Oscar Wilde? Lord Chesterfield? John Wayne? 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: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a London periodical called “The Saturday Review” in September 1905. This version used the phrase “gives offence” instead of “insults”. No attribution was provided, and the word “extant” signaled that the comical remark was already in circulation: 1
The best extant definition of a gentleman is “a man who never gives offence unintentionally”…
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 January 1906 “Clover: A Monthly Magazine” of Springfield, Massachusetts printed the same jest. The common American spelling “offense” was used instead of “offence”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
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 and the “Los Angeles Herald” of California. These papers acknowledged “The Saturday Review” mentioned previously: 3 4
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”. The description of a gentleman contained the phrase “never give offense intentionally” that the 1905 quip was lampooning. Although the joke appeared before this 1908 publication QI hypothesizes that similar sincere descriptions were in circulation before the joke was created: 5
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 1920 the London humor magazine “Punch” suggested that the quip had inadvertently been constructed via an error by a printer: 6
“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: 7
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: 8
. . . 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: 9
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: 10 11
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: 12
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: 13
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”: 14
. . . 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: 15
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 conclusion, this joke was being disseminated by 1905, and the earliest instances were anonymous. QI conjectures that the quip was constructed deliberately and was not the product of an error. Indeed, the tale 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. Portrait of Oscar Wilde circa 1882 via Wikimedia Commons.
(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.)
- 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 ↩
- 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 ↩
- 1906 January 2, New Orleans Item, With Other Editors, (Acknowledgement to London Saturday Review), Page 4, Column 3, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1906 January 5, Los Angeles Herald, Pi-Lines and Pick-Ups, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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 ↩
- 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) ↩
- 1929 February 28, The Brownsville Herald, About New York, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Brownsville, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1929 May 1, Lincoln Evening Journal, Home-Making Helps by Eleanor Ross, Quote Page 12, Column 2, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 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) ↩
- 1933 October 27, The Scranton Republican, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1940 November 21, Hawkins Herald, Today and Tomorrow by Frank Parker Stockbridge, Quote Page 3, Column 6, Hawkins, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 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) ↩
- 1974 February 12, Port Charlotte Daily Herald News, Hal Boyle (Associated Press), Quote Page 4, Column 8, Port Charlotte, Florida. (NewspaperArchive) ↩