Dictionary: The Only Place Where Divorce Comes Before Marriage

Evan Esar? Jacob M. Braude? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: You have already explored a quip about success and work that cleverly referred to their alphabetical order. I’ve seen a similar joke about divorce and marriage:

The dictionary is the only place where divorce comes before marriage.

Which of these two jests emerged first? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of the divorce quip known to QI appeared in “The Yonkers Statesman” in April 1902. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1902 April 19, The Yonkers Statesman, Whim-Whams, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Yonkers, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Patience: “Polly has found something wrong with the dictionary.”
Patrice: “Indeed! What is it?”
“She’s discovered that divorce comes before marriage.”

This joke was reprinted in several other newspapers in May 1902 such as “The Daily Morning Journal and Courier” of New Haven, Connecticut [ref] 1902 May 3, The Daily Morning Journal and Courier, Unnecessary, Quote Page 4, Column 4, New Haven, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] and “The Times-Democrat” of New Orleans, Louisiana.[ref] 1902 May 13, The Times-Democrat, All Sorts, Quote Page 6, Column 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] Both of these papers acknowledged “The Yonkers Statesman”.

In June 1902 a short version of the quip appeared in the “Dexter Advocate” of Dexter, Kansas:[ref] 1902 June 13, Dexter Advocate, (Filler item), Quote Page 7, Column 1, Dexter, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Divorce comes before marriage in the dictionary.

In 1906 a different instance appeared in “The Inter Ocean” of Chicago, Illinois:[ref] 1906 September 4, The Inter Ocean, Divorce Before Marriage (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 3,Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“Do you know that there’s a place where divorce come before marriage?”
“Not at all. It’s in the dictionary.”—Boston Transcript.

An article exploring the dictionary joke about duty and pleasure is available here. This joke entered circulation by 1912 in the pages of the “The Iola Register” of Kansas:[ref] 1912 July 29, The Iola Register, Quaker Meditations (From the Philadelphia Record), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Iola, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The one place where duty always comes before pleasure is in the dictionary.

An article exploring the dictionary joke about success and work is available here. This joke entered circulation by 1934 in the pages of the “Oklahoma City Star”:[ref] 1934 July 20, Oklahoma City Star, (Filler item), Section M2, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“The only place where SUCCESS comes before WORK is in the dictionary.”—Clipped.

In 1961 “Humorous English” by Evan Esar discussed this category of wordplay:[ref] 1961, Humorous English by Evan Esar, Chapter 11: Lexicography, Quote Page 130, Horizon Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

In humorous lexicography the word dictionary is usually defined as the only place where certain things can always be found, like happiness, and where things precede and follow one another in reverse order. Thursday comes after Friday, divorce comes before marriage, and pride goeth after, not before, destruction.

Also in 1961, Jacob M. Braude’s “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Humor” printed this entry:[ref] 1961, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Humor, Compiled by Jacob M. Braude, Quote Page 272, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) [/ref]

1. the only place where divorce comes before marriage.
2. a book in which one word leads to another.

In conclusion, the divorce-marriage saying under examination was in circulation by 1902, and its originator was anonymous. The duty-pleasure saying was circulating by 1912. The success-work saying was circulating by 1934.

Image Notes: Picture of an open book from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay.

(Thanks to Ben Zimmer for a valuable discussion about sayings referring to the lexicographical ordering of word pairs such as duty-pleasure, success-work, and divorce-marriage. Zimmer located the earliest April 19, 1902 citation for the divorce-marriage quip.)

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