Ogden Nash? James Nelson Gowanloch? Frank Colby? Arthur Knight? Alfred Hitchcock? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The popular creator of light verse Ogden Nash once crafted a poem that playfully altered a common phrase describing a thorough search: “no stone unturned”. The comical transformation produced “no tern unstoned” and “no stern untoned”. Did Nash originate these two phrases?
Quote Investigator: In 1952 Ogden Nash published “The Private Dining Room and Other New Verses” which included a poem titled “Everybody’s Mind To Me a Kingdom Is or A Great Big Wonderful World It’s”. The following lines exhibited the wordplay. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
This I shall do because I am a conscientious man, when I throw rocks at sea birds I leave no tern unstoned,
I am a meticulous man, and when I portray baboons I leave no stern untoned,
Interestingly, both of these phrases were already in circulation as shown below.
Wordplay has led to the creation of a family of sayings, and a separate article about “A drama critic leaves no turn unstoned” is available here.
In April 1935 James Nelson Gowanloch who was the Chief Biologist of the Department of Conservation of Louisiana described hunters who were slaughtering birds to collect plumes for fashionable bonnets: 2
The cruelties perpetrated by these plumage hunters matched those of the Egret trade. If one be permitted the indulgence of a pun, it might be said that these hunters left no stone unturned to leave no Tern unstoned.
In May 1935 an article in the “Sunday Times-Signal” of Zanesville, Ohio referred to the article by Gowanloch and reprinted a slightly modified version of the phrase. Thankfully this type of wanton hunting has been curtailed: 3
The author, in an effort to picture the havoc wrought by plume hunters in colonies, uses the following appropriate humorous pun: “The plume hunter left no stone unturned, so that no Tern went unstoned.”
Thanks to the efforts of sane minded conservationists who had protective laws passed less than 25 years ago, we no longer have such needless slaughter.
In 1942 the syndicated columnist Frank Colby reported on a newscaster who garbled the phrase “leaving no stone unturned”: 4
Fluttertongue heard on a recent newscast: “In their desperate quest for oil, the Nazis are leaving no stern untoned!”
In 1949 Frank Colby claimed that another broadcaster garbled the phrase “leaving no stone unturned”: 5
Here are a few Spoonerisms from my own collection, all of them heard on the air within recent months:
A Washington commentator: “If you know of any plan whereby the meat shortage problem may be solved, come to Washington — they’ll open you with welcome arms.”
A network newscaster: “The FBI is leaving no stern untoned.”
In 1952 Nash’s collection “The Private Dining Room” was published as noted previously. The work was reviewed in “The Milwaukee Journal” of Wisconsin in 1953, and the two phrases were highlighted: 6
And in another piece he gleefully goes out of his way to admit that when he throws rocks at sea birds, he leaves no tern unstoned, and when he portrays baboons, he leaves no stern untoned.
By June 1958 the connection to Nash had been forgotten when one of the sayings was printed in “The Saturday Review”: 7
Report from Allan Kalmus, the publicity expert: “There is a cruel kid on that beach who is leaving no tern unstoned.”
In July 1958 “The Saturday Review” shared the other saying which was sent to the journal by two readers. Nash was not mentioned and a massage interpretation was specified: 8
Dan B. Dobbs of Fort Smith, Arkansas, joins George Miller of Pittsburg, California, in the defense of the noble pun. Each of them writes to remind us about the rub-down parlor which left no stern untoned, as a sequel to the boy on the beach who left no tern unstoned.
In 1961 Evan Esar in “Humorous English” mentioned the family of sayings and added the following: 9
. . . the antipunster who leaves no pun ungroaned.
In 1963 the horror master Alfred Hitchcock released “The Birds” which contained scenes of inexplicable avian violence. A commentator in “The Saturday Review” said: 10
Ornithologists may not approve, but to the rest of us his message is obvious: Leave no tern unstoned.
In conclusion, Ogden Nash employed both of these expressions in 1952, but he was not the first. The quip with “tern” appeared by 1935 in an article by biologist James Nelson Gowanloch, and the quip with “stern” appeared by 1942 in a piece by journalist Frank Colby who suggested that it was mistakenly spoken during a newscast.
(Great thanks to discussants Even Hartmann Flood, Dennis Lien, Claire from Clare, Bill Davis, Laurence Horn, Ben Zimmer, Wilson Gray, Jim Parish, John Baker, Andy Bach, Bill Mullins, Amy West, and Dave Hause. The “tern” and “stern” quips were mentioned. Baker located both 1935 citations, and Davis pointed to the 1963 review of the Hitchcock film.)
Update History; On December 5, 2017 the April 1935 citation was added.
- 1953 (U.S Publication 1952), The Private Dining Room and Other New Verses by Ogden Nash, Poem: Everybody’s Mind To Me a Kingdom Is or A Great Big Wonderful World It’s, Start Page 27, Quote Page 27, J. M. Dent & Sons, London. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1935 April, Louisiana Conservation Review, Volume IV, The Gulls, Terns and Skimmers of Louisiana, Part One, by James Nelson Gowanloch, (Chief Biologist, The Department of Conservation of Louisiana), Start Page 11, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Published by The Department of Conservation, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Internet Archive archive.org) link ↩
- 1935 May 26, Sunday Times-Signal (Zanesville Signal), Section 2, Henslow Sparrows and Bobolinks Found Nesting in Country, (Continuation title: Henslow), Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Zanesville, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1942 July 27, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Section: Daily Magazine, Don’t Take My Word for It By Frank Colby (Bell Syndicate), Quote Page 19, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949 August 7, The Charleston Daily Mail, How’s That by Frank Colby, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Charleston, West Virginia. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1953 April 5, The Milwaukee Journal (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel), Ogden Nash, in Meters Rash by Gerald Kloss (Review of “The Private Dining Room” by Ogden Nash), Section V, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1958 June 14, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by John G. Fuller, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Saturday Review Inc., New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1958 July 12, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by John G. Fuller, Start Page 4, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Saturday Review Inc., New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1961, Humorous English by Evan Esar, Chapter 10: Idiomatics, Quote Page 119, Horizon Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1963 April 6, The Saturday Review, SR Goes to the Movies: Of Violence and Nonviolence (Review of the Alfred Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds”), by Arthur Knight, Start Page 39, Quote Page 39, Column 3, Saturday Review Inc., New York. (Unz) ↩