Speaker: George Dixon? Ann Richards? Vito Marcantonio? Oliver Herford?
Target: Harold Ickes? George H. W. Bush? Newbold Morris? Jones?
Dear Quote Investigator: A person who is born into a wealthy and successful family is “born with a silver spoon in his or her mouth” according to a longstanding idiom. There is a funny variant that applies to a gaffe-prone person:
Born with a silver foot in his or her mouth.
Would you please explore who crafted this barb, and who was targeted?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI occurred in the syndicated column of George Dixon in November 1944. Dixon aimed his criticism at Harold Ickes, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, who helped to implement President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ policies. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Suppose Ickes was gone? What would I do on dull days? I’d have to scurry around and do some work, that’s what I’d have to do.
But, the way things transpired, I will always have him on tap when I need him. And he never fails. If ever a man was born with a silver foot in his mouth, it was old Harold.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In October 1949 the “Daily News” of New York City printed an article by Congressman Vito Marcantonio of the American Labor Party who criticized a political opponent: 2
Today I take up the candidacy of Newbold Morris, the man who was born with a silver foot in his mouth and for the first thirty years of his life thought the streets of New York were only for the wheels of limousines.
The remark was vivid enough to appear a few days later in a compilation of bon mots titled “What They’re Saying” that appeared in “The Detroit Free Press” of Michigan: 3
REP. VITO MARCANTONIO, American Labor Party candidate for mayor of New York City, speaking of his Republican opponent, Newbold Morris: “He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
In November 1949 columnist Gretchen L. Lamberton who wrote for a newspaper in Winona, Minnesota credited the quip to Oliver Herford who had died in 1935: 4
The greatest wit in America until his death in 1935 was a frail, gnome-like little man, Oliver Herford. . . . Herford was the person who originated these classics of American wit which are familiar to all. . . .
“My wife has a whim of iron”;
“Of course a woman’s mind is cleaner than a man’s—she changes it oftener”;
“Poor old Jones—he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.”
During the ensuing decades the quip was employed by a wide variety of people.
In July 1988 Ann Richards gave a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. At the time, Richards was the Treasurer of Texas, and within a few years she became the Governor of Texas. During her address she criticized the future President of the U.S. George H. W. Bush: 5
“Poor George, he can’t help it–he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.“
In conclusion, George Dixon is currently the leading candidate for creator of this joke, but future researchers may discover earlier citations. Harold Ickes was the first person to suffer the brunt of the attack.
Image Notes: Picture of bars of silver from Geizkragen69 at Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Alice Faber who mentioned this quip on a mailing list, and noted that Ann Richards had employed it in a high-profile speech. Thanks to the other discussants including Laurence Horn and Ben Zimmer.)
- 1944 November 10, Evening Herald (Republican and Herald), Washington Scene by George Dixon, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949 October 26, Daily News, Dewey’s Pet Horse Pulls The Big Real Estate Wagon by Congressman Vito Marcantonio (Submitted by American Labor Party), Quote Page 46, Column 2, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949 October 29, The Detroit Free Press, What They’re Saying, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1949 November 11, The Winona Republican-Herald, The Casual Observer by Gretchen L. Lamberton, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Winona, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1988 July 19, Chicago Tribune, The Democratic National Convention: Democrats, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩