Don’t ASS-U-ME Anything

Oscar Wilde? Felix Unger? Tony Randall? John Glick? Clarence L. Lollar? Dick West? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Making unfounded assumptions causes endless difficulties. A clever quip highlighting this problem is based on splitting a word into three parts:

It is dangerous to assume because you might make an “ass” out of “u” and “me”.

This joke was told in a episode of the popular television sitcom “The Odd Couple” in 1973. Did the authors of the teleplay create this joke?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1957 advertisement published in an Espanola, New Mexico newspaper. The advertiser was an automobile insurance provider called the Horace DeVargas Agency, but QI believes the joke was already in circulation, and the attribution should be anonymous. Boldface added to excerpts: 1

. . . I urge you, as a driver, to observe the rules of traffic and highway safety in the operation of your car.

Don’t ass-u-me anything, when you drive because, you’ll make an ass of u and me—ass-u-me.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1958 the fashion magazine “Women’s Wear Daily” described a blackboard used for training people at the J. W. Robinson Company. The words “Get Facts, Don’t Assume” were written on the board: 2

John Glick, store manager, uses this frequently in his managerial training program. “Get facts,” he says, “Don’t Assume. Because when you do you make an ASS of U and ME.”

In 1964 “Combat Crew: Strategic Air Command” printed an editorial by Colonel Clarence L. Lollar who repeated some emphatic advice he was given by his commander: 3

Mister, when you have an important job to do never assume. When you look at the word you can see it is made up of three parts—ass u and me. When you rely on assumptions, sooner or later it will make an ass of both of us.

In 1966 a Redlands, California newspaper printed a column containing a lesson from news editor Dick West: 4

“Do you know what happens when a newspaper reporter assumes the accuracy of something he should have checked? He makes an ass out of you and me. Here, I’ll show you.”

He then takes pencil in hand, and writes “assume”, to be read aloud, as follows: “ASS-U-ME.”

In 1973 the television series “The Odd Couple” included the joke within an episode titled “My Strife in Court”. 5 The character Felix Unger played by Tony Randall wrote the word “ASSUME” on a blackboard, and he delivered the punchline while circling “ASS”, “U”, and “ME” in sequence: 6

Miss Olem, you should never assume because when you assume you make an ass of you and me.

In 2011 the book “Affiliate Program Management: An Hour a Day” implausibly assigned the quip to the famous wit Oscar Wilde who died in 1900: 7

Remember Oscar Wilde’s words, “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”

In 2012 the important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” included an entry for this saying with illustrative citations beginning in 1975. 8

In conclusion, the earliest instance located by QI appeared in the advertising copy of an automobile insurance company in 1957. QI doubts that the joke was crafted by this particular copywriter. Thus, QI suggest that the attribution remains anonymous. Also, the ascription to Oscar Wilde is unsupported.

Image Notes: Public domain image of a painting of “Two donkeys” by Isaac Israels circa 1901. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Lee Spilberg whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Spilberg told QI about the episode of “The Odd Couple” containing the joke. Also, thanks to mailing list discussants Jim Landau, Barry Popik, Laurence Horn, Dave Wilton, and John Baker.)

Notes:

  1. 1957 December 26, Rio Grande Sun, (Advertisement from Horace DeVargas Agency, auto insurance company), Quote Page 10, Column 6, Espanola, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1958 May 28, Women’s Wear Daily, Volume 96, Issue 105, (Untitled short article), Quote Page 10, Column 5, Fairchild Media of Penske Media Corporation, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1964 February, Combat Crew: Strategic Air Command, Volume 14, Number 8, Editorial – Never Assume by Colonel Clarence L. Lollar (Deputy Chief, Safety Division, SAC), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Headquarters SAC, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1966 January 27, Redlands Daily Facts, With a Grain Of Salt by Frank and Bill Moore, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Redlands, California. (Newspapers_com)
  5. U.S. Television Series: The Odd Couple, Season 3, Episode 19, Executive producers: Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, Episode Title: My Strife in Court, Episode writers: Lowell Ganz and Mark Rothman, Air Date: February 16, 1973, Production Company: Paramount Television, Broadcaster: ABC Television Network. (Data from IMDB; Quotation verified with video)
  6. YouTube video, Title: Felix Unger Assume, Uploaded on April 7, 2012, Uploaded by: shortvideos, (Quotation starts at 1 minute 2 seconds of 1 minutes 41 seconds) (This video excerpt is from “The Odd Couple” television series; Episode: My Strife in Court; Broadcast in 1973), (Accessed on youtube.com on Feb 7, 2021) link
  7. 2011, Affiliate Program Management: An Hour a Day by Evgenii Prussakov, Quote Page 359, John Wiley and Sons, Hoboken New Jersey. (Google Books Preview)
  8. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 9, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)