Philip Gosse? John Bishop? Leonard Lyons? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A family of popular comical anecdotes conforms to the following template. An individual suffers a grievous injury such as a spear through the chest. A companion asks about his or her status, and the reply is absurdly understated:
“Does it hurt?”
“Only when I laugh.”
Would you please explore the provenance of this tale?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1934 book “Memoirs of a Camp-Follower” by Philip Gosse who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I. After an intense battle using bombs and bayonets, Gosse encountered a seriously injured soldier who was covered with mud and soaked with rain and blood. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
While I was gently examining his wound I asked him, more for the sake of something to say than anything else, if it hurt him very much. His answer, which I shall never forget, was “No Sir, only when I laugh.”
I am glad to say little John Bishop surprised us all by surviving a long and dangerous operation and eventually recovered.
This exchange was presented as non-fiction, and the line downplaying pain was spoken to Gosse by Bishop who was a member of the London Irish Rifles regiment of the British Army.
Thanks to top-flight researcher Peter Reitan who located the above citation.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The anecdote under analysis is rooted in a genuine phenomenon that has been reported in newspapers. Some wounds do cause patients to experience pain while laughing. For example, in 1908 “The Baltimore Sun” presented the following reply from a woman who was recovering from appendicitis in a hospital: 2
“Tell me how do you feel?” I queried by way of beginning agreeably.
“Fine, splendid, if only my incision didn’t hurt when I laugh.“
In 1929 “The San Francisco Examiner” of California reported another instance of laughter resulting in pain: 3
I am 21 years old and am bothered with a pain in my right side, near the hip, which hurts when I laugh or take a deep breath.
In 1934 Philip Gosse’s book appeared, and it included a matching wartime tale as discussed at the beginning of this article.
In 1935 a columnist in “The Gazette” of Montreal, Canada discussed “Memoirs of a Camp-Follower” by Gosse and repeated the anecdote: 4
Gosse found him, a pale-faced boy, covered with mud, soaked with rain and blood, obviously in desperate plight, and asked him while gently examining his wound, “Does it hurt you very much?” The answer came: “No, sir, only when I laugh.” That is worth remembering.
In September 1939 a columnist in the “Daily Mirror” of London printed a tall tale from the Anglo-Zulu Wars in the 1800s. The story was attributed to a tough sergeant-major who was talking to a new recruit. The British soldiers faced an onslaught of spears called assegaies: 5
Suddenly, my chum, Bert, gets one of them clean through his gizzard. Nailed him proper. I fights on.
Suddenly, I hears old Bert letting out a couple of yelps if he wasn’t feeling too good, so I says:
“What’s the matter, Bert—does it hurt much?”
“ONLY WHEN I LAUGHS, CHUM—ONLY WHEN I LAUGHS!” he says.
Yes, son, that was a tough war, that was!
In December 1939 a Scottish newspaper called “The Falkirk Herald” printed a similar anecdote: 6
The day came when the British soldiers were fighting a desperate rearguard action. One of their number was soon pinned to the ground by an assegai. “Does it hurt much, mate?” inquired his colleagues. “Only when I laughs,” replied the stricken soldier.
In 1942 the “Boston Globe’ of Massachusetts printed an instance attributed to an “old colonel”: 7
“Why, I remember the time when a Zulu threw his spear at me and it pinned me to the ground. I was lying there for three days.”
“It must have hurt.”
“Not much,” said the colonel.
“Only when I laughed!”—Tit-Bits.
In March 1947 “Parade” magazine printed an anecdote credited to Lanny Ross about an inebriated daredevil ice-skater whose stunt with a flaming hoop and spears went awry: 8
Tiptoeing over to his injured star, the show’s producer inquired sympathetically, “Does it hurt?” The pain-racked trouper opened his eyes a flicker. “No,” he gasped, “only when I laugh!”
In December 1947 syndicated columnist Leonard Lyons shared a tale of an ill-fated bear hunt. One of the four hunters killed a bear while suffering horrible injuries. The ellipses in the following passage were present in the original text: 9
His left arm was almost severed. His legs were crushed. His scalp was almost off, and half his face had been clawed away . . . They made a stretcher and started to carry him to a medical center. Two men carried him and the third man, walking beside him, asked: “Does it hurt?” . . . The victim opened one eye and replied: “Only when I laugh.”
In conclusion, this class of anecdotes is difficult to trace because of its variability. The first instance known to QI was presented as non-fiction with minimal humor in 1934 by Philip Gosse. The injured party was John Bishop. An overtly comical instance appeared by 1939. Future researchers may discover earlier instances.
Image Notes: Public domain picture of First Aid Station in the American Trenches circa 1918 from the George Grantham Bain Collection accessed via the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online. Image has been cropped, resized, and retouched.
(Great thanks to Jonathan Lighter whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to researchers Stephen Goranson and Peter Reitan. Lighter, Goranson, and Reitan all found valuable citations. Reitan found the earliest strong match in 1934 and 1935. Additional thanks to discussant Joel S. Berson.)
- 1934, Memoirs of a Camp-Follower by Philip Gosse, Chapter 2: We Go South, Quote Page 72 and 73, Longman’s, Green and Company. London, England. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link ↩
- 1908 November 15, The Baltimore Sun, A Visit to a Hospital, Quote Page 18, Column 1, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1927 April 29, The San Francisco Examiner, Better Health by League for Conservation of Public Health, Quote Page 18, Column 6, San Francisco, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 June 22, The Gazette, The Raconteur, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Newspapers_com) link ↩
- 1939 September 23, Daily Mirror, Column: Cassandra, Column Section: No Apologies, Quote Page 8, Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1939 December 16, The Falkirk Herald, Courage (Filler Item), Quote Page 6, Column 4, County: Stirlingshire, Scotland. (British Newspaper Archive) ↩
- 1942 August 14, The Boston Globe, Tickled (Filler Item), Quote Page 12, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1947 March 1, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Section: Parade Magazine, Parade’s Private Wire by Hy Gardner, Quote Page 21, Column 4, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1947 December 23, The Dayton Daily News, President Was Only Person to Applaud by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 30, Column 2,Dayton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩