A Poet Is Born, Not Paid

Wilson Mizner? Addison Mizner? Douglas Malloch? Louis Ginsberg? Anonymous?

orpheus07Dear Quote Investigator: An adage from antiquity asserts that a great poet must have an inborn talent that cannot be taught or feigned:

A poet is born, not made.

The dire financial condition of the market for poetry has inspired a humorously modified expression:

A poet is born, not paid.

This quip has been attributed to the playwright, entrepreneur, and rogue Wilson Mizner; it has also been ascribed to Wilson’s brother, the architect Addison Mizner. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in a humor column containing miscellaneous items that was published in “The Springfield Daily Republican” of Springfield, Massachusetts in August 1881. No attribution was listed for the remark. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A poet is born, not paid.

The line was printed in other periodicals, i.e., “The Cincinnati Commercial” of Cincinnati, Ohio in December 1881 2 and “Donahoe’s Magazine” of Boston, Massachusetts in January 1882. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Poet Is Born, Not Paid

Notes:

  1. 1881 August 31, The Springfield Daily Republican “Out of Breath”, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Springfield, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1881 December 1, The Cincinnati Commercial, Personalities, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Cincinnati, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1882 January, Donahoe’s Magazine, Volume 7, Number 1, The Humorist, Quote Page 80, Thomas B. Noonan & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

The Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language Are “Check Enclosed”

Dorothy Parker? Douglass Malluch? Douglas Malloch? Henry James? Credit Man for a New York Hat House? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During a recent discussion with friends we tried to construct a list of great jokes that will be obsolete within a few decades. Here is one that is credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker who worked as a freelance writer and received payments via the mail:

The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘cheque enclosed’.

With the growth of electronic payments and the reduction in mail delivery this quip may become anachronistic. I was unable to find a good citation. Could you tell me when Parker wrote this?

Quote Investigator: In 1932 an Associated Press article reported on a list of words compiled by Wilfred J. Funk, the president of the dictionary company Funk & Wagnalls. The list presented Funk’s conception of the “10 most beautiful words in the English language”: dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, and melody. Many commentators criticized the collection and when the reporter queried Parker she suggested an alternative: 1

Dorothy Parker, poet, said she considered cellar-door the most beautiful word but that those she liked to see best were cheque and enclosed.

Note that Parker did not actually claim that cheque and enclosed were beautiful words. She simply indicated that she liked to see them. Nevertheless, by 1958 Parker’s name was attached to the common modern version of the quip. Here is an example in the “Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor”: 2

DOROTHY PARKER, when asked for the two most beautiful words in the English language: “Check enclosed.”
—Bernardine Kielty in Book-of-the-Month Club News

Many years before Parker’s 1932 remark several versions of the basic joke were already in circulation. In December 1903 the monthly trade publication The American Hatter published an instance. The adjective “sweetest” was used instead of “most beautiful” and the key phrase was four words instead of two: 3

A good story is being told of a prominent credit man for a New York hat house which runs thus: A Philadelphia magazine having offered a prize for the best answer to the question “Which are the four sweetest words in the English language?” our friend the credit man secured the prize by sending in a slip on which he wrote these words: “Enclosed please find check.”

This same witticism about the “four sweetest words” was further disseminated in the Washington Post on December 10, 1903 and in other newspapers. 4 5 Special thanks to Andrew Steinberg who identified and located this early version of the joke.

In March 1906 the Boston Globe of Massachusetts printed a version which used three words for the key phrase: 6

The sweetest words of typewriter or pen: “Inclosed find check.”

In the same month of 1906 the quip was presented in a short poem format in a Maryland paper which acknowledged a Wisconsin paper: 7

I love to get letters,
But the sweetest, by heck,
Are the ones that begin with:
“Inclosed please find check.”
Milwaukee Sentinel.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language Are “Check Enclosed”

Notes:

  1. 1932 December 12, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Poet’s ’10 Most Beautiful Words’ Start an Argument, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1958, Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor, Selected by the Editors of the Reader’s Digest, Quote Page 362, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1903 December, The American Hatter, (Freestanding short article), Quote Page 54, Column 1, The Gallison & Hobron Company, 13 Astor Place, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1903 December 10, Washington Post, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1903 December 31, The Warren Republican (Williamsport Warren Republican), (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Williamsport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1906 March 4, Boston Sunday Globe (Boston Globe), Editorial Points, Quote Page 36, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) (The newspaper image shows “Inclosed”)
  7. 1906 March 23, Baltimore American, In the Best of Humor, Quote Page 8, Column 8, Baltimore, Maryland. (GenealogyBank)