A Diplomat Is a Person Who Can Tell You To Go To Hell in Such a Tactful Way That You’ll Look Forward with Pleasure To Making the Trip

Winston Churchill? Caskie Stinnett? Gary Knafelc? Vince Lombardi? Viola Layne? Earl Wilson? Joe Williams? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Diplomacy is a difficult profession that rewards sensitivity and great verbal dexterity. The following witticism has been credited to travel writer and humorist Caskie Stinnett:

A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.

The following similar remarks have been attributed to Winston Churchill:

  • Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.
  • Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.

What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Winston Churchill employed this joke. He received credit by the 2000s. Caskie Stinnett did use this gag in his book “Out of the Red” in 1960, but it was already in circulation.

The earliest instance located by QI appeared as an anonymous filler item in the “St. Louis Star-Times” of Missouri in November 1937. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a tactful way that you’ll look forward with pleasure to making the trip.

The phrasing is variable which makes the expression difficult to trace. Thus, earlier evidence may be discovered by future researchers. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The exact same 1937 text appeared in “The Altoona Tribune” of Pennsylvania in January 1938. 2

In May 1938 “The Deming Headlight” of New Mexico printed a set of six “Daffynitions” including the following two. The quip was slightly shortened via the omission of the word “pleasure”: 3

Diplomat: A person who can tell you to go to hell in such a tactful way that you’ll look forward to making the trip.

Puncture: A little hole in a tire, usually found at a great distance from a garage.

In 1945 “The De Kalb Daily Chronicle” of Illinois printed the following variant: 4

A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell so pleasantly that you are rarin’ to get started.

In 1949 popular syndicated columnist Earl Wilson credited the jest to Viola Layne: 5

WISH I’D SAID THAT: “A diplomat,” defines Viola Layne, “is a fellow who can tell you to go to hell so tactfully that you look forward to the trip.”

The 1960 book “Out of the Red” by Caskie Stinnett included this passage: 6

There were a few more questions, all of which López handled with the skill of a diplomat. A diplomat, to López, was a person who could tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually looked forward to the trip.

In 1961 Gary Knafelc who played professional football for the Green Bay Packers visited Sheboygan, Wisconsin and delivered a speech at the local Knights of Columbus meeting. Knafelc spoke about the famous coach of the Packers. The newspaper account replaced the word “hell” with “- – – -“: 7

What kind of a man is Vince Lombardi?

In the words of one of his professional football hirelings, Gary Knafelc, “he’s the only man in the world who can tell you to go to – – – – in such a manner that you’ll actually look forward to the trip . . .”

In 1967 a variant referring to tact instead of diplomacy was employed by Colonel Joe Williams who was the commander of Patrick Air Force Base in Florida: 8

A sample line: “He had tact,” he said of an early space cat. “Tact. That’s the ability to tell a guy to go to hell and make him look forward to taking the trip.”

The 1968 reference work “Dictionary of Quotations” edited by Bergen Evans pointed to Stinnett. The text of his book was slightly streamlined, and the tense was changed: 9

A diplomat is a person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip. [Caskie Stinnett: Out of the Red]

In 2008 the website Goodreads attributed a version of the joke to Winston Churchill who died in 1965. The information on Goodreads is crowdsourced and typically unchecked. No supporting citation was provided: 10

Winston S. Churchill
“Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”

In 2011 the website Goodreads attributed a variant of the joke to Churchill. No supporting citation was provided: 11

Winston S. Churchill
“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”

In conclusion, the earliest instance of the joke in 1937 was anonymous. A family of quips evolved from the primordial expression. Viola Layne, Earl Wilson, and Caskie Stinnett helped to popularize the humorous statement. The ascriptions to Winston Churchill are very late and unsupported.

(Great thanks to Professor Jonathan Lighter who heard a commentator on MSNBC attribute an instance to Winston Churchill. This led QI to reactivate research on this topic and to create this entry. Special thanks to Barry Popik who located citations beginning in 1953. His helpful webpage is available here.)

Notes:

  1. 1937 November 27, St. Louis Star-Times, (Filler item), Quote Page 10, Column 1, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1938 January 1, Altoona Tribune, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1938 May 27, The Deming Headlight, Ridin’ Rudolph of the Bar Nothin’ Ranch, Daffynitions, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Deming, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1945 June 29, The De Kalb Daily Chronicle, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, De Kalb, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1949 August 2, The Terre Haute Star, It Happened Last Night by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Terre Haute, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1960, Out of the Red by Caskie Stinnett, Quote page 43, Random House, New York. (Not yet verified with hardcopy; the quotation is visible in a snippet via Google Books database; several quotation references point to this book)
  7. 1961 February 24, The Sheboygan Press, Packers Have Single Fear: That’s Mr. Vince Lombardi, Quote Page 17, Column 1, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1967 April 7, The Orlando Sentinel, Section: Brevard Sentinel, Brevard Beacon: Pioneers Day Real Blast by Dick Young, Quote Page 4A, Column 5, Orlando, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1968, Dictionary of Quotations, Collected by Bergen Evans, Topic: Diplomacy, Quote Page 171, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. Goodreads, Person: Winston S. Churchill, Section: Quotable Quote, Date: Liked on Mar 10, 2008. (Accessed April 3, 2018) link
  11. Goodreads, Person: Winston S. Churchill, Section: Quotable Quote. Date: Liked on Feb 19, 2011. (Accessed April 3, 2018) link