George Bernard Shaw? George Melly? I. S. Johar? Ann Landers? Patrick Harte? Robert Frost? Winston Churchill? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an adage highlighting the sensual aspects of popular gyrations:
- Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.
- Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal idea.
George Bernard Shaw, Ann Landers, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Frost have received credit for this saying. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the London periodical “New Statesman” in 1962. The musician and critic George Melly attributed the saying to the notable playwright George Bernard Shaw. Emphasis added by QI: 1
I have spent a certain amount of time lately watching people in London dance in the various new ways. I report what went on in three very different places where my fellow countrymen and women had come together to give what Shaw called ‘a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire’.
Shaw’s death in 1950 preceded Melly’s article by more than a decade, and the text provided no citation; hence, the evidence supporting the ascription was rather weak. Nevertheless, the citations for competing ascriptions are even less persuasive.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1914 an entertaining architectural precursor for the saying appeared in the London journal “The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, and Art” within a collection of maxims about New York: 2
The Woolworth and Singer Buildings: The perpendicular expression for the horizontal growth of American fortunes.
In 1921 an educator named Ernest Fowles contrasted the perpendicular and horizontal in the realm of musical notation during a lecture: 3
The mental difficulty, he said, incidental to the grasp of the perpendicular and horizontal movements of musical expression was the crux of the whole problem. . . . In playing or making music there was always the horizontal movement or melody, and the perpendicular or harmony to be taken into consideration.
In 1962 George Melly employed the saying as mentioned previously:
. . . dance . . . what Shaw called ‘a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire’.
In 1966 an instance appeared in a publication based in Delhi, India called “Thought: A Weekly Review of Politics & the Arts”. The magazine referenced a writer in “Filmfare”, a periodical focused on the Hindi cinema: 4
The Vertical of the Horizontal
Q: What is ballroom dancing?
Answer: Vertical expression of a horizontal wish.
—I. S. Johar in Filmfare.
In 1968 a novel “Talking about It Helps” by Anthony Nayman included an instance: 5
‘Are you taking me to the dance this weekend?’ she asked.
She knew every corner and cupboard in that building. This time the venue chosen for our cool sitting-out was a tiny committee room unfrequented by vertical expressors of horizontal desires.
In 1970 George Melly published “Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts in Britain”, and he included his 1962 piece containing the adage. This was the introductory passage: 6
In the spring of 1962 Karl Miller, then Literary Editor of the New Statesman, asked me to write a piece on how people were dancing in London, for the twist, coinciding as it did with the arrival of the discotheque, those wombs of ‘Swinging London’, had sparked off a considerable terpsichorian revival. I reprint it here because I think it caught something of the pop atmosphere of that time. It was called ‘Late Perpendicular’.
In 1972 a letter published in Ann Landers widely-syndicated column criticized the practice of married women dancing closely with other men. Landers believed such dancing was acceptable. (She reversed her position in a later column): 7
Dear Houston: Since you obviously consider dancing a vertical expression of a horizontal idea, it’s no wonder you and your wife are fighting about it. I see nothing evil about dancing cheek-to-cheek, breast-to-chest or belly-to-belly.
In 1973 a music critic writing in “The Irish Times” of Dublin evaluated an album harshly: 8
It turned out to be the sort of non-denominational aural wallpaper ideal for what Bernard Shaw called “the perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire”, or muzak for dancing in case you didn’t know.
In 1974 an instance was credited to a state legislator in a Vermont newspaper: 9
Rep. Patrick Harte, D-South Burlington, said something should be done about the “wiggling and dancing on television,” which he described as “nothing more than a vertical expression for a horizontal desire.”
In 1975 a Massachusetts newspaper ascribed the saying to a University of Massachusetts botanist named Ray Ethan Torrey who had died in 1956. The article asserted that the remark was remembered by “generations of his students”: 10
Propounding upon the evils of the social intercourse of dancing among his male-female searchers after truth, he would reach the climax of his discussion by defining his subject. “Dancing,” he would say, “is the vertical manifestation of an horizontal desire.”
In 1984 a book about erotic and bawdy language credited the saying to the famous wit Oscar Wilde: 11
Oscar Wilde called dance “a vertical expression of a horizontal urge.”
In 1999 a columnist ascribed the saying to the well-known statesman Winston Churchill: 12
When Winston Churchill called dancing “the vertical expression of a horizontal urge” he couldn’t have imagined how close it would come in our time.
In 2014 an instructional book about writing assigned the statement to the prominent poet Robert Frost: 13
Here’s how the poet gave it to us: “Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal desire.”
In conclusion, currently George Bernard Shaw is the leading candidate for originator of this expression because he was named in the earliest citation in 1962; however, this evidence was poor. I. S. Johar remains an interesting possibility; perhaps future researchers will find a precise citation in “Filmfare”. Landers employed the saying, but it was already in circulation. The attributions to Robert Frost, Winston Churchill, and Oscar Wilde were unconvincing.
(Great thanks to Johan Palme whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Jesse Sheidlower for accessing the “New Statesman” article. Many thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the “Thought” citation and Charles Doyle for accessing the Anthony Nayman citation. Additional thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable work on this topic. Thanks to discussants Peter Reitan, Jonathan Lighter, and Joel Berson.)
Update History: On September 19, 2016 the 1968 citation was updated to indicate that it had been verified with scans.
- 1962 March 23, New Statesman, Late Perpendicular by George Melly, Start Page 426, Quote Page 426, Column 3, New Statesman Ltd., London. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1914 April 16, The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, and Art, Volume 14, Number 24, Some Maxims on Americans, New York and Newport by Sebastian Sorrell, Quote Page 764, Column 2, The New Age Press, Ltd, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1921 August 6, Musical News and Herald, Edited by Edwin Evans, Volume 61, (News) From the Institutions, The Guildhall School of Music, The Training School for Teachers by H.H.N., Start Page 140, Quote Page 141, Musical News Syndicate, London. (HathiTrust) link ↩
- 1966 February 19, Thought: A Weekly Review of Politics & the Arts, Volume 18, Number 8, Not Malice Alone by R.S., Quote Page 21, Column 3, Printed on behalf of Siddhartha Publications Ltd. by R.L. Chadha at Naya Hindustan Press, Delhi, India. (Verified with scans; thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University Library System) ↩
- 1968, Talking about It Helps by Anthony Nayman, Quote Page 97, Hutchinson, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system) ↩
- 1970, Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts in Britain by George Melly, Quote Page 66, Allen Lane: The Penguin Press, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1972 October 27, Tucson Daily Citizen, Young, fired-up execs could listen more by Ann Landers, Quote Page 43, Column 5, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1973 August 31, The Irish Times, Jazz Record by Ray Comiskey, Quote Page 10, Column 8, Dublin, Ireland. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1974 March 8, The Burlington Free Press, ‘Streaking’ Arouses Nudity Bill Backers by Free Press Capitol Bureau, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Burlington, Vermont. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1975 November 28, Greenfield Recorder, From An Ivory Tower Lightly: Professors as characters by Dario Politella (Recorder Columnist), Quote Page 15, Column 4, Greenfield, Massachusetts. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 2013, Bawdy Language: Everything You Always Wanted to Do But Were Afraid to Say by Lawrence Paros, Section: Invitation to the Dance, Unnumbered Page, Publisher Kvetch Press; published in eBook format by eBookIt.com. (The section with the excerpt was reprinted from the 1984 book “The Erotic Tongue: A Sexual Lexicon” by the same author) (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1999 January 11, The Indianapolis Star, Comeback of ballroom dancing by Mona Charen, Quote Page A6, Column 4, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2014, Mastering the Craft of Writing: How to Write With Clarity, Emphasis, and Style by Stephen Wilbers, Quote Page 155, Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Preview) ↩