A Gentleman Is a Man Who Never Gives Offense Unintentionally

Oscar Wilde? Margaret Butler? Geraldine Grove? Lord Chesterfield? John Wayne? Christopher Hitchens? John Cleese? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Books of etiquette once provided a definition of a gentleman that included the following assertion:

A gentleman never insults anyone intentionally.

The clever addition of a two-letter prefix humorously spun the definition:

A gentleman never insults anyone unintentionally.

This statement is often attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Would you please examine this quip?

Quote Investigator: This joke is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. Here is a sampling:

  • The well-bred man is never rude unintentionally.
  • A gentleman is a man who never gives offense unintentionally.
  • Only very ill-bred people are rude by accident.
  • A gentleman is never rude unintentionally or by accident.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Bedfordshire Mercury” of England in June 1899 within an article titled “Pleasant Paragraphs” which listed miscellaneous anonymous items of wit and humor. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The well-bred man is never rude unintentionally.

This item appeared in several newspapers in England during the ensuing months and years. For example, in December 1900 the item appeared in “The Widnes Examiner”, 2 and in February 1901 it appeared in the “St. Helens Examiner” 3

Oscar Wilde died in in 1900, and he was linked to the quip by 1929, but that was very late. QI has not yet found any substantive evidence that Wilde created or used this joke.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1905 “The Saturday Review” of London printed the following instance without attribution: 4

The best extant definition of a gentleman is “a man who never gives offence unintentionally”

In January 1906 “Clover: A Monthly Magazine” of Springfield, Massachusetts printed the jest. The common American spelling “offense” was used instead of “offence”: 5

A gentleman is a man who never gives offense unintentionally.

Also in January 1906 the jocular definition appeared in several newspapers such as “The New Orleans Item” of Louisiana 6 and the “Los Angeles Herald” of California. 7 These papers acknowledged “The Saturday Review” mentioned previously:

FROM THE LONDON SATURDAY REVIEW.
The best extant definition of a gentleman is “a man who never gives offense unintentionally.”

In 1908 “The Compendium of Every Day Wants: Or Practical Information for the Millions” by Luther Minter was published, and it included a section about “Etiquette on All Occasions” containing this: 8

A thorough gentleman, courteous and well-bred, will never give offense intentionally, and will not permit himself to be easily offended. He is always quick to forgive and ready to confess a fault and seek pardon when he wrongs another.

In 1910 “The Bystander” of London published a short story titled “The Handkerchief” by Margaret Butler containing this passage: 9

Absurd that you should trouble to apologise. If you were rude, you meant to be. Only very ill-bred people are rude by accident.

In 1911 “The Dublin Daily Express” of Ireland published an article about manners by Lady Grove (Geraldine Grove) which included this: 10

I remember a somewhat eager discussion on this subject taking place, and some one saying to me, “Your definition of a gentleman seems to be someone who is never rude unintentionally or by accident, but apparently is frequently so by design.”

In 1920 the London humor magazine “Punch” suggested that the quip had inadvertently been constructed via an error by a printer: 11

“Sir,—I can recall no better description of a gentleman than this—‘A gentleman is one who never gives offence unintentionally.’ Unfortunately I do not know to whom tribute should be paid for this very neat and apt definition.”—Letter in Daily Paper.

We rather think the printer had a hand in it.

In 1922 the compendium “Jokes for All Occasions” echoed the conjecture that the jest had been fabricated mistakenly via a printer error: 12

There has been much controversy for years as to the proper definition of the much abused word “gentleman.” Finally, by a printer’s error in prefixing un to an adverb, an old and rather mushy description of a gentleman has been given a novel twist and a pithy point. A contributor’s letter to a metropolitan daily appeared as follows:

“Sir—I can recall no better description of a gentleman than this—
“‘A gentleman is one who never gives offense unintentionally.'”

In 1922 a letter to the editor of the “San Francisco Chronicle” in California included a rephrased version of the quip that was whimsically linked to ancient Greece: 13

. . . the definition of a “gentleman” originated by the Greek philosopher Aristocles in his famous letter to Demosocles: “A gentleman never hurts the feelings of any one unintentionally.”

In February 1929 an instance of the joke using the word “insults” was seen at a movie company by a gossip columnist. No attribution was provided: 14

Epigram observed under the glass top desk at the Universal Film company offices: “A gentleman is a person who never insults any one unintentionally.”

In May 1929 the remark was printed in a syndicated column featuring homemaking tips. The writer Eleanor Ross attributed the words to Oscar Wilde, and this citation was the earliest linkage to the well-known wit known to QI: 15 16

You may recall Oscar Wilde’s famous definition of a gentleman as one who never insults another unintentionally. So one might describe the competent housekeeper who never has left-overs unintentionally.

In 1933 the powerful columnist by Walter Winchell stated that he saw the remark posted on the wall at a New York drinking establishment: 17

Seen on the wall of a 51st St. speakeasy: “A gentleman is one who never insults another unintentionally.”

In 1940 a columnist assigned the statement to Lord Chesterfield who was best known for writing a collection of letters to his son containing cogent advice and observations. Chesterfield died in 1773 and this attribution was probably spurious: 18

I think one test is contained in Lord Chesterfield’s definition of a gentleman. Writing to his son he said: “A gentleman is one who never gives offense unintentionally.”

The linkage of the joke to Oscar Wilde continued to appear in print, e.g., in a 1958 book review published in “The New York Times”: 19

. . . a gentleman, one who, as Oscar Wilde would say, “never insults anyone unintentionally.”

In 1974 the movie star John Wayne stated that he followed the principle specified by the quip: 20

His philosophy in short: “I try to live my life to the fullest without hurting anybody else. I try not to unintentionally hurt anybody’s feelings. If I do hurt anybody’s feelings, I had all intention of hurting them.”

In 2001 English commentator and critic Christopher Hitchens published “Letters to a Young Contrarian”, and he referred to the saying parenthetically: 21

An old definition of a gentleman: someone who is never rude except on purpose.

In 2020 English comedian and screenwriter John Cleese referred to the quip within a tweet: 22

Mind you, sometimes you may want to be rude.
But a gentleman is never rude by accident

In conclusion, this joke was being disseminated by 1899, and the earliest instances were anonymous. QI conjectures that the quip was constructed deliberately and was not the product of an error. Indeed, the 1920 tale in “Punch” of a printing blunder was probably an embellishment of the jest.

The linkages to Oscar Wilde and Lord Chesterfield currently have no substantive support. John Wayne did make the thematically related statement given above.

Image Notes: Illustration of Milkmaid and gentleman from The Book of Knowledge (1912) by Arthur Mee and Holland Thompson.

(Great thanks to Jim Parish, J. Kelly Nestruck, and Terry Teachout whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to discussant Laurence Horn. Special thanks to Peter Suber who told QI that Christopher Hitchens and John Cleese employed instances with “rude” and “by accident”. This led QI to perform additional searches which uncovered the 1899 instance with “rude” and other versions.)

Notes:

  1. 1899 June 16, The Bedfordshire Mercury, Pleasant Paragraphs, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bedfordshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  2. 1900 December 14, The Widnes Examiner, Pleasant Paragraphs, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  3. 1901 February 15, St. Helens Examiner, Pleasant Paragraphs, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 1905 September 2, The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art, The Tripper Mind, Start Page 301, Quote Page 302, Column 1 and 2, Published at The Office of The Saturday Review, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1906 January, Clover: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 4, Number 19, Variations, Quote Page 22, Published by Springfield Breweries Company, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1906 January 2, New Orleans Item, With Other Editors, (Acknowledgement to London Saturday Review), Page 4, Column 3, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1906 January 5, Los Angeles Herald, Pi-Lines and Pick-Ups, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1908 Copyright, The Compendium of Every Day Wants: Or Practical Information for the Millions by Luther Minter, Section: Etiquette On All Occasions, Quote Page 524, Published by The Minter Company, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1910 July 27, The Bystander, Short Story: The Handkerchief by Margaret Butler, Start Page 185, Quote Page 186, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  10. 1911 March 25, The Dublin Daily Express, Wanted–Manners For Every Day by Lady Grove, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Dublin, Republic of Ireland. (British Newspaper Archive)
  11. 1920 August 18, Punch or The London Charivari, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 126, Column 3, Punch Publications Ltd., London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  12. 1922, Jokes for All Occasions: Selected and Edited by One of America’s Foremost Public Speakers, Quote Page 107 and 108, Published by Edward J. Clode, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1922 December 7, San Francisco Chronicle, The People’s Safety Valve (Letters to the Editor), (Letter from Shadrach McNeil of San Francisco), Quote Page 26, Column 4, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1929 February 28, The Brownsville Herald, About New York, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Brownsville, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1929 May 1, Lincoln Evening Journal, Home-Making Helps by Eleanor Ross, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  16. 1929 May 1, The Amarillo Globe (The Amarillo Globe-Times), Home-Making Helps by Eleanor Ross, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Amarillo, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1933 October 27, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  18. 1940 November 21, Hawkins Herald, Today and Tomorrow by Frank Parker Stockbridge, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Hawkins, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)
  19. 1958 November 16, New York Times, Speaking For Himself by Horace Gregory, [Review of The Magic-Maker: E.E. Cummings by Charles Norman], Page BR4, New York. (ProQuest)
  20. 1974 February 12, Port Charlotte Daily Herald News, Hal Boyle (Associated Press), Quote Page 4, Column 8, Port Charlotte, Florida. (NewspaperArchive)
  21. 2005 (2001 Copyright), Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens, Chapter XI, Quote Page 69, Basic Books: A Member of the Perseus Books Group, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  22. Tweet, From: John Cleese @JohnCleese, Time: 3:28 PM, Date: Oct 25, 2020, Text: Right. And the English attitude used to be… (Accessed on twitter.com on Jan 15, 2021) link