Quote Origin: A Camel Is a Horse That Was Designed by a Committee

Charles F. Kettering? Alec Issigonis? T. R. Quaife? Norris Cotton? Paul H. Gilbert? Jimmy Durante? Ed Byron? Georg Christoph Lichtenberg? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: When the opinions of committee members diverge significantly it becomes difficult to formulate a coherent consensus. This notion has been humorously expressed with a clever adage:

A camel is a horse designed by a committee.

U.S. inventor Charles F. Kettering and U.K. automotive designer Alec Issigonis have received credit for this saying, but I am skeptical because I have never seen a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “Reader’s Digest” magazine in September 1954 within a section titled “Toward More Picturesque Speech”. The word ‘horse’ was omitted; hence, the match was incomplete. Yet, the key idea was communicated with the words ‘camel’ and ‘committee’. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

A camel looks like something put together by a committee (T. R. Quaife)

Often sayings published in “Reader’s Digest” were reprinted in other periodicals and achieved wide distribution. For example, the saying above appeared in November 1954 within the “Stockton Evening Record” of Stockton, California. The newspaper acknowledged “Reader’s Digest”.2 The saying also appeared in the “Manchester Evening News” of Manchester, England. The newspaper acknowledged T. R. Quaife.3

In December 1957 the full quip with the word ‘horse’ appeared within a joke published in “Sports Illustrated” magazine:4

Child: Daddy, what is a camel?
Father: What is a what?
Child: What is a camel?
Father: A camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.

Thus, T. R. Quaife is the leading candidate for creator of the core expression using ‘camel’ and ‘committee’. An anonymous person improved the saying by adding the word ‘horse’.

Thematic precursors depicted the humorous transformation of animals such as the donkey, horse, camel, and cow. Below is an overview with dates representing the evolution of the joke:

1801: Der Esel kommt mir vor wie ein Pferd ins Holländische übersetzt. (Georg Christoph Lichtenberg) Translation: The donkey seems to me like a horse translated into Dutch.

1946 Feb: Daffynition: CAMEL: A warped horse. (Paul H. Gilbert)

1949 Nov: A camel is a horse that swallowed its saddle. (Attributed to Jimmy Durante)

1950 Oct: “What is your definition of a camel?” “That’s a cow upside down.” (Billy Glason)

1954 Sep: A camel looks like something put together by a committee (Attributed to T. R. Quaife in “Reader’s Digest”)

1955 Nov: Even a camel reminds you of an animal that was put together by a committee. (Anonymous)

1956 Feb: giraffe—it’s the kind of an animal that looks like it had been put together by a committee. (Anonymous)

1957 Apr: camel—a beast that looks as if it had been designed by a committee. (Anonymous)

1957 Dec: Child: What is a camel? Father: A camel is a horse that was designed by a committee. (Anonymous)

1958 Feb: A camel is a horse put together by a TV network planning board. (Credited to Ed Byron by Leonard Lyons)

1958 Mar: Heard the new definition of a camel? It’s a race horse designed by a committee. (Anonymous)

1958 Jul: The refreshed definition of a camel: a horse planned by a committee. (Anonymous)

1959 Jun: Definition of a camel: this is “a greyhound put together by a committee.” (Anonymous)

1961 Apr: A camel is a horse designed by a committee. (Attributed to Charles F. Kettering)

1964 Jul: The camel was an example of a horse designed by a committee. (Attributed to Alec Issigonis)

Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.

Image Notes: Illustration of two camels from Sebastian Laube at Unsplash.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Jeff Braemer whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to researcher Nigel Rees who pointed to the saying by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Additional thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research. Popik located the 1957 “Sports Illustrated” citation and other helpful citations.

[1] 1954 September, Reader’s Digest, Volume 65, Number 389, Toward More Picturesque Speech, Quote Page 128, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

[2] 1954 November 2, Stockton Evening Record, Section: Editorial Page, Scissors: A Roundup of Best Humor, Quote Page 30, Column 5, Stockton, California. (Newspapers_com)

[3] 1954 November 15, Manchester Evening News, Mr. Manchester’s Diary, Quote Page 4, Column 9, Manchester, Greater Manchester, England. (Newspapers_com)

[4] 1957 December 9, Sports Illustrated, Events & Discoveries, Start Page 22, Quote Page 23, Column 1, Time Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)

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