Long Enough to Cover the Subject and Short Enough to Create Interest

Winston Churchill? Ronald Knox? Gerald K. Rudulph? C. H. McNider? Richard N. Elliott? Louis Sobol? Frances Langford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous statesman and orator Winston Churchill was asked about the length of an ideal address, and he supposedly said:

A speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.

Yet, a similar remark about sermons is often attributed to the theologian Ronald Knox. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip is difficult to trace because it has many variants, and the phrasing is highly variable. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in May 1920 in “The Buffalo Enquirer” of Buffalo, New York. The columnist Gerald K. Rudulph employed quotation marks to signal that the joke was already in circulation. This version used a simile comparing the length of a newspaper column and a woman’s skirt. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . we will do our best and try to make this column like a woman’s skirt, “short enough to be attractive, but long enough to cover the subject.”

An instance was attributed to Churchill by 1942. He probably used it after it had been coined. Pertinent citations are presented further below. QI has been unable to find substantive evidence that Ronald Knox used the expression.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Statements about fine-tuning the length of speeches have a long history. In 1833 a newspaper in London printed a statement about the pressure to make speeches long versus short: 2

A Correspondent reminds us of a very just remark of a shrewd and experienced proprietor of a Newspaper—“I never can make the speeches long enough for the speakers nor short enough for the public.”

The citation above and the next few citations suggest an evolutionary path for the formulation of the gag.

In 1881 a newspaper in Atchison, Kansas printed a remark of praise that was somewhat similar to the saying under examination, but skirts were not mentioned: 3

The letters from Washington, furnished by Mr. Ward Burlingame, are well written, being short enough to be interesting, and long enough to give all that is of importance . . .

In 1884 a newspaper in Natchez, Mississippi printed a similar contrastive statement: 4

He recalls in this the statesmen and presidents of old, and writes a letter that all will read—short enough to be interesting, but long enough to fully cover all the important questions before the American people in the present presidential campaign.

In 1908 a newspaper in Green Bay, Wisconsin reprinted a precursor joke from the humor magazine “Puck”: 5

The New Minister—What is your idea of the proper length of a sermon, Miss Deerlng?
The Choir Singer—Why, I think it should be long enough to get people interested and short enough to keep them so.—Puck.

In March 1920 a Kansas newspaper printed a piece titled “New Parisian Knee-Length Skirt” with a New York dateline. The joke here does not mention speeches, sermons, or letters. Yet, this joke about skirts could be combined with one of the citations above to yield the currently circulating quip: 6

NEW YORK.—The newest thing in skirts from Paris is here and created quite a sensation on its first appearance on Broadway. It is described as being “long enough to cover the object and short enough to be interesting.”

In May 1920 the quip emerged in a Buffalo, New York newspaper as noted previously: 7

. . . we will do our best and try to make this column like a woman’s skirt, “short enough to be attractive, but long enough to cover the subject.”

In June 1920 C. H. McNider, President of the First National Bank of Mason City, Iowa, addressed fellow bankers at a convention and employed an instance of the simile based on the lengths of a talk and a woman’s skirt: 8

I would make this talk as appropriate as a modern woman’s skirt—short enough to be interesting, long enough to cover the subject. (Laughter and applause.)

In July 1920 a New Jersey newspaper printed an instance of the simile based on the lengths of a manuscript and a bathing suit: 9

Gerald tells us that an ideal manuscript is like an up-to-date lady’s bathing suit—short enough to be interesting and long enough to cover the subject.

In October 1920 Indiana Congressman Richard N. Elliott employed an instance based the on lengths of a speech and a woman’s skirt: 10

“It is difficult to make a speech in this campaign in such a short space of time,” the congressman said. “A speech should be very much like a woman’s skirt—long enough to cover the subject but short enough to be interesting.”

In 1942 New York columnist Louis Sobol credited Winston Churchill with an instance: 11

Someone once asked Churchill whether he had any rules for speechmaking, inasmuch as he was admittedly one of the greatest living orators. “A speech should be like a lady’s dress,” he replied, “long enough to cover the subject—but short enough to be interesting.”

In 1943 a syndicated gossip column reported that the popular singer Frances Langford heard the quip delivered by Winston Churchill: 12

Speaking of dresses, Frances Langford met Winston Churchill in London and congratulated him on his oratory. “A speech,” said he, “should be like a lady’s dress—colorful enough to catch the attention, long enough to cover the subject and short enough to be interesting.”

In conclusion, QI believes that this jest evolved over time from partially matching statements. The earliest strong match in May 1920 used quotation marks to signal that the creator was anonymous. Future researchers may clarify the provenance by finding earlier strong matches. The 1942 and 1943 citations indicate that Winston Churchill employed the quip, but the late date means he was not the creator.

(Great thanks to Kevin Barkan and Steven Schwartzman whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Barkan mentioned the ascription to Winston Churchill. Schwartzman helpfully provided numerous citations beginning in June 1920. Special thanks to researcher Barry Popik for his pioneering research. He located matching citations beginning in October 1920.)

Notes:

  1. 1920 May 21, The Buffalo Enquirer, The Port Side Column by Gerald K. Rudulph, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1833 August 5, The Morning Post, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 3, Column 1, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1881 February 3, The Atchison Daily Champion, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Atchison, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1884 August 27, Natchez Weekly Democrat, Fashion Fancies: Choice Tidbits for our Lady Readers, Quote Page 1, Column 8, Natchez, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1908 May 18, The Green Bay Gazette, The Ideal Sermon, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1920 March 14, The Salina Daily Union, New Parisian Knee-Length Skirt, Quote Page 13, Column 2, Salina, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1920 May 21, The Buffalo Enquirer, The Port Side Column by Gerald K. Rudulph, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1920, Report of the Twenty-Ninth Annual Convention of the South Dakota Bankers Association, Held at Watertown, South Dakota, June 24th and 25th, 1920, (Address by Mr. C. H. McNider, President of the First National Bank of Mason City, Iowa), Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, South Dakota Bankers Association.(Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1920 July 30, Asbury Park Evening Press, Beach and Boardwalk by R. E. Porter, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Asbury Park, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1920 October 26, The Daily Republican, Republican Doctrine Spread to All Parts of Rush County, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Rushville, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1942 July 10, The Press Democrat, From the Great White Way: New York Broadway Cavalcade by Louis Sobol, Quote Page 12, Column 8, Santa Rosa, California. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1943 August 23, The Indianapolis News, Jimmie Fidler in Hollywood (McNaught Syndicate), Quote Page 14, Column 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)