It Spills Its Seed Upon the Ground

Dorothy Parker? Corey Ford? John Keats? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently, the famous wit Dorothy Parker was once asked why she had selected the curious name Onan for her pet canary. She replied:

Because he spills his seed on the ground.

What is the veracity of this tale?

Quote Investigator: The biblical figure Onan appeared in the Book of Genesis. He disobeyed God by refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow and spilling his seed on the ground. This behavior irked the Deity and proved fatal to Onan.

The earliest version of the Parker anecdote located by QI occurred within a chapter profiling her in the 1934 book “While Rome Burns” by Alexander Woollcott who helped to build her reputation for clever banter. Woollcott’s statement was elliptical. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Of her birds, I remember only an untidy canary whom she named Onan for reasons which will not escape those who know their Scriptures.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1967 Corey Ford who was a friend of Parker’s published “The Time of Laughter” which included the following: 2

All sorts of spurious quips were attributed to her; but the genuine coin had an unmistakable ring. As when she insisted that her dog had caught a social disease from using a public lamppost. Or when she explained that she had named her canary Onan because it scattered its seed.

The review of Ford’s book published in “The New York Times” repeated the joke and credited Parker: 3

As some of the older members of the class will recall, Dorothy Parker named her canary Onan because he scattered his seed.

The 1970 biography “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” by John Keats mentioned the canary: 4

Dorothy Parker’s apartment on West Fifty-seventh Street was hardly pretentious. She said that all she needed was enough space “to lay a hat-and a few friends.” . . . Apart from her clothing and toilet articles, the only things in the room that belonged to her were her portable typewriter and a canary she called Onan because he spilled his seed upon the ground.

In conclusion, QI believes that Dorothy Parker did name her canary Onan based on a humorous biblical allusion.

Image Notes: Illustration of a canary placed in the public domain by Anbo1982; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of bird seed mixture; author: Algont; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Portrait of Dorothy Parker; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter “Some Neighbors IV: Our Mrs. Parker”, Quote Page 152, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1967, The Time of Laughter by Corey Ford, Chapter 4: Taverns of the Twenties, Quote Page 52, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1967 October 15, New York Times, Bright Parade by Paul Showers, (Book Review of “The Time of Laughter” by Corey Ford), Quote Page 30, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker by John Keats, Part Two: Chapter 1, Quote Page 68, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified in paper)