Whilst I Write This Letter, I Hold a Sword In One Hand, and a Pistol In the Other

Boyle Roche? Joe Miller? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A comically incoherent or absurd statement is sometimes called a bull or an Irish bull. Here is an example:

I am writing this letter with a sword in one hand and a pistol in the other.

If the writer is not a three-handed alien then this statement is nonsensical. The Irish politician Boyle Roche has received credit for this remark. Would you please explore its provenance.

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1802 joke book titled “New Joe Miller, Or, The Tickler: Containing Near Two Thousand Good Things”. The book included a clearly fictional letter supposedly sent during an Irish rebellion from an unnamed Irish Member of Parliament to a friend in London. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

We are in a pretty mess—can get nothing to eat, nor any wine to drink, except whiskey; and when we sit down to dinner, we are obliged to keep both hands armed; whilst I write this letter, I hold a sword in one hand, and a pistol in the other. I concluded from the beginning that this would be the end of it; and I see I was right, for it is not half over yet.—At present, there are such goings on, that every thing is at a stand.

I should have answered your letter a fortnight ago, but I only received it this morning. Indeed, hardly a mail arrives safe, without being robbed.

The letter continued for a few more paragraphs and ended with the following:

P.S. If you do not receive this in course, it must have miscarried; therefore, I beg you will immediately write to let me know.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Whilst I Write This Letter, I Hold a Sword In One Hand, and a Pistol In the Other


  1. 1802, New Joe Miller, Or, The Tickler: Containing Near Two Thousand Good Things, Volume 2, Second Edition, (Copy of a Letter written during the late Rebellion by Sir ____ _______, an Irish Member of Parliament, to his Friend in London), Start Page 30, Quote Page 30 and 31, Printed for J. Ridgway, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Missionaries and Cannibals

Oscar Wilde? Richard Le Gallienne? Reverend Sydney Smith? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the more outrageous remarks attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde concerned missionaries, cannibals, and the supply of food. Did Wilde really make this facetious remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1907 when a posthumous multi-volume collection of his works was published. A friend of Wilde’s named Richard Le Gallienne wrote the introduction to one of the volumes, and he described a conversation he heard while dining with Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To startle and shock the bourgeoisie was an amusement of which he never tired. He delighted to watch for the “Do you really mean it, Mr. Wilde?” look on the face of some guileless or stupid listener. I remember being at a dinner-party on one occasion when he gravely propounded the theory that missionaries were the divinely provided food for those desolate cannibal islands where other food was scarce. “O are you really serious, Mr. Wilde?” said an innocent young thing at his side. Anything more profoundly serious than Wilde’s expression in answer cannot be conceived.

Although this testimony was given after Wilde’s death QI believes the ascription was plausible. Le Gallienne later wrote that the remark was made by Wilde in the presence of his wife, and she responded with incredulity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Missionaries and Cannibals


  1. 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde: Uniform Edition, Poems: Including Ravenna, the Ballad of Reading Gaol, the Sphinx, Etc, Section: Introduction by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by A. R. Keller & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Jawbone of an Ass

Oscar Wilde? Lord Paget? Henry Watterson? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: In modern times a philistine is an uncultured anti-intellectual. In the Bible the Philistine people were enemies of the Israelites. Samson successfully fought against an army of Philistines while wielding the jawbone of an ass (donkey) as a devastating weapon. This background information allows one to understand one of the funniest anecdotes about Oscar Wilde, a tale in which he was outwitted.

Wilde became irritated during a lecture in the United States with the uncomprehending response he received while discussing the importance of aesthetics. He berated his audience and referred to them as philistines.

Finally, a voice in the back of the room called out, “Yes, we are Philistines, and now I see why for the past hour you have been assaulting us with the jawbone of an ass.”

I enjoy this story, but suspect that it is apocryphal. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: A version of this anecdote featuring Oscar Wilde was in circulation by 1883. The details are given further below. However, japes based on wordplay with the terms “jawbone” and “ass” were being disseminated many years earlier.

In 1833 “Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country” published a comical passage that was implicitly based on the dual meaning of the expression “jawbone of an ass”. In the following excerpt braying referenced the sound made by a donkey or ass. Also, “fall beneath the jaw” meant to be verbally chastised: 1

As the Duke fell before the braying of Sir John Key, so shall Lord Grey fall beneath the jaw of Stockton the baker. The parental earl will be felled by the same weapon as that with which Samson smote the Philistines in the field of Ramath-Lehi.

The 1836 edition of a classic joke book titled “Joe Miller’s Jests with Copious Additions” included an instance of the tale in which the “jawbone of an ass” referred to the jawbone of a boastful individual: 2

A young fellow, not quite so wise as Solomon, eating some Cheshire cheese full of mites, one night at the tavern: Now, said he, have I done as much as Sampson, for I have slain my thousands and my ten thousands. Yes, answered one of the company, and with the same weapon too, the jawbone of an ass.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Jawbone of an Ass


  1. 1833 June, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Volume 7, Number 42, “A Wind-up for Our Seventh Volume, Literary, Political, and Anti-Peelish”, Start Page 750, Quote Page 752, Published by James Fraser, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1836, Joe Miller’s Jests with Copious Additions, Quote Page 73, Whittaker and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link