First I Brush My Teeth and Then I Sharpen My Tongue

Dorothy Parker? Oscar Levant? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famously trenchant wit was once asked to describe the daily routine followed after arising:

I wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, and then I sharpen my tongue.

These words have been attributed to the writer Dorothy Parker and to the pianist comedian Oscar Levant. Would you please determine who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: In 1940 the Hollywood columnist Erskine Johnson relayed the following remark from Oscar Levant though the name was misspelled as “Lavant”. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1940 September 26, Santa Cruz Evening News, Erskine Johnson’s Hollywood Today, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Santa Cruz, California. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Asked about his morning routine by an interviewer, Oscar Lavant cracked: “First I brush my teeth and then I sharpen my tongue.”

The ascription to Levant was supported by other columnists in the 1940s. The linkage to Dorothy Parker appears to have been constructed in the 2000s. Thus, the Parker connection was not substantive.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1941 the ubiquitous columnist Walter Winchell mentioned the quip. The following passage also contained an item of Winchell’s distinctive slang: “ayem” was used for “A.M.”:[ref] 1941 December 10, Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)[/ref][ref] 1941 December 11, The High Point Enterprise, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 4, Column 6, High Point, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Someone asked Oscar Levant what he does when he gets up in the ayem. “First,” he explained. “I brush my teeth—and then I sharpen my tongue.”

In September 1946 the powerful columnist Sheilah Graham stated that Levant used the expression in a letter:[ref] 1946 September 28, Kingsport News, Hollywood Today by Sheilah Graham, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Kingsport, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

Oscar Levant wrote to John Garfield, “My life is the same. I get up every day and brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

In December 1946 the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest” presented the joke:[ref] 1946 December, Reader’s Digest, Volume 49, Spiced Tongue, Quote Page 100, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

Kidding asides: Oscar Levant describing his morning routine, “First I brush my teeth, then I sharpen my tongue” (Howard Taubman)

In 1949 the industrious quotation compiler Evan Esar ascribed the following version to Levant:[ref] 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Oscar Levant, Quote Page 130, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) [/ref]

The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.

By 2006 the jest had been reassigned to Dorothy Parker. For example, an article in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” in July 2006 included the following:[ref] 2006 July 4, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, A Short History of Meanies by Mackenzie Carpenter, Quote Page C-1, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News)[/ref]

. . . the daily routine prescribed by Dorothy Parker: “I wake up in the morning and brush my teeth, and then I sharpen my tongue.”

In conclusion, Oscar Levant can be credited with the statement in the 1940 citation. The linkage to Dorothy Parker was spurious.

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