Samuel Goldwyn? Bryan O’Loghlen? Boyle Roche? Ed Wynn? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A contract that is written and signed is easier to comprehend and enforce. But many people rely on unwritten promises. The following cautionary humorous remark is attributed to the famous movie producer Samuel Goldwyn:
A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
Similar expressions replace “verbal” with “oral”. Also, some instances use “agreement” instead of “contract”. Here is an example:
An oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.
Is this an authentic Goldwynism?
Quote Investigator: The use of the word “verbal” in this quotation may be confusing to some readers. Strictly speaking a “verbal contract” would simply be a contract expressed in words, but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recorded another common meaning for “verbal”:
Verbal adj. Sense 4 a: Expressed or conveyed by speech instead of writing; stated or delivered by word of mouth; oral.
The OED presented a first citation dated 1617 indicating that this sense has been present in English for a very long time.
In 1937 the short biography “The Great Goldwyn” attributed this saying to Samuel Goldwyn, and in 1956 a denial from Goldwyn was printed. These two citations are detailed further below. Interestingly, the quip was already in circulation decades before the 1937 volume was published.
In June 1890 “The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal” printed an instance of the joke ascribed to an Australian/Irish politician named Bryan O’Loghlen. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
In the adjoining colony of Victoria, Sir Bryan O’Loghlen, M.P., who has a national right to indulge in this sort of thing, gravely told the Supreme Court that “a verbal agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on.”
In September 1890 the “Rocky Mountain News” of Denver, Colorado published a version of the quip credited to “Pat”. The archetypal name and dialectical speech signaled that the speaker was Irish. In the following passage “indade” was “indeed”, “wid” was “with”, and “razon” was “reason”. The periodical “Texas Siftings” was acknowledged: 2
It was verbal: Lawyer—Have you got a verbal contract with him? Pat:—Indade I have, but I didn’t bring it wid me, for the razon that I don’t believe it’s worth the paper it’s written on.—Texas Siftings.
The text immediately above was reprinted in other newspapers. For example, in 1893 it appeared in a section called “Smiles” of the “Northern Christian Advocate” newspaper of Syracuse, New York. 3
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1890 June 14, The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal, (Untitled short note), Quote Page 320, Column 1, John Falconer, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1890 September 12, Rocky Mountain News, Random Selections, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1893 December 6, Northern Christian Advocate, Smiles, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Syracuse, New York. (GenealogyBank) ↩