 1943 Edwin G. Nourse augmented the joke by using the phrase “new tricks”: 5

Three years ago, Professor Viner addressed this association on “The Short View and the Long in Economic Policy.” With a levity quite shocking in a presidential address, he epitomized his own message in the aphorism, “There’s life in the old dogmas yet.” The following year Professor Mills, speaking under the title “Economics in a Time of Change,” toyed with the idea that we might teach the old dogmas some new tricks.

The canine pun which Professor Viner perpetrated and I have extended turns my mind back to a story about a dog . . .

In 1968 “The Algonquin Wits” attributed an instance of the quip to Dorothy Parker as mentioned previously:

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

In 1973 the “Los Angeles Times” published a review of Brian Moore’s novel “Catholics”. A picture of Moore was included and the caption stated the following: 6

Brian Moore—Teaching an old dogma new tricks.

In 1980 a theatrical production called “Tomfoolery” was created based on the musical catalog of the satirist and wit Tom Lehrer. In 1986 a review was printed in the “Los Angeles Times”. The topics of humor were wide ranging, and the work included an instance of the quip which was reprinted by the reviewer: 7

No one escapes. Mozart, Mahler, Oedipus, S&M, pornography (“Smut, give me nothing but . . .”), they all get it. The church gets it too, in “Vatican Rag” (“teaching an old dogma new tricks”). . .

In conclusion, QI believes that Dorothy Parker probably did employ the version of the joke given in the 1968 citation, but the evidence is not decisive. In addition it seems unlikely that she crafted it because different versions have been circulating since 1928 or earlier. Indeed, the wordplay may have been independently concocted on multiple occasions. Provisionally, the unidentified “Life” writer can be credited with the earliest currently known instance in 1928.

(Great thanks to K. who enjoys the witty remarks ascribed to Dorothy Parker and whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Section: Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 124, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1928 May 3, Life, (Special Parody Section: “With Apologies to ‘Christian Herald'”), The Message of Clara Bow: How One Man Heard That Message and What He Did About It, Start Page 63. Quote Page 63, Column 2, Published at the Life Office, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  3. 1929 April 26, Providence News, The Fun Shop by Maxson Foxhall Judell, Message of Clara, Quote Page 22, Column 1, Providence, Rhode Island. (Google News Archive)
  4. 1933 December 27, Morning Oregonian (Oregonian), Section: Editorial, Well, Here We Are Again!, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1943 March, The American Economic Review, Volume 33, Number 1, Part 1, Collective Bargaining and the Common Interest by Edwin G. Nourse, (Presidential address prepared for the fifty-fifth annual meeting of the American Economic Association and delivered at a meeting of the Washington members of the Association, Washington, D.C., January 6, 1943), Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Published by American Economic Association. (JSTOR) link
  6. 1973 June 3, Los Angeles Times, A Duel of Dogma in ‘Catholics’ by Dick Adler, (Book Review of “Catholics” by Brian Moore), (Picture Caption), Quote Page 56, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  7. 1986 June 11, Los Angeles Times, Stage Review: A Lehrer Pastiche with Punch by Sylvie Drake (Times Theater Writer), (Review of “Tomfoolery”), Start Page J1, Quote Page J7, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)