I Take My Only Exercise Acting as a Pallbearer to My Friends Who Exercise

Mark Twain? Chauncey Depew? Ring Lardner? William Allen White? Big Jim Watson? Joseph Hodges Choate? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: New Year’s resolutions often feature plans for more exercise. Mark Twain was once asked if he engaged in exercise, and he supposedly said:

I take my only exercise acting as a pallbearer at the funerals of my friends who exercise regularly.

But this same joke is also credited to Chauncey Depew, a United States Senator and renowned after-dinner speaker, who reportedly said:

I get my exercise acting as a pallbearer to my friends who exercise.

While searching I found that this quip was phrased in many other different ways. Could you determine if Twain, Depew, or someone else originated this funny saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Mark Twain made this remark. In 1905 Harper’s Weekly reprinted a speech given by Twain at his 70th Birthday party. In the passage below Twain expressed his dislike of exercise. But he did not employ the expression under investigation. Nevertheless, the hostility he evinced may have caused later individuals to assume that clever statements on this topic should be reassigned to Twain: 1

I have never taken any exercise, except sleeping and resting, and I never intend to take any. Exercise is loathsome. And it cannot be any benefit when you are tired; I was always tired. (Laughter.) But let another person try my way, and see where he will come out.

I desire now to repeat and emphasize that maxim: We can’t reach old age by another man’s road. My habits protect my life, but they would assassinate you.

A precursor of the quip appeared in 1922 in an article by the popular humorist Ring Lardner titled “My Week In Cuba” that was published in the magazine Cosmopolitan. Lardner’s remark included the notion of obtaining exercise by acting as a pallbearer, and his words were used in the caption of an illustration for the article which is shown below. In the following passage taxis are referred to as Flivingos: 2

We also visited the new country club and golf course which is patronized chiefly by Americans. As yet golf has not been generally took up by the natives who get plenty of exercise dodging Flivingos and acting as pall bearers.

exercisepallbearer

In 1925 a version of the joke was printed in a syndicated news article about William Allen White who was a prominent American newspaper editor. White told the quip to his interviewer, but the phrasing he used differed from the common modern version. This key citation was located by Andrew Steinberg: 3

“You see in me the rocking chair expert of the Neosho Valley,” White says. “I have won every cup offered for long distance rocking chair prowess, and I get my exercise by acting as pallbearer for golfers who exercise to prolong useless lives.”

In 1926 another version of the joke appeared in a syndicated column about health titled “Play Safe in Taking Physical Exercise” written by a medical doctor named Royal S. Copeland. This instance was closer to the modern version. Copeland was recounting the remarks of an anonymous “old man”, and it is possible that he was reformulating the comments of William Allen White given above: 4

Somebody told a story about an old man so remarkably well that a newspaper reporter asked why he had lived so long and kept so strong. “I suppose it is because you take systematic exercise,” said the reporter.

The startling reply of the old gentleman was, “The only exercise I take is acting as pall-bearer to my friends who have indulged in strenuous exercise!”

This is a ridiculous yarn, but it has in it a suggestion of value. Exercise is useful so long as it really is exercise and not violent and difficult work.

Too many athletes die of heart or blood vessel trouble. Too much strain on the organs of circulation will do real and lasting harm.

By 1930 the humorous remark was credited to Chauncey Depew, and by 1950 the jest was assigned to Mark Twain.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Take My Only Exercise Acting as a Pallbearer to My Friends Who Exercise

Notes:

  1. 1905 December 23, Harper’s Weekly, [Supplement to Harper’s Weekly], Mark Twain’s 70th Birthday: Record of a Dinner given in Celebration thereof at Delmonico’s on the Evening of December 5, 1905, Start Page 1884, Quote Page 1885, Column 2, Volume 49, Number 2557, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1922 August, Cosmopolitan, Volume 73, Number 2, My Week In Cuba by Ring W. Lardner, Start Page 48, Quote Page 51, International Magazine Company, New York, President: William Randolph Hearst. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1925 January 14, Evening Republican, “Thank Heaven It Was Sally” Says White: Kansan Admits He Was Ready to Wed Anyone, Page 1, Column 1, Mitchell, South Dakota. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1926 June 26, Chester Times, Play Safe in Taking Physical Exercise by Royal S. Copeland, M.D., Page 7, Column 7, Chester, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)

Golf: Hit a Very Small Ball into an Even Smaller Hole, with Weapons Singularly Ill-Designed for the Purpose

Winston Churchill? Woodrow Wilson? George Curzon? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Friends know I am an avid golfer and recently a book of quotations about the sport was given to me as a present. This quote from Winston Churchill captures the exasperation I feel when attempting to chip my ball near to the pin [GBGQ]:

Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.

When I tried to determine when Churchill uttered this assessment I discovered that some people think former President Woodrow Wilson was really responsible for the saying. Maybe you can resolve this question?

Quote Investigator: Variants of this saying have been attributed to both Churchill and Wilson for decades, but the earliest example located by QI occurred in 1892 in the famed London humor magazine Punch. The article “Confessions of a Duffer” by an unnamed contributor included a version of the quotation that used somewhat different phrasing [PLDG]:

Almost everybody now knows that Golf is not Hockey. Nobody runs after the ball except young ladies at W-m-n! The object is to put a very small ball into a very tiny and remotely distant hole, with engines singularly ill adapted for the purpose.

The term with deleted letters: “W-m-n” may have referred to Wimbledon, London. In May 1891 a membership group of 145 women opened their own nine-hole golf course on Wimbledon Common land [RWGC]. The term “engines” referred to the golf clubs used to propel the ball around the course as shown in the following:

There are many engines. First there is the Driver, a long club, wherewith the ball is supposed to be propelled from the tee, a little patch of sand.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Golf: Hit a Very Small Ball into an Even Smaller Hole, with Weapons Singularly Ill-Designed for the Purpose

Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled

Mark Twain? William Gladstone? The Allens? Harry Leon Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love to play golf, but sometimes when I am playing poorly I am tempted to simply walk the course and get some exercise. When I mentioned this to a friend he told me that Mark Twain said: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” This sounds like Twain to me, but did he really say it?

Quote Investigator: No, Mark Twain was probably not responsible for this barb. The earliest attribution to Twain located by QI appeared in “The Saturday Evening Post” of August 1948. 1 But Twain died in 1910, so this is a suspiciously late citation with minimal credibility.

The earliest appearance of the quip that QI has discovered was in a 1903 book about lawn tennis. The players of this sport are the traditional adversaries of golfers in the field of recreation. Individual chapters of this book were written by different authors. The author of the second chapter, H. S. Scrivener, attributed the saying to fellow players named the Allens. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

… my good friends the Allens … one of the best of their many excellent dicta is that “to play golf is to spoil an otherwise enjoyable walk.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled

Notes:

  1. 1948 August 28, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 221, Issue 9, Golf’s Own Home Town by Allan A. Michie, Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Ebsco)
  2. 1903, Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad edited by Arthur Wallis Myers (second chapter by H. S. Scrivener), Page 47, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link