It Rolls Off My Back Like a Duck

Samuel Goldwyn? George Oppenheimer? Ellenor Stoothoff? Andrew Carnegie? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The phrase “like water off a duck’s back” is a well-known idiom that refers to an incident or a comment having little or no effect on a person.[ref] Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, Third Edition, Edited by John Ayto, Oxford Reference Online, Entry: like water off a duck’s back, Print Publication Date: 2009, Published Online: 2010, Oxford University Press. (Accessed October 5, 2015)[/ref] Here is a comically garbled version of the expression:

It rolls off my back like a duck.

This odd-duck version has been attributed to the famous movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, but I have also heard that he never said it; instead, the phrase was deliberately crafted and pinned to Goldwyn by an unhappy employee of the producer. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest connection of this remark to Samuel Goldwyn located by QI was published in a Hollywood gossip column in 1935. Interestingly, the columnist stated that Goldwyn had attributed the scrambled statement to another movie producer.

In 1937 the short biography “The Great Goldwyn” by Alva Johnston reported that the expression had been ascribed to Goldwyn by some witnesses but claimed that the truth was more convoluted; the humorous remark had been purposefully constructed by jokesters in the Goldwyn studio restaurant. Details for this citation and the one above are given further below.

Finally, in 1966 a Hollywood writer named George Oppenheimer stepped forward and asserted that he created the phrase while he was working for Goldwyn in the 1930s. In Oppenheimer’s memoir “The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life” he described his boss as follows:[ref] 1966, The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life by George Oppenheimer, Quote Page 96, Published by David McKay Company, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

I found him unreasonable, tyrannical, infuriating, and I admired him greatly. He made good pictures and had high ideals and standards of taste, divorced from the usual Hollywood one-track, narrow-gauge commercialism.

Oppenheimer stated that he engaged in a competition with other employees of the studio chief to manufacture a Goldwynism and to successfully place it into a newspaper. Oppenheimer achieved his victory with the mangled idiom. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] 1966, The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life by George Oppenheimer, Quote Page 97, Published by David McKay Company, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I can attest to the spuriousness of “It rolls off my back like a duck,” since I coined it. One day three or four of his employees, including myself, were lunching at the studio commissary. Word had gone round that Goldwyn was becoming increasingly sensitive about his reputation as a Mr. Malaprop. At the same time he had, of late, been particularly truculent and we had all suffered. So we decided that each of us would dream up a Goldwynism, attribute it to him, and the first one to appear in print would win a pot into which we put ten dollars apiece. I collected with the duck’s back.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the famous businessman Andrew Carnegie wrote “The Empire of Business”, and he made a remark that used the idiom in its standard formulation. Carnegie’s notion about attaining success was memorable enough to be included in a later compilation of sayings and maxims:[ref] 1902, The Empire of Business by Andrew Carnegie, Quote Page 88, Published by William Briggs, Toronto, Canada. (Internet Archive Full View) link [/ref][ref] 1915, Sayings: Proverbs. Maxims. Mottoes, Compiled by Charles Frederick Schutz, Quote Page 70, Published by Chas. F. Schutz, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I attribute most of my success in life to the fact that, as my partners often say, trouble runs off my back like water from a duck.

In 1914 “The Nightingale: A Lark” was released by the pseudonymous Ellenor Stoothoff, and the author included an instance of the humorously altered idiom. Hence, it appeared that Stoothoff’s coinage preceded Oppenheimer’s. QI suspects that the expression was crafted independently by the two writers:[ref] 1914, The Nightingale: A Lark by Ellenor Stoothoff, Quote Page 105, Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

You mustn’t be the least bit afraid of what people will say: they can always say unpleasant things, so I just made up my mind on this trip to consult nothing in the whole world but my own whims and fancies and let criticism roll off my back like a duck.

In 1935 an instance with a slightly different phrasing was printed by an entertainment industry gossip columnist named Sidney Skolsky. The words were spoken by Goldwyn, but he assigned them to an unidentified fellow movie producer:[ref] 1935 November 26, Augusta Chronicle, Hollywood by Sidney Skolsky, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBankl)[/ref]

Sam Goldwyn claims he knows a producer who told him that he didn’t care what the movie critics said about his pictures because it rolls off him like a duck.

In 1937 the volume “The Great Goldwyn” by the journalist Alva Johnston was published, and it included the quotation together with brief remarks supporting and denying its genuineness:[ref] 1937, The Great Goldwyn by Alva Johnston, Quote Page 28 and 29, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper in 1978 Arno Press, New York Times reprint edition)[/ref]

There are reliable witnesses who are sure they heard Sam say, “It rolls off my back like a duck,” when Sam’s publicity man showed him a bunch of newspaper reviews damning one of his pictures. Charles MacArthur, a Goldwyn expert, challenged its authenticity.

The book continued with a deeper exploration of the quotation’s provenance, and the author offered the following explanation which displayed points of similarity with Oppenheimer’s 1966 discussion although the betting aspect was omitted:

Later it came to light that it had been invented at the Goldwyn studio restaurant. Members of the staff had amused themselves at lunch every day for a week by trying to say things as Sam might have said them. They produced scores of damaged maxims, malformed proverbs and mangled metaphors. The duck’s-back line was considered the only one to have the master touch, but it was not good enough to fool experts.

In May 1937 the powerful movie columnist Louella Parsons wrote about the dispersion and popularity of the phrase:[ref] 1937 May 30, Times-Picayune, Great Goldwyn Proud of National Reputation as Gagster by Louella O. Parsons (Motion Picture Editor, Universal Service), Quote Page 14, Column 1, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

Alva Johnston’s recent article, “The Great Goldwyn,” has caught on amazingly throughout the country, with college boys, shop girls and local town wits repeating “include me out” and “it rolls off my back like a duck” as the latest catch phrases.

In 1942 the saying continued to circulate; a serialized tale in “Collier’s Weekly” included an instance spoken by a fictional character:[ref] 1942 May 30, Collier’s Weekly, Trial by Marriage by Vereen Bell, (Part 6 of 7), Start Page 24, Quote Page 41, Column 1, Crowell-Collier Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Unz)[/ref]

She looked at him accusingly. “Duff, I never thought you’d be doing this.”

“Doing what?”

“What you’re doing. Throwing a lot of junk at me, just because I’m here in your room. But it just rolls off my back like a duck.”

In 1966 the writer George Oppenheimer stated that he had designed the comical saying as part of a bet. This citation was presented near the beginning of this article:[ref] 1966, The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life by George Oppenheimer, Quote Page 97, Published by David McKay Company, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

I can attest to the spuriousness of “It rolls off my back like a duck,” since I coined it. . .

So we decided that each of us would dream up a Goldwynism, attribute it to him, and the first one to appear in print would win a pot into which we put ten dollars apiece. I collected with the duck’s back.

The 1969 book “The Moguls” by Norman Zierold contained a section about Goldwyn that included a passage recounting the tale presented by Oppenheimer:[ref] 1969, The Moguls by Norman Zierold, Quote Page 127, Coward-McCann, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

While he and three other writers were working for Goldwyn, they were aware that he was less and less pleased by his reputation for word-whirling. They also found him difficult and demanding, however, and decided to add one more nail to his cross. Each contributed $10 to a pot. Oppenheimer won when his entry, “It rolls off my back like a duck,” appeared in the papers as a Goldwynism.

The 1976 work “Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth” also mentioned Oppenheimer’s story and added a detail. Two other writers at the conclave were named. “Dotty” was the nickname of the notable wit Dorothy Parker:[ref] 1976, Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth by Arthur Marx, Quote Page 10, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

“‘It rolls off my back like a duck’ was one of mine,” admits Oppenheimer. “I remember springing it for the first time on Dotty Parker and Edna Ferber when we were all sitting around the writers’ table in the commissary one day.”

In conclusion, QI finds the testimony given by George Oppenheimer in 1966 plausible; hence, Samuel Goldwyn probably did not employ this risible remark. Yet, Oppenheimer cannot be credited with coining the expression because it had already appeared in a volume by the pseudonymous Ellenor Stoothoff in 1914.

(Great thanks to K who wanted to learn more about this topic which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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