H. L. Mencken? George Jean Nathan? Errol Flynn? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: During the December holiday season imbibing is commonplace. “Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words” lists ‘ombibulous’ with the following definition: 1
someone who drinks everything (H. L. Mencken).
How is the famous commentator and curmudgeon Mencken connected to this word? Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1920 a piece containing this distinctive word together with the closely related synonym ‘omnibibulous’ appeared in “The Smart Set” magazine with two authors specified in the byline: George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2
As for me, I am prepared to admit some merit in every alcoholic beverage ever devised by the incomparable brain of man, and drink them all when the occasions are suitable—wine with meat, the hard liquors when the soul languishes, beer on jolly evenings. In other words, I am omnibibulous, or, more simply, ombibulous.
The prefix ‘omni’ means all, and ‘bibulous’ means fond of alcoholic beverages sometimes to excess.
In later publications Mencken indicated that the 1920 passage above was his. Mencken did not coin the word ‘omnibibulous’, but QI‘s exploration suggests that he did coin the shortened form ‘ombibulous’. See below for additional selected citations in chronological order.
There was an instance of ‘omnibibulous’ in the February 1833 issue of “The American Quarterly Temperance Magazine”. The periodical remarked on the wide variety of substances that humans were willing to eat and drink: 3
. . . we shall not be less than surprised at the omnivorous and omnibibulous propensities of the paragon of animals.
In 1878 the novel “The Clifton Picture” employed ‘omnibibulous’: 4
Her second specialty was a habit of confiscating any sort of intoxicating liquid that came within reach of her slender fingers. She was omnibibulous. Pale ale, sherry, brandy, or gin never came amiss. Everything alcoholic was grist to her mill.
In 1920 a passage in “The Smart Set” used both ‘omnibibulous’ and ‘ombibulous’ as mentioned previously.
In 1941 H. L. Mencken wrote a piece for “The New Yorker” reminiscing about his days working at “The Morning Herald” in Baltimore Maryland. The article was part of a series called “Days of Innocence”. Mencken described a court reporter named Jake: 5
He was magnificently ombibulous, drinking anything that contained ethyl alcohol, whatever its flavor or provenance.
In 1948 journalist Donald Howe Kirkley Sr. interviewed H. L. Mencken at the request of the Library of Congress, and the audio was recorded. QI listened to the audio via YouTube. Mencken used the word ‘ombibulous’ during the following exchange: 6
H.L. Mencken: I’m actually ombibulous. I drink every known alcohol drink.
Donald Howe Kirkley: What was that word?
H.L. Mencken: Ombibulous.
Donald Howe Kirkley: That’s a very fine word.
H.L. Mencken: I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy ’em all.
Mencken died in January 1956, and a book containing excerpts from his notebooks appeared in that same year under the title “Minority Report”. The following passage is very close to the text from 1920. Its presence in Mencken’s notebooks signals that he was the author and not George Jean Nathan: 7
As for me, I am prepared to admit some merit in every alcoholic beverage ever devised by the incomparable brain of man, and drink them all when the occasions are suitable—wine with meat, the hard liquors when my so-called soul languishes, beer to let me down gently of an evening. In other words, I am omnibibulous, or, more simply, ombibulous.
In 1959 a Tucson, Arizona newspaper reported that heartthrob actor Errol Flynn had used the term: 8
Flynn delighted in imbibing “I am omnibibulous — which means I can hold anything fluid,” he once told his pal, the late Humphrey Bogart.
In 1968 “The Ombibulous Mr. Mencken: A Drinking Biography” by Bud Johns appeared, and the Kirkley interview was mentioned together with a statement that can be heard in the YouTube audio: 9
“I’ve always learned early in life how to handle alcohol and never had any trouble with it,” Mencken told Donald Howe Kirkley, Sr., in a 1948 interview recorded by the Library of Congress and released after his death in 1956.
In 1994 “A Second Mencken Chrestomathy” was published and the passage in the “Minority Report” was reprinted. 10
In conclusion, H. L. Mencken used the words ‘omnibibulous’ and ‘ombibulous’ but ‘omnibibulous’ was already in us. Mencken may have crafted the shortened word in 1920 when he wrote “I am omnibibulous, or, more simply, ombibulous.”
Image Notes: Cocktail on the beach from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Image has been cropped, retouched, and resized.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1980 (1974 Copyright), Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by Josefa Heifetz Byrne, Entry: ombibulous, Quote Page 145, Column 1, University Books: Citadel Press, Secaucus, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1920 February, The Smart Set, Volume 61, Number 2, Répétition Générale by George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken, Start Page 45, Quote Page 47, Column 1, Smart Set Company, Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1833 February, The American Quarterly Temperance Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1, Miscellaneous Notices: Health without Physic, Start Page 84, Quote Page 85, The Executive Committee of the New-York State Temperance Society, Albany, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1878, The Clifton Picture: A Novel by George James Atkinson Coulson (Author name is from the HathiTrust catalog), Chapter 33: Sista, Quote Page 196, J.B. Lippincott & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1941 June 14, The New Yorker, Days of Innocence: VI Souvenirs de la Noblesse Française by H. L. Mencken, Start Page 72, Quote Page 74, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) ↩
- YouTube video, Title: H. L. Mencken Interview, Uploaded on Aug 1, 2013, Uploaded by: Gottfried Leibniz, Description: Donald Howe Kirkley Sr interviewing Henry L Mencken in 1948, Quotation start location: 20 minute 43 seconds, Total length of audio: 57 minutes 43 seconds. (Accessed on youtube.com on December 26, 2019) link ↩
- 1956, Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks by H. L. Mencken, Passage Number 136, Start Page 102, Quote Page 103, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1959 October 15, Tucson Daily Citizen, Flynn Had Three Loves and Women Came First by Rick Du Brow, Quote Page 50, Column 3, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968, The Ombibulous Mr. Mencken: A Drinking Biography by Bud Johns, Quote Page 17, Synergistic Press, San Francisco. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1994, A Second Mencken Chrestomathy: Selected, Revised, and Annotated by H. L. Mencken, Edited by Terry Teachout, Part 25: The Pursuit of Happiness, Reminiscence in the Present Tense, Quote Page 424 and 425, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩