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:[1] 1886 December 3, Democrat and Chronicle, Came With the Cold Wave, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)

“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.

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

References

References
1 1886 December 3, Democrat and Chronicle, Came With the Cold Wave, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Rochester, New York. (Newspapers_com)