They Crawl Back Into the Woodwork

Dorothy Parker? Alexander Woollcott? Bennett Cerf? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The idiom “to crawl out of the woodwork” refers to an unpleasant person or thing that quickly emerges from hiding or obscurity. The companion idiom “to crawl back into the woodwork” refers to the person or thing disappearing.

The authoritative Oxford English Dictionary has citations beginning in 1964, but I think the famous wit Dorothy Parker helped to popularize the latter expression starting in the 1930s. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1933 the influential critic Alexander Woollcott published a profile of Dorothy Parker titled “Our Mrs. Parker” in “Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan” magazine. He described a “dreadful week-end” visiting the country home of a host named Nellie. The group included bohemians who would “bathe infrequently, if ever”. Dorothy Parker was a fellow guest, and Woollcott asked for her opinion of the unwelcome companions. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I could not help wondering how Nellie managed to round them up, and where they might be found at other times. Mrs. Parker looked at them pensively. “I think,” she whispered, “that they crawl back into the woodwork.”

Parker’s witticism was widely distributed, and QI conjectures that the modern idioms emerged, in part, because of her remark.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1934 Alexander Woollcott reprinted a collection of his pieces from various magazines such as “The New Yorker”, and the profile of Parker was included. 2

In August 1934 the mass-circulation periodical “The Reader’s Digest” published a collection of miscellaneous humorous items under the title “By Way of Rejoinder”. Parker’s quip appeared within a short excerpt reprinted from “While Rome Burns”. 3

In 1944, the anecdote collector Bennett Cerf published “Try and Stop Me”, and he included a version of the tale in which Parker asked and answered her own query: 4

Over the coffee, she asked her dinner partner, “Where on earth do these people come from? I bet when the evening is over, they’ll all crawl back into the woodwork.”

In 1945 “Modern Humor for Effective Speaking” by Edward Frank Allen included a variant story which relocated the party to the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan: 5

Her companion said to her, “Where on earth do these people come from and where do they stay the rest of the time?”

“I think,” Miss Parker said gravely, “that after it’s over they crawl back into the woodwork.”

In 1970 the biographical work “You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker” suggested that the sharp-tongued author was sometimes two-faced with acquaintances: 6

“Oh, darling,” she could say to a woman, “how good it is to see you again! I’ve been thinking of you all week-of how good and kind and generous you are. Why is it that we never see each other?”

Then, as the woman moved away, she could mutter, as if to herself, “Do you suppose she came out of the woodwork?”

In conclusion, Dorothy Parker employed the phrase “crawl back into the woodwork” sometime before 1933 according to Alexander Woollcott. In that time period, the figure of speech was considered original, vivid, and funny; hence, it was reprinted and shared. Now it has become an idiom.

Image Notes: Picture of wood from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

Notes:

  1. 1933 August, Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, (Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan), “Our Mrs. Parker” by Alexander Woollcott, Quote Page 90, Column 1, International Magazine Co., New York. (Verified with photocopies; Thanks to local and remote librarians)
  2. 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter “Some Neighbors: IV: Our Mrs. Parker”, Quote Pages 149 and 150, Viking Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1934 August, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 25, By Way of Rejoinder, Quote Page 12, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  4. 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Section: Miss Parker’s Pen, Start Page 110, Quote Page 112, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  5. 1945, Modern Humor for Effective Speaking by Edward Frank Allen, Section: Social Graces, Entry Number 358, Quote Page 64, Dover Publications, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1970, You Might as Well Live: The Life and Times of Dorothy Parker, Chapter 4, Quote Page 100, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified in paper)