Paragraphing Consists of Stroking a Platitude Until It Purrs Like an Epigram

Don Marquis? Christopher Morley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Crafting a bright witticism or a clever aphorism is a difficult task especially for a writer who is facing a tight deadline. One strategy is described as follows:

Stroke a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.

This remark has been ascribed to Don Marquis who was a popular columnist and storyteller based in New York City. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Don Marquis wrote a daily column called “The Sun Dial” for “The Evening Sun” of New York for more than a decade. He also wrote for other papers such as “The New York Herald Tribune” and the “Buffalo Evening News”. However, some of his writings have not yet been digitized which impedes research.

The earliest match located by QI appeared as a short item in a Hutchinson, Kansas newspaper in February 1921. The term “paragraphing” meant composing stylish and entertaining paragraphs for periodicals. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Don Marquis who really should know, says the art of newspaper paragraphing “consists of stroking a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.”

This citation provides indirect evidence. And QI currently believes Marquis is the most likely creator of the saying. A matching expression occurred directly in a column by Marquis by 1925, and he sometimes repeated sayings in his columns. Interestingly, the saying was also used by his friend and fellow journalist Christopher Morley who did not credit Marquis.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In March 1921 a newspaper in St. Joseph, Missouri credited Marquis and pointed to “The New York Sun” although the column of Marquis actually appeared in “The Evening Sun”: 2

We might take a tip from Don Marquis, who said in the New York Sun: “The art of newspaper paragraphing often consists of stroking a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.”

In April 1922 a book reviewer in a Baltimore, Maryland newspaper attributed the remark to Christopher Morley. The acronym T.B.M meant Tired Business Man: 3

The T. B. M. makes no new discoveries about women, but by following Christopher Morley’s advice to “stroke a platitude until it purrs like an epigram” he manages to be fairly amusing.

In June 1922 Morley delivered a speech to a meeting of librarians, and he employed a variant phrase with the word “patting”: 4

The second speaker was Christopher Morley, who gave his usual humorous and entertaining address. Altho scheduled to speak on “The anatomy of biblioprudence,” Mr Morley discussed among other things, the art of public speaking, which he said, consists in “patting a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.”

Don Marquis published a column called “The Lantern” in “The New York Herald Tribune” which was syndicated to other papers. Marquis printed the saying in his column in May 1925: 5

The art of newspaper paragraphing often consists in stroking a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.

In 1938 the eleventh edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” contained the following entry: 6

DONALD ROBERT PERRY MARQUIS
[1878-1937]
To stroke a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.
The Sun Dial

The 1962 biography “O Rare Don Marquis” by Edward Anthony credited Marquis with this: 7

The art of newspaper paragraphing is to stroke a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.

In 1972 a California paper printed capsule descriptions for a collection of new books. A book by the well-known satirist Russell Baker was described via a single sentence: 8

Poor Russell’s Almanac, by Russell Baker (Doubleday, $6.05)
By a columnist “extremely talented at stroking a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.

In conclusion, QI believes that Don Marquis deserves credit for this saying although the original phrasing remains uncertain. The 1925 version unequivocally appeared in a column by Marquis. Perhaps the original version and the provenance will be clarified when issues of “The Evening Sun” of New York from the early twentieth century are digitized. It is conceivable that Christopher Morley crafted the saying, but the earliest two citations point to Marquis.

(Many thanks to Dan Goncharoff who located and accessed the important citation in “The New York Herald Tribune”.)

Notes:

  1. 1921 February 15, The Hutchinson Gazette, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Hutchinson, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1921 March 20, St. Joseph Gazette, The Gazetteer, Quote Page 4, Column 6, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1922 April 15, The Evening Sun, Section: Books To Be Read or Read About, Briefer Mention (Book review of “Reflections of a T.B.M” by Himself; T.B.M is an acronym for Tired Business Man) Quote Page 8, Column 6, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1922 June, Public Libraries Monthly, Volume 27, Number 6, Meetings at Atlantic City: The Pennsylvania library club, Quote Page 353, Column 1, Library Bureau, Chicago, Illinois. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1925 May 26, The New York Herald Tribune, The Lantern (Copyright New York Tribune Inc.) by Don Marquis, Quote Page 14, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest)
  6. 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Entry: Donald Robert Perry Marquis (1878-1937), Quote Page 853, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1962, O Rare Don Marquis: A Biography by Edward Anthony, Chapter 11, Quote Page 354, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  8. 1972 July 30, Oakland Sunday Tribune, Mid-Year Report: A Reader’s Checklist, Quote Page 29EN, Column 4, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com)