Sliding Down a Barrister

Dorothy Parker? Mae West? Alexander Woollcott? A. E. Mortimer? Mark Barron? Meyer Levin? Billy Boner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The U.S. poet and wit Dorothy Parker has received credit for scandalous wordplay based on the following phrases:

Sliding down a banister
Sliding down a barrister

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared within a January 1933 column published in the “Daily News” of New York City which paid teachers for comical items inadvertently penned by students:[ref] 1933 January 18, Daily News, $2 for Classroom Boners, Quote Page 26, Column 3, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The News will pay $2 for every Classroom Boner published.
A Boner is a humorous expression found in examination papers, etc., by school teachers. Boners must be original. And they must be funny.

A correspondent from Long Island supplied the following item. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:

Billy has a bad habit of sliding down the barristers.
88-24 189th St., Hollis, L. I.

In June 1933 gossip columnist Mark Barron attributed an instance to Dorothy Parker:[ref] 1933 June 12, The Wilkes-Barre Record, A New Yorker At Large by Mark Barron, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

This time she doesn’t plan to drop in on London. “The last time I was in England,” she quipped, “I spent the whole time sliding down barristers.”

In 1934 critic and radio broadcaster Alexander Woollcott published the book “While Rome Burns” which included a chapter about Dorothy Parker containing a different instance of the joke:[ref] 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter: Some Neighbors: IV: Our Mrs. Parker, Quote Page 149, Viking Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

Then I remember her comment on one friend who had lamed herself while in London. It was Mrs. Parker who voiced the suspicion that this poor lady had injured herself while sliding down a barrister.

The above three citations are closely grouped in time; hence, the precise chronology of the wordplay is difficult to discern. Woollcott’s book chapter appeared in preliminary form in an article titled “Our Mrs. Parker” published in “Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan” magazine in August 1933, but Woollcott did not include the quip in the article.[ref] 1933 August, Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, (Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan), “Our Mrs. Parker” by Alexander Woollcott, Start Page 70, (The target quotation was absent), International Magazine Co., New York. (Verified with photocopies; great thanks to the Florida librarians) [/ref]

Here are three hypotheses. One: The wordplay began as a humorous error made by a student which was relayed to the “Daily News”. Dorothy Parker heard the remark, and she employed it. Her prominence caused the quip to be reassigned to her.

Two: The wordplay appeared in the “Daily News”. Dorothy Parker never used the remark, but a columnist or agent decided to reassign it to her because she was a well-known wit. Different versions were assigned to Parker.

Three: Parker crafted the wordplay before 1933. Perhaps she used it during the heyday of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s. Because the quip was somewhat risqué it did not immediately appear in newspapers or magazines although it did circulate. Finally, in 1933 it emerged with an attribution to an anonymous student and to Parker.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1937 writer Meyer Levin mentioned attributions to Mae West and Dorothy Parker in his novel “The Old Bunch”:[ref] 1943 (1937 Copyright), The Old Bunch by Meyer Levin, Book Four: Each in His Place, Chapter: A Century of Progress, Quote Page 856, The Citadel Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Ora was telling a Mae West joke. About how she went to a house-party in England and spent all her time sliding down barristers. Only, he remembered having heard the same joke about Dorothy Parker, a few years ago.

In 1943 John B. Opdycke’ s book “Don’t Say It: A Cyclopedia of English Use and Abuse” included an entry for the word “barrister”. Opdycke credited “Billy Boner”, a generic name for a malaprop prone person:[ref] 1943, Don’t Say It: A Cyclopedia of English Use and Abuse by John B. Opdycke, Entry: Barrister, Quote Page 114, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Billy Boner says he loves to slide down a barrister

In 1944 publisher and quotation collector Bennett Cerf credited Parker in his book “Try and Stop Me”:[ref] 1944, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Chapter: Miss Parker’s Pen, Quote Page 112, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

Miss Parker spent a summer in England. Upon her return she explained that she had devoted the better part of her time to sliding up and down barristers.

In 1951 “The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table” by Margaret Case Harriman credited “Dottie”, i.e., Dorothy Parker:[ref] 1951, The Vicious Circle: The Story of the Algonquin Round Table by Margaret Case Harriman, Chapter 11: How To Be a Wit, Quote Page 224, Rinehart and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

. . . her remark when someone wondered aloud how a certain mutual female acquaintance had managed to break her leg while on a holiday in London. “Probably sliding down a barrister,” Dottie opined.

In 1957 “Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur” by Ben Hecht included the following parenthetical remark:[ref] 1957, Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur by Ben Hecht, Section: Hollywood and Movies, Chapter: The Jute Mills, Quote Page 161, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

I recall Dotty Parker’s remark about a movie actress who said she had been hurt “sliding down a banister.” “Perhaps it was a barrister,” said Miss Parker.

In 1990 “American Literary Anecdotes” by Robert Hendrickson printed this instance of the tale:[ref] 1990, American Literary Anecdotes by Robert Hendrickson, Section: Dorothy Parker (1893-1967), Quote Page 177, Facts on File, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) [/ref]

Returning from London, a noted actress complained to the press that she’d somehow gotten splinters in her derriere over there. “I suppose she got them sliding down a barrister,” Miss Parker remarked.

In conclusion, Dorothy Parker usually receives credit for this wordplay, but QI remains uncertain whether the credit is deserved. The three leading hypotheses are listed near the beginning of this article.

Image Notes: Illustration of a spiral staircase with a banister from OpenClipart-Vectors at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro who inquired about this quip way back in 2010. Shapiro already knew about the excellent 1934 citation. QI began an investigation at that time which was suspended and periodically reinitiated. The January and June 1933 citations were uncovered by QI in 2020 which gave sufficient impetus to publish this article.)

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