Dorothy Parker? Alexander Woollcott? Bennett Cerf? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The idiom “to crawl out of the woodwork” refers to an unpleasant person or thing that quickly emerges from hiding or obscurity. The companion idiom “to crawl back into the woodwork” refers to the person or thing disappearing.
The authoritative Oxford English Dictionary has citations beginning in 1964, but I think the famous wit Dorothy Parker helped to popularize the latter expression starting in the 1930s. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1933 the influential critic Alexander Woollcott published a profile of Dorothy Parker titled “Our Mrs. Parker” in “Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan” magazine. He described a “dreadful week-end” visiting the country home of a host named Nellie. The group included bohemians who would “bathe infrequently, if ever”. Dorothy Parker was a fellow guest, and Woollcott asked for her opinion of the unwelcome companions. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
I could not help wondering how Nellie managed to round them up, and where they might be found at other times. Mrs. Parker looked at them pensively. “I think,” she whispered, “that they crawl back into the woodwork.”
Parker’s witticism was widely distributed, and QI conjectures that the modern idioms emerged, in part, because of her remark.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1933 August, Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, (Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan), “Our Mrs. Parker” by Alexander Woollcott, Quote Page 90, Column 1, International Magazine Co., New York. (Verified with photocopies; Thanks to local and remote librarians) ↩