Benjamin Disraeli? William Gladstone? William Makepeace Thackeray? Moses Hadas? A celebrated botanist? A Scotchman? Thomas Bailey Aldrich? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.? Samuel Wilberforce? Max O’Rell?
Dear Quote Investigator: Aspiring authors sent numerous manuscripts to the statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Reportedly, he would send back a wittily ambiguous response:
Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it.
This statement might mean that Disraeli would immediately start to read the volume, or it might mean that he would never read the book. A similar response has been credited to William Makepeace Thackeray. Also, I have seen the following variant phrasing:
Your book has arrived, and I shall waste no time reading it.
Could you determine who is responsible for this type of quip?
Quote Investigator: This amusing remark has been attributed to a large and varied collection of individuals over the past 140 years including: French comedian Max O’Rell, author William Makepeace Thackeray, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, statesman Benjamin Disraeli, and his opposition William Gladstone.
First, QI notes that the phrase can be used in a straight-forward manner without a comical overlay. For example, a letter dated September 11, 1784 from the poet William Cowper used the phrase with the assumption that the text would indeed be read quickly: 1
I know that you will lose no time in reading it, but I must beg you likewise to lose none in conveying it to Johnson, that if he chuses to print it, it may go to the press immediately…
The earliest instance located by QI of an individual wielding the phrase with a humorous intent appeared in an 1871 issue of the British Quarterly Review. The quipster was identified as a botanist, but no name was given: 2
A celebrated botanist used to return thanks somewhat in the following form:—’I have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it.’ The unfortunate author might put his own construction on this rather ambiguous language.
In 1883 a travel book titled “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” printed the joke and referred to it as “the old equivoque”. The word “equivoque” meant a pun or a phrase with a double meaning: 3
…they may adopt the old equivoque—”We have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it!”
Also, in 1883 the witticism was printed in the science periodical Nature. The context was an article critical of testimonial letters which clearly indicated that the saying was being used sarcastically. The phrase was called a “well-known formula”: 4
Many testimonials are framed after that well-known formula for acknowledging the receipt of pamphlets which runs as follows:—”Dear Sir,—I beg to thank you for the valuable pamphlet which you have so kindly sent me, and which I will lose no time in reading.” And I heard the other day a testimonial praised because it showed the electors whom not to elect.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1805, The Port – Folio (1801-1827), Volume 5, Issue 45, Original Letters from Cowper to the Rev. William Unwin, Page 354, (Letter to Rev. William Unwin dated September 11, 1784), Published by H. Maxwell, Philadelphia. (ProQuest American Periodicals) ↩
- 1871 October 1, The British Quarterly Review, Article V, Letters and Letter Writing, Start Page 392, Quote Page 411, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1883, “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” by J. Fox Turner [John Fox Turner], Section: Preface, Quote Page vii, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., London. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation) link ↩
- 1883 August 9, Nature (Weekly), A Result of our Testimonial System, Start Page 341, Quote Page 342, Column 1, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view; HathiTrust) link ↩