Samuel Goldwyn? George Oppenheimer? Ellenor Stoothoff? Andrew Carnegie? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The phrase “like water off a duck’s back” is a well-known idiom that refers to an incident or a comment having little or no effect on a person. 1 Here is a comically garbled version of the expression:
It rolls off my back like a duck.
This odd-duck version has been attributed to the famous movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, but I have also heard that he never said it; instead, the phrase was deliberately crafted and pinned to Goldwyn by an unhappy employee of the producer. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: The earliest connection of this remark to Samuel Goldwyn located by QI was published in a Hollywood gossip column in 1935. Interestingly, the columnist stated that Goldwyn had attributed the scrambled statement to another movie producer.
In 1937 the short biography “The Great Goldwyn” by Alva Johnston reported that the expression had been ascribed to Goldwyn by some witnesses but claimed that the truth was more convoluted; the humorous remark had been purposefully constructed by jokesters in the Goldwyn studio restaurant. Details for this citation and the one above are given further below.
Finally, in 1966 a Hollywood writer named George Oppenheimer stepped forward and asserted that he created the phrase while he was working for Goldwyn in the 1930s. In Oppenheimer’s memoir “The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life” he described his boss as follows: 2
I found him unreasonable, tyrannical, infuriating, and I admired him greatly. He made good pictures and had high ideals and standards of taste, divorced from the usual Hollywood one-track, narrow-gauge commercialism.
Oppenheimer stated that he engaged in a competition with other employees of the studio chief to manufacture a Goldwynism and to successfully place it into a newspaper. Oppenheimer achieved his victory with the mangled idiom. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3
I can attest to the spuriousness of “It rolls off my back like a duck,” since I coined it. One day three or four of his employees, including myself, were lunching at the studio commissary. Word had gone round that Goldwyn was becoming increasingly sensitive about his reputation as a Mr. Malaprop. At the same time he had, of late, been particularly truculent and we had all suffered. So we decided that each of us would dream up a Goldwynism, attribute it to him, and the first one to appear in print would win a pot into which we put ten dollars apiece. I collected with the duck’s back.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, Third Edition, Edited by John Ayto, Oxford Reference Online, Entry: like water off a duck’s back, Print Publication Date: 2009, Published Online: 2010, Oxford University Press. (Accessed October 5, 2015) ↩
- 1966, The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life by George Oppenheimer, Quote Page 96, Published by David McKay Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1966, The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life by George Oppenheimer, Quote Page 97, Published by David McKay Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩