You Can Always Tell a Harvard / Yale Student, But You Can’t Tell Them Much

William Howard Taft? Arthur Twining Hadley? Zora Neale Hurston? James Barnes? Wigg? Wagg? LeBaron Russell Briggs? Joseph Choate? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: The rivalry between the universities Yale and Harvard exists in the domain of quips. The following jests use wordplay based on two different meanings of “tell”:

(1) You always can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.
(2) It’s easy enough to tell a Yale man, but you can’t tell him much.

Can you determine the original target of this barb? Would you please explore this family of jibes?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match for this joke template located by QI appeared in December 1886 within the “Democrat and Chronicle” of Rochester, New York which acknowledged a Somerville, Massachusetts newspaper. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1886 December 3, Democrat and Chronicle, Came With the Cold Wave, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“You can always tell a man who has once been a clerk in a hotel,” says an exchange. Our experience has always been that you can’t tell him much. He thinks he knows it all.—Somerville Journal.

Thus, the first target of this barb was a hotel clerk and not a college student. During the ensuing decades the template was filled with a wide variety of entities. By 1895 the quip was aimed at the “Yale man”, and by 1906 the “Harvard man” was criticized.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1886 the gag about the hotel clerk also appeared in other newspapers such as “The South-Bend Daily Tribune” of South Bend, Indiana[ref] 1886 December 8, The South-Bend Daily Tribune, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 4, South Bend, Indiana. (GenealogyBank) [/ref] and the “Evening Bulletin” of San Francisco, California.[ref] 1886 December 10, Evening Bulletin (San Francisco Bulletin), All Sorts of Items, Quote Page 4, Column 4, San Francisco, California. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

In June 1895 “The Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts published a collection of witty remarks under the title “Editorial Points” including the following:[ref] 1895 June 30, The Boston Sunday Globe, Editorial Points (continued), Quote Page 20, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) [/ref]

It’s easy enough to tell a Yale man anywhere this year, but you can’t tell him much.

The quip immediately above appeared in other newspapers such as “The Daily Inter Ocean” of Chicago, Illinois[ref] 1895 July 6, The Daily Inter Ocean, Paragraphic Punches, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) [/ref] and the “Wood County Reporter” of Grand Rapids, Wisconsin.[ref] 1895 July 25, Wood County Reporter, Contemporaneous Thought, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Grand Rapids, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] Both of these papers acknowledged “The Boston Globe”.

In July 1895 “The Wichita Daily Eagle” of Kansas printed this variant:[ref] 1895 July 7, The Wichita Daily Eagle, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Wichita, Kansas. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

An exchange says you can tell a Populist anywhere this year. Yes, but you can’t tell him much.

In 1902 another variant of the quip returned to the pages of the “Democrat and Chronicle” of Rochester, New York which acknowledged the “Yonkers Statesman”:[ref] 1902 August 2, Democrat and Chronicle, Not Much (Acknowledge Yonkers Statesman), Quote Page 6, Column 7, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Redd—Can you always tell a beginner on the golf links?
Greene—Well, as a rule, you can’t tell him much.

In 1903 the “Democrat and Chronicle” printed yet another variant:[ref] 1903 May 17, Democrat and Chronicle, Can’t Tell Him Much, Quote Page 12, Column 4, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Can’t Tell Him Much.
Wigg—I can always tell a college graduate.
Wagg—Huh! I bet you can’t tell him much.
—Philadelphia Record.

In 1905 “The Evansville Courier” shared this version with readers:[ref] 1905 July 2, The Evansville Courier, Auto Facts and Fancies, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Evansville, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Jinks—Can’t you always tell a beginner in automobiling?
Spinks—Well, as a rule, you can’t tell him much.

In February 1906 Yale graduate William Howard Taft employed the joke while addressing a banquet of the Associated Western Yale Clubs in St. Louis, Missouri. Taft had recently been the U.S. Secretary of War under President Theodore Roosevelt who was a Harvard graduate. Taft was soon to become President himself in 1909:[ref] 1906 February 25, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Taft Presidential Boom Is Successful on His St. Louis Trip (Continuation title: Yale Alum Elect Taft), Section 3, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, Column 3, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

By way of a jest at Harvard, the speaker told of “culture which fits a man to shine in Boston and makes him intolerable anywhere else.” He also said one could always tell a Harvard man, “but you can’t tell him much.” This brought a roar from his auditors, who recalled that President Roosevelt is a Harvard man.

He then spoke of President Roosevelt’s appreciation of Yale men, as shown by the number of them whom he has appointed to office.

A few days after Taft’s speech a columnist in “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” printed a riposte:[ref] 1906 February 27, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, On the Suburban Train by Clark McAdams, Quote Page 10, Column 7, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“I see Secretary Taft told the Yale Club that you can tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much,” said the Insurance Man, looking up from his early-morning work of winnowing tidbits from the paper.

“I don’t believe a Yale man could tell a Harvard man much,” said the Boss Printer.

In May 1906 Harvard Professor LeBaron Russell Briggs addressed the Associated Harvard Clubs in Chicago, Illinois. Briggs attributed an instance of the joke to Arthur Twining Hadley who was the President of Yale University:[ref] 1906 May 27, The Chicago Sunday Tribune, Owe Harvard Big Debt, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Prof L. B. R. Briggs, who was introduced as “the dean” of Harvard university, reminded his audience of the friendly quip of President Hadley of Yale that “you always can tell a Harvard man when you see him, but you can’t tell him much.”

In 1908 the book “Which College for the Boy?” credited an instance of the joke to an author associated with Princeton:[ref] 1908, Which College for the Boy? by John Corbin, Chapter 2: Harvard, Quote Page 54, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

“You can always tell a Harvard man,” James Barnes of Princeton once remarked. “But you can’t tell him much.”

In April 1909 “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York reported that the toastmaster at the annual dinner of the local Dutch Church Club employed the joke:[ref] 1909 April 1, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dutch Church Club Enjoys Annual Dinner, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Before introducing the first speaker, however, Toastmaster Reiley said: “Joseph Choate once said, ‘You can tell a Harvard man, but you cannot tell him much.’ I can’t tell you men much because I know you too well.”

In December 1909 “Wilson County Citizen” of Fredonia, Kansas published the following:[ref] 1909 December 31, Wilson County Citizen, An Interesting Story of Marrying, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Fredonia, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“Marrying is a serious business,” said Judge Johnston, “and nearly every couple acts just like the others. You can tell a would-be bride and groom easily.”

But, as the comedian says, you can’t tell them much, at least not the bride. The bride nearly always runs things.

In 1910 “The Atchison Daily Globe” of Kansas shared this version of the joke:[ref] 1910 March 25, The Atchison Daily Globe, Globe Sights, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Atchison, Kansas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“I am glad to see so many college men present,” said a public speaker. “You can always tell college men. But you can’t tell them much.”

In 1911 Mrs. John Van Buren Thayer delivered an address at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary, a New York school for women. She referred to the joke indirectly:[ref] 1911 February 12, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Heights Seminary Sixty Years Old, Section 1, Quote Page 3, Column 1,Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

But while we may feel a just pride in the achievements of our alma mater and may be glad to be recognized as B. H. S. girls. I hope it will never be said of us as it was of the graduates of a certain university: ‘You can always tell them, but you can’t tell them much.’

In 1942 notable author Zora Neale Hurston published “Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography” which contained the following:[ref] 1942, Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography by Zora Neale Hurston, Chapter 9: School Again, Quote Page 164, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; facsimile reprinted in 1969 by Arno Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

They say the same thing about a Howard man that they do about Harvard—you can tell a Howard man as far as you can see him, but you can’t tell him much.

Also, in 1942 H. L. Mencken published “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources” which included the following entry:[ref] 1942, A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources, Selected and Edited by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Section: Harvard University, Quote Page 514, Alfred A. Knopf. New York. (Verified with hardcopy)[/ref]

You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.
Ascribed to JAMES BARNES ( 1866-1936 )

In conclusion, the earliest instance of this joke family uncovered by QI appeared in December 1886. The barb was aimed at hotel clerks. The creator was anonymous. In June 1895 “The Boston Sunday Globe” aimed the barb at the Yale man. The creator of this variant was also anonymous.

The populist, beginner on the golf links, college graduate, beginner in automobiling and many others have all been criticized. In 1906 William Howard Taft told a version of the joke focused on the Harvard man.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of the Yale College campus in New Haven circa 1807. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been resized.

(The “Yale Alumni Magazine” of May 2012 contained an article which discussed this quip and mentioned the May 27, 1906 citation. The article inspired QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research on this topic. Popik found a January 1, 1887 citation and many others.)

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