Robert Heinlein? Emma D. E. N. Southworth? Wilfrid S. Bronson? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Science fiction luminary Robert Heinlein employed the following phrase in two of his novels:
That’s the moose’s problem.
The phrase seems to mean:
That problem should be dealt with by someone else.
Would you please explore the origin of this expression?
Quote Investigator: A class of jokes has a punchline of the following type:
- That is the moose’s problem.
- That is the deer’s problem.
- That was the moose’s business.
QI conjectures that Heinlein was alluding to these jokes. The earliest instance of the gag located by QI appeared in the 1872 novel “A Noble Lord” by Emma D. E. N. Southworth. A braggart named Colonel Brierly was spinning an exaggerated tale about a land he had visited. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Magnificent game! I tell you, sir, I have seen forests of titanic oaks, whose boles were yards in circumference, standing scarcely three feet apart, and with their limbs and twigs so interlocked and interwoven as to form an impenetrable green thicket! Yes, sir! And I have seen bounding through these forests magnificent deer, sir!—majestic creatures six feet high, whose splendid antlers branched ten feet apart! Yes, sir!” exclaimed the Colonel, glancing around the table.
The reaction of a character named Captain Faulkner made his skepticism obvious, and Brierly became angry enough to demand that Faulkner state his criticisms:
“Oh well, if you must know,” coolly returned the Captain, “I was but wondering how the deuce those majestic deer, with antlers branching ten feet wide, managed to bound through those magnificent forests where the titanic oak trees stand but three feet apart.”
For a moment the Colonel was dumbfounded, and then he exclaimed:
“By Jupiter, sir, that was their business – not mine, or yours!”
A laugh at this retort went round the table.
After this exchange Colonel Brierly became the enemy of Captain Faulkner, and eventually the two fought a deadly duel with Brierly as the victor.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1921 “Lumber World Review” reported on a meeting of Wisconsin retailers, and a speaker presented a version of the moose anecdote: 2
… Mr. Clugston told a hunter’s story of the man who killed a wide antlered moose after following it for miles through cover so thick that he had much trouble in getting through it. When the hunter was asked how the moose managed to get his wide antlers through such cover he responded, “That’s the moose’s business, not mine.”
In 1942 “Horns and Antlers” by Wilfrid S. Bronson contained an instance of the joke: 3
Northwoodsmen in long winter evenings have time to tell tall stories. One told of giant trees growing very close together in a forest where dwelt a mighty moose with antlers fifteen feet across. When asked how a moose with such antlers managed to get about in such a place, he said that that was the moose’s business.
In 1957 a committee of the U.S. Congress held a hearing about natural gas, and the chairman Oren Harris of Arkansas told a version of the joke: 4
The CHAIRMAN. In other words, you are proposing a principle here which is so much similar to the story of the man who saw the deer running down through the forest where the trees were so close together that it wasn’t over 18 inches anywhere, and he had horns which reached, from tip to tip, 5 feet. He was asked how the deer got down through that forest. He said that was the deer’s problem. [Laughter.]
In 1961 Robert Heinlein published “Stranger in a Strange Land”, and he employed the phrase without an explanation: 5
“Boss,” Anne interrupted sharply, “how do you expect anyone to cook when you’ve kept us penned up all afternoon?”
“That’s the moose’s problem,” Jubal said dourly. “If Armageddon is held on these premises, I expect meals hot and on time right up to the final trump.”
In 1963 Heinlein serialized his novel “Glory Road” in “Fantasy and Science Fiction” magazine, and in part two of the work he used the phrase without elaboration: 6
I didn’t look. “That’s the moose’s problem, damn it! We’ve got work to do. Star, can you shoot left-handed? One of these pistol things?”
In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that Robert Heinlein was familiar with the joke, and he believed that it was widely-known; hence, he felt that he could use the punchline in his novels to mean: That is someone else’s problem and not mine.
Image Notes: Picture of a moose with large antlers; author: Ryan Hagerty. Portrait of Robert Heinlein in “Amazing Stories” of April-May 1953; the image is in the public domain.
(Great thanks to Bill Mullins whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to discussants Dan Goncharoff, Douglas G. Wilson, and Laurence Horn. Wilson identified the “deer’s problem” variant. Further thanks to The Heinlein Society discussion group which raised this topic.)
- 1872, A Noble Lord by Mrs. Emma D. E. N. Southworth (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte Southworth), Chapter 7: The Detective, Quote Pages 81 and 82, T. B. Peterson & Brothers, Philadelphia. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1921 February 25, Lumber World Review, Volume 40, Wisconsin Retail Lumbermen Meet, Wednesday Morning Session, Start Page 36, Quote Page 37, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1942, Horns and Antlers by Wilfrid S. Bronson, (Wilfrid Swancourt Bronson), Chapter: Moose, Quote Page 110, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1957, Hearings Before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, Eighty-Fifth Congress, First Session, On H.R. 6790 and H.R. 6791, Bills to Amend the Natural Gas Act and for Other Purposes and Related Bills, Date: Friday, May 31, 1957, Start Page 1433, Quote Page 1461, Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1961 Copyright, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein, Part Two: His Preposterous Heritage, Quote Page 170, Avon Book Division: The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1963 August, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Volume 25, Number 2, Glory Road by Robert A. Heinlein (Second of Three Parts), Start Page 57, Quote Page 105, Mercury Press, Concord, New Hampshire. (Verified with scans) ↩