Erma Bombeck? Woody Allen? L. M. Boyd? Mark Hatfield? David B. Whitlock? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: If you or a loved one has faced cancer then the following assertion would be understandable:
The most beautiful word in the English language is ‘benign’.
This notion has been attributed to two well-known humorists Erma Bombeck and Woody Allen. Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: Erma Bombeck included this remark in a newspaper column she wrote in 1991. Woody Allen used this idea in a movie he wrote and directed in 1997. Details are presented further below.
The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the widely-syndicated column of L. M. Boyd in 1968, but he credited a correspondent named Erna. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“I have always maintained (and always will) that the most beautiful word in English is ‘benign’ and the ugliest word is ‘malignant,'” writes a San Francisco girl named Erna.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1974 a member of the U. S. Congress employed the phrase when he gratefully heard a positive medical prognosis for his wife: 2
A biopsy performed Tuesday on Antoinette Hatfield, wife U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, revealed a benign growth in her breast, Hatfield aides said.
At a luncheon speech that day to the League of Oregon Cities here, Hatfield said he had realized “one of the most beautiful words in the English language is the word ‘benign.'”
In 1991 Erma Bombeck wrote a column about walking through her mothers’ house which was quiet and empty. Normally, it was filled with the noises of family members and a blaring television, but on that day her mother was in the hospital for an assessment. Bombeck felt that the house needed human voices and laughter. She ended the column by describing the message she hoped would be given to her mother: 3
It needed a doctor to whisper in her ear the most beautiful word in the English language – benign.
In 1993 Bombeck published “A Marriage Made in Heaven—Or, Too Tired for an Affair”. She described a scene in a hospital with her mother and a doctor: 4
In the waiting room, I read the same page of a book three times. Somehow, we would both adjust to our new roles. Mothers and daughters had been doing it since the beginning of time. We would do it because we loved one another.
Mother’s doctor approached and sat down beside me. He then spoke the most beautiful word in the English language, “Benign.”
While Bombeck expressed trepidation her mother was confident:
“I can’t die yet. I just bought a case of toilet paper at the Price Club.”
In 1997 the auteur Woody Allen released the motion picture “Deconstructing Harry” which he had written and directed. The “Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” 5 and “The Yale Book of Quotations” 6 both included a script line that was slightly more elaborate than the one under investigation. The character Harry Block who was played by Allen spoke the words:
The most beautiful words in the English language are not “I love you,” but “It’s benign.”
In 1998 a columnist in the “Birmingham News” of Birmingham, Alabama employed an instance of the saying: 7
When I was waiting for the results of my first biopsy almost 14 years ago, I thought that “benign” was the most beautiful word in the English language.
In 2011 the syndicated columnist David B. Whitlock wrote about waiting together with his wife for the results of a medical test: 8
And so Lori and I waited for that word: benign or malignant.
“The word ‘benign’ has to be the most beautiful word in the English language,” one of my friends later declared. “Then ‘malignant’ has to be the ugliest,” a second quipped.
In conclusion, at this time the top candidate for coiner of this expression is a “San Francisco girl named Erna” as recorded by L. M. Boyd in 1968. Erma Bombeck also used the saying by 1991, but it was already in circulation. Woody Allen included a version in his 1997 film “Deconstructing Harry”.
Image Notes: Pink ribbon from danielcaico at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.
(Great thanks to Fred R. Shapiro editor of the landmark reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” who mentioned this saying on a mailing list. In Memoriam: Jean, Stephen, and Jan.)
- 1968 November 12, The Robesonian, Checking Up by L. M. Boyd, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Lumberton, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1974 November 20, The Statesman Journal, Mrs. Hatfield’s Tumor Is Benign (Associated Press), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1991 August 18, 1991, The Deseret News, Column: At Wit’s End: Walk Through Empty House Leads to Learning, Loneliness by Erma Bombeck (Syndicated), Quote Page P8, Salt Lake City, Utah. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1994 (Hardcover Edition 1993), A Marriage Made in Heaven—Or, Too Tired for an Affair by Erma Bombeck, Quote 271, HarperCollins HarperPaperbacks, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2008, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Ned Sherrin, Category: Words, Page 355, Oxford University Press, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Woody Allen, Quote Page 17, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1998 March 5, Birmingham News, Section: Lifestyle, Article: Euphoria Cause: No New Disease, Author/Byline: Sharon Norton, Quote Page 01-E, Birmingham, Alabama. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2011 February 1, Altus Times, Section: Opinion, Life Matters: ‘Just One Word’ by David B. Whitlock, Quote Page 6, Altus, Oklahoma. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩