She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them

Who Said the Quote? Dorothy Parker? Richard Henry Little? Alexander Woollcott?

Who was the Polyglot? Winifred Stackville Stoner? Merle Oberon?

Dear Quote Investigator: My question differs from most. Here is a quotation of admiration with a stinger that I would like you to investigate:

That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say “No” in any of them.

Dorothy Parker receives credit for this quip in multiple reference books. What interests me is the identity of the polyglot woman. Can you figure out who Parker was talking about?

Quote Investigator: Like many of the sayings assigned to Parker that have persisted in the cultural milieu this phrase is risqué. The earliest attribution of the quote to Parker located by QI occurs in 1933.

But QI has also found an earlier citation for a close variant of this joke in 1931 that is not credited to Parker. The witticism was written by a Chicago Tribune columnist, Richard Henry Little, who was writing about a former child prodigy named Winifred Stackville Stoner, Jr. The text of the article reveals a different interpretation to the notion of saying “No”. Little’s gag is not focused on promiscuity; instead, it refers to multiple marriages [RLWS]:

… it was proudly proclaimed that Winifred could speak twelve languages. But apparently Winifred never learned to say “No” in any of them and hiked up to the altar as fast as anybody suggested the idea.

It is possible that Little heard a joke from Parker and then modified it to create a less provocative version that applied to Winifred Stackville Stoner. Alternatively, Little’s jest may have been modified to create a ribald version that fit the wisecracking persona of Parker.

Continue reading She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them

“Our host certainly is outspoken.” “Outspoken by whom?”

Dorothy Parker? Punch Humor Magazine? Sally’s Sallies Comic Strip? Ann Landers?

Dear Quote Investigator: Previously you discussed a quote of Dorothy Parker’s which was self-critical, but she also directed her barbs at others. Here is an example [LWO]:

When a garrulous old battle-ax was praised as “outspoken,” Mrs. Parker raised an eyebrow to take dead aim: “Outspoken? By whom?”

I would like to know if Parker really said this, and if she did who was the “battle-ax”?  Could you trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will attempt to locate examples of this quip, but the targets of witty remarks sometimes remain anonymous in newspaper accounts.

QI has found citations for this word-play joke that show it is more than one-hundred years old. Thus, it predates the seminal Algonquin Round table period. The quip is first attributed to Dorothy Parker on or before 1944. Here are selected citations in reverse-chronological order.

Continue reading “Our host certainly is outspoken.” “Outspoken by whom?”

I was the Toast of Two Continents: Greenland and Australia

Dorothy Parker? Robert Benchley? Frank Sullivan?

Dear Quote Investigator: The writer Dorothy Parker was famous for her clever and barbed witticisms. Her remarks were often aimed at others, but sometimes she laughed at herself with a self-deprecating comment. I particularly enjoy the statement she made when asked about her fame:

Yes, I once was the toast of two continents: Greenland and Australia.

I laughed when I heard this, but then I began to wonder. Greenland is not really a continent, and Parker must have known this fact. Maybe this picayune detail is irrelevant, but maybe it shows that this quote is a fake. Perhaps Dorothy Parker never said it. Would you please investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will examine this saying for you. It is true that Greenland is not a continent, but it is the largest island that is not a continent, and QI still thinks that the joke is funny. Nevertheless, there is evidence that Parker originally told a different version of this joke. Specifically, Parker is quoted in 1956 stating that she was the toast of two continents. But the two continents that she names differ from the two geographical regions mentioned in the quotation above.

Continue reading I was the Toast of Two Continents: Greenland and Australia