Tag Archives: Corey Ford

It Spills Its Seed Upon the Ground

Dorothy Parker? Corey Ford? John Keats? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently, the famous wit Dorothy Parker was once asked why she had selected the curious name Onan for her pet canary. She replied:

Because he spills his seed on the ground.

What is the veracity of this tale?

Quote Investigator: The biblical figure Onan appeared in the Book of Genesis. He disobeyed God by refusing to impregnate his brother’s widow and spilling his seed on the ground. This behavior irked the Deity and proved fatal to Onan.

The earliest version of the Parker anecdote located by QI occurred within a chapter profiling her in the 1934 book “While Rome Burns” by Alexander Woollcott who helped to build her reputation for clever banter. Woollcott’s statement was elliptical. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Of her birds, I remember only an untidy canary whom she named Onan for reasons which will not escape those who know their Scriptures.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1934, While Rome Burns by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter “Some Neighbors IV: Our Mrs. Parker”, Quote Page 152, Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

Change One Letter in That Phrase and You Have My Life Story

Dorothy Parker? Ben Hecht? Corey Ford? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker apparently constructed a risqué quip when she observed people ducking for apples at a party. Would you please explore this topic?

Dear Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of Parker’s jest located by QI appeared in the 1957 book “Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur” by Ben Hecht. MacArthur and Hecht were successful writing partners who created popular plays such as “The Front Page” and “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Dorothy Parker was Hecht’s friend and MacArthur’s lover. The book recounted the following anecdote. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

At a subsequent Halloween party, Miss Parker spoke one of her wryest sentences. Asked to join a group of merrymakers who were “ducking for apples,” Dorothy said, “Change one letter in that phrase and you have my life story.”

The change probably referred to the transformation of “ducking” into a synonym for fornication.

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  1. 1957, Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur by Ben Hecht, Quote Page 99, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with hard copy)

If George Washington Were Alive Today He’d Turn Over in His Grave

Who made the remark? Samuel Goldwyn? Yogi Berra? William Cuffe? George Arliss? Corey Ford? Gerald Ford?

verne02Who was turning? Richard Cobden? Aunt Harriet? Jules Verne? Franklin D. Roosevelt? George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky? John Foster Dulles? Casey Stengel?

Dear Quote Investigator: Samuel Goldwyn and Yogi Berra were both famous for constructing humorous phrases. Their solecisms and malapropisms often exhibited entertaining absurdist logic. The following comments have been credited to Goldwyn and Berra respectively:

1) If Franklin D. Roosevelt were alive now, he’d turn in his grave.
2) If Casey Stengel were alive today, he’d be turning over in his grave.

Remarks of the type above were probably constructed via the inadvertent blending of common expressions like these:

1) If she knew about it she would turn in her grave.
2) If she were alive today she would disapprove.

Would you please explore the origin of this family of jests?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this comical expression found by QI was printed in an 1879 novel titled “The Honourable Ella: A Tale of Foxshire” by William Ulick O’Connor Cuffe, 4th Earl of Desart. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“My dear Harry, you don’t understand the rudiments of political economy. If Cobden were alive to hear all the twaddle of the free-traders now he would turn in his grave—at least, I mean he’d be confoundedly disgusted.

The author Cuffe highlighted the witticism by allowing his character to recognize that the figurative language was incongruous.

In 1898 “The Leisure Hour” magazine published an article about Irish humor with the following material: 2

It was an Irish moralist who rebuked a widow in the words, “If your husband were alive, your conduct would make him turn in his grave”; a speech which recalls the Irishman’s encomium of Kean—”He acts the dead man to the very life” . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1879, The Honourable Ella: A Tale of Foxshire by The Earl of Desart (William Ulick O’Connor Cuffe, 4th Earl of Desart), Volume 1 of 3, Quote Page 173, Hurst and Blackett, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1897-8, The Leisure Hour, Irish Wit and Humor As Shown in Proverbs and Bulls by Elsa D’Esterre-Keeling, Quote Page 709, Column 2, Paternoster Row, London. (HathiTrust) link link