Will Rogers? Walter Trumbull? Franklin Rodman? Frances Rodman? Robert Phelps? Wynn Catlin? Harold Winkler? Robert Phelps?
Dear Quote Investigator: The reassuring words of a diplomat may sharply diverge from the true agenda of the envoy. The following metaphor depicts hidden hostility:
Diplomacy is the art of being able to say “nice doggie” until you have time to pick up a rock.
The popular humorist Will Rogers receives credit for this expression, but I do not think he made many jokes with this type of implied cruelty. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in September 1925 in “The Honolulu Advertiser” of Hawaii. The saying occurred within a miscellaneous set of statements printed under the title “The Week in Epigram”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Diplomacy frequently consists in soothingly saying “Nice doggie” until you have a chance to pick up a rock—Walter Trumbull.
The name Walter Trumbull was ambiguous, but it probably referred to a sports writer for the North American Newspaper Alliance who also reprinted the quip in his column in 1931.
The attribution to Will Rogers occurred by the 1980s which was very late, and QI believes the linkage was spurious.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In November 1925 a columnist named Dee Jay Gee writing in “The Hershey Press” of Pennsylvania printed the remark within a set of “Cynicisms”. The words were attributed to “Trumball” instead of “Trumbull”: 2
Diplomacy frequently consists in soothingly saying, “Nice doggie,” until you have a chance to pick up a rock.
In 1930 the same statement appeared in “Pacific Transcript” of Pacific, Missouri within a column titled “Rays of Sunshine: In Which You Will Find a Little of Everything”, but no attribution was given. 3
Diplomacy frequently consists in soothingly saying, “Nice Doggie,” until you have a chance to pick up a rock.
In 1931 a sports column by Walter Trumbull appeared in “The Charleston Evening Post” of South Carolina. The column was part of the North American Newspaper Alliance, and it included a compressed version of the saying: 4
Diplomacy consists in saying “nice doggie,” until you can pick up a rock.
In 1931 Trumbull’s column with the quotation also appeared in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” under the title “The Sportlight”. Trumbull was substituting for the famous sportswriter Grantland Rice who was on vacation. The introduction to the piece described Trumbull as a “nationally known sports authority”. 5
In 1953 “The Daily Journal-Gazette” of Mattoon, Illinois printed a filler item with a version listing a different ascription: 6
Diplomacy is the same as saying “nice doggie” until you have a chance to pick up a rock.—Franklin Rodman.
In 1954 the “Picturesque Speech” section of “The Reader’s Digest” credited Frances Rodman with a version of the saying. The name was oddly similar to Franklin Rodman: 7
Diplomacy — the art of saying “nice doggie” until you have time to pick up a rock (Frances Rodman)
In 1955 a columnist in Harlan, Iowa acknowledged a periodical called “Quote” while presenting the saying: 8
Rambling Thoughts Dept.—Diplomacy is the same as saying “Nice doggie” until you have a chance to pick up a rock.—Frances Rodman in Quote.
In 1956 the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell printed the saying with an anonymous attribution: 9
Anon: Diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggie” until you can find a rock.
In 1958 quotation collector Bennett Cerf printed the saying in his syndicated column and credited Wynn Catlin: 10
Wynn Catlin defines diplomacy as the art of saying “Nice doggie” till you can find a rock.
In 1962 a newspaper in Pottstown, Pennsylvania attributed the saying to Harold Winkler: 11
Diplomacy is the art of saying “nice doggy” until you have time to pick up a rock. — Harold Winkler.
In 1967 a syndicated feature called “Cryptoquote” employed the saying as the solution of a puzzle and ascribed the words to Robert Phelps: 12
Saturday’s Cryptoquote: DIPLOMACY IS THE ART OF SAYING “NICE DOGGIE!” UNTIL YOU CAN FIND A ROCK. —ROBERT PHELPS
In 1986 quotation compiler Robert Byrne published “The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”, and Byrne attributed the saying to Will Rogers: 13
Diplomacy is the art of saying “Nice doggie” until you can find a rock.
Will Rogers (1879-1935)
Later in 1986 Pauline Phillips who wrote the popular advice column “Dear Abby” cited the work of Byrne while crediting Will Rogers. 14
In 1988 Eppie Lederer who wrote the popular advice column “Ann Landers” was asked for a definition of diplomacy. She replied with a variant using “stick” instead of “rock” while crediting Rogers: 15
Will Rogers’ definition is better than anything I can come up with. He said, “The art of diplomacy is saying, ‘nice doggie, nice doggie,’ until you can find a stick.”
In conclusion, current evidence indicates that Walter Trumbull helped popularize the saying by 1925. He is also the leading candidate for coiner. The phrasing evolved over time. Many other names have been linked to the expression, but only after it was already circulating. Will Rogers is the most famous name, but there is no substantive evidence that he crafted it.
Image Notes: Depiction of map in the game Diplomacy by creator Martin Asal; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.
(Great thanks to rone whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Barry Popik, Nigel Rees, and the volunteer editors of Wikiquote for their pioneering research. Popik found citations beginning in 1954. Wikiquote pointed to a 1953 match.)
- 1925 September 14, The Honolulu Advertiser, The Week in Epigram, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1925 November 19, The Hershey Press, The Smokestack by Dee Jay Gee, Quote Page 1, Column 4, Hershey, Pennsylvania. (Milton Hershey School: Hershey Press Collection. A Collection of POWER Library: Pennsylvania’s Electronic Library) link ↩
- 1930 February 7, Pacific Transcript, Rays of Sunshine: In Which You Will Find a Little of Everything, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Pacific, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 January 10, The Charleston Evening Post, Better Boys Coming Along by Walter Trumbull (North American Newspaper Alliance), Quote Page 8, Column 3, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1931 January 11, Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Sportlight by Walter Trumbull (Subbing for Grantland Rice), Description: “Walter Trumbull, nationally known sports authority”, Quote Page 2B, Column 1, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1953 September 24, The Daily Journal-Gazette, (Filler item), Quote Page 17, Column 6, Mattoon, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1954 February, Reader’s Digest, Volume 64, Picturesque Speech, Deft Definitions, Quote Page 150, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1955 April 26, The Harlan News-Advertiser, The Lady’s Notebook by Elsie Graves, Section 2, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Harlan, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1956 March 26, The Terre Haute Tribune, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1958 July 29, The Circleville Herald, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Circleville, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1962 September 25, Pottstown Mercury, and I Quote, Quote Page 11, Column 3, Pottstown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1967 August 7, Arkansas Gazette, Daily Cryptoquote, (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 5B, Column 3, Little Rock, Arkansas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1986, The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 449, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩
- 1986 October 1, Iowa City Press-Citizen, Dear Abby: Late rings from gabby girls, Quote Page 5C, Column 3, Iowa City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1988 October 14, Southern Illinoisan, Girl told that she has the power to stop overaffectionate father by Ann Landers, Quote Page 16, Column 5, Carbondale, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩