Alexander Pope? Samuel Johnson? Jonathan Swift? John Dennis? Anonymous?
(1) He who would make a pun would pick a pocket.
(2) A man who will pun, will pick a pocket.
(3) A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket.
(4) Any man who would make such an execrable pun would not scruple to pick my pocket.
This saying has been attributed to the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson and the eminent poet Alexander Pope. Could you tell me who said it and what circumstance provoked the remark?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this quotation known to QI was published in a 1722 epistle by Benjamin Victor which told of a meeting in a tavern. Daniel Purcell employed a pun that caused the dramatist and critic John Dennis to react with anger and deliver a reproach. The name Dennis was partially disguised as “D—-s”; four letters were replaced with four hyphens.
To understand the pun one must know that in 1720s England the waiter in a tavern was called a “drawer”. The 1722 document adhered to a style in which nouns were capitalized. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1
“Mr. Purcell and Mr. Congreve going into a Tavern, by chance met D—-s, who went in with ’em. After a Glass or two had pass’d, Mr. Purcell, having some private Business with Mr. Congreve, wanted D—-s out of the Room, and not knowing a more certain Way than Punning, (for you are to understand, Sir, Mr. D—-s is as much surpriz’d at Pun as at a Bailiff) he proceeded after the following Manner:
He pull’d the Bell, and call’d two or three Times, but no One answering, he put his Hand under the Table, and looking full at D—-s, he said, I think this Table is like the Tavern; says D—-s, with his usual prophane Phrase) God’s death, Sir, How is this Table like the Tavern? Why, says Mr. Purcell, because here’s ne’er a Drawer in it.
Says D—-s, (starting up) God’s death, Sir, the Man that will make such an execrable Pun as that in my Company, will pick my Pocket, and so left the Room.
In this tale John Dennis sharply criticized one particular pun, and he did not attack all puns. Nevertheless, the popular modern instances of the saying are universal in condemnation.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- Year: 1722, Title: An epistle to Sir Richard Steele, on his play, call’d, The conscious lovers. By B. Victor, Author: Benjamin Victor (died 1778), Imprint: London: Printed for W. Chetwood at Cato’s-Head in Russel-Street, Covent-Garden; S. Chapman at the Angel in Pall-Mall; J. Stagg, Westminster-Hall; J. Brotherton at the Bible in Cornhill; M. Smith in Russel-Court, Red-Lyon-Square; Tho. Edlin, over-against Exeter Exchange in the Strand, Source Library: British Library. (Database: EECO: Eighteenth Century Collections Online; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake) ↩