“Is Your New Baby a Boy Or a Girl?” “Yes”

Bertrand Russell? Leo Rosten? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent British philosopher and essayist Bertrand Russell co-wrote an important book of classical logic titled “Principia Mathematica”. An anecdote about Russell is based on a humorously rigorous logical interpretation of a question. A colleague spoke to Russell shortly after his wife had a baby:

“Congratulations. Is it a girl or a boy?”

Do you think this story is genuine or apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this anecdote is apocryphal; however, it was probably derived from a passage that appeared in Bertrand Russell’s 1940 book “An Inquiry Into Meaning And Truth” which discussed the interpretation of logical disjunction. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1940 (1956 Fifth Impression), An Inquiry Into Meaning And Truth by Bertrand Russell, The William James Lectures for 1940 Delivered at Harvard University, Chapter 5: Logical Words, Quote Page 85 and 86, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

The following conversation might occur between a medical logician and his wife. “Has Mrs. So-and-So had her child?” “Yes.” “Is it a boy or a girl?” “Yes.” The last answer, though logically impeccable, would be infuriating.

The answerer would normally understand that the questioner wished to know the sex of the child. Instead, the answerer unhelpfully indicated that the sex of the child fell within the set {male, female}. Nowadays, there is greater awareness of intersex children, so the interpretation of this scenario would be more complex.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1941 Russell’s book was examined and praised in “The Saturday Review”. The passage above was reprinted; hence, the quip was further distributed:[ref] 1941 January 25, The Saturday Review, Volume 23, Number 14, Language Hierarchy by Hugh Walpole (Book Review of Bertrand Russell’s “An Inquiry Into Meaning and Truth”), Start Page 10, Quote Page 10, The Saturday Review Company Inc., New York. (Unz) [/ref]

The book is full of linguistic illustrations, which point and explain the distinctions the author makes between his various levels of language. “Or” is particularly favored. “The following conversation might occur between a medical logician and his wife. ‘Has Mrs. So-and-So had her child?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ ‘Yes.’ The last answer, though logically impeccable, would be infuriating.”

In 1989 “Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter” appeared, and in the preface the author discussed the types of jokes he enjoyed the most:[ref] 1989, Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter: The greatest jokes, one-liners, bloopers, and stories for everyone who loves to laugh by Leo Rosten (Leo Calvin Rosten), Preface: The Strategy of Humor, Quote Page 6, Bonanza Books, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

The japeries that ignite my most grateful laughter are those which are built upon so conventional and matter-of-fact a framework that their climax is completely unexpected:

Rosten’s example jest fit into the family discussed by Russell:

“Stella, is it true that you’re going to have a baby?”
“How wonderful! Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?”

In 1994 “The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes” included the following without attribution:[ref] 1994, The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes, Wisecracks, Quips, and Quotes, Compiled by Fred Metcalf, Topic: Babies, Quote Page 17, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Is your baby a boy or a girl?
Of course. What else could it be?

In 1996 “Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit” presented another close variant of the joke:[ref] 1996 (1994 Copyright), Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit From Aristotle to Woody Allen, Compiled by Leo Rosten, Topic: Youth, Quote Page 538, Plume: Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Two women emerge from a gynecologist’s clinic: “Well, I see you’re pregnant, too!”
“Thank God,” said the second woman.
“Are you hoping for a boy or a girl?”
Not a split second passed before the answer: “Certainly.”

In 2005 “Mathematical Apocrypha Redux: More Stories and Anecdotes of Mathematicians and the Mathematical” printed a brief fanciful tale about Russell:[ref] 2005 Copyright, Mathematical Apocrypha Redux: More Stories and Anecdotes of Mathematicians and the Mathematical, Compiled and edited by Steven G. Krantz, Chapter 3: Utter Utterances, Quote Page 87, The Mathematical Association of America, Washington, D.C. (Google Books Preview) [/ref]

When Bertrand Russell had, by his second wife, a first child, a friend accosted him with, “Congratulations, Bertie! Is it a girl or a boy?” Russell replied, “Yes, of course, what else could it be?”

In conclusion, Bertrand Russell included this joke in his 1940 book as an illustration of the misinterpretation of the word “or”. QI hypothesizes that he concocted the jest. It is conceivable that Russell delivered the quip to a friend, but QI believes that it is more likely that the anecdote above is apocryphal. Leo Rosten printed a gag that was already in circulation.

(Great thanks to Nigel Rees whose mention of this topic in the October 2019 issue of “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter” led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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