The Jawbone of an Ass

Oscar Wilde? Lord Paget? Henry Watterson? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: In modern times a philistine is an uncultured anti-intellectual. In the Bible the Philistine people were enemies of the Israelites. Samson successfully fought against an army of Philistines while wielding the jawbone of an ass (donkey) as a devastating weapon. This background information allows one to understand one of the funniest anecdotes about Oscar Wilde, a tale in which he was outwitted.

Wilde became irritated during a lecture in the United States with the uncomprehending response he received while discussing the importance of aesthetics. He berated his audience and referred to them as philistines.

Finally, a voice in the back of the room called out, “Yes, we are Philistines, and now I see why for the past hour you have been assaulting us with the jawbone of an ass.”

I enjoy this story, but suspect that it is apocryphal. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: A version of this anecdote featuring Oscar Wilde was in circulation by 1883. The details are given further below. However, japes based on wordplay with the terms “jawbone” and “ass” were being disseminated many years earlier.

In 1833 “Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country” published a comical passage that was implicitly based on the dual meaning of the expression “jawbone of an ass”. In the following excerpt braying referenced the sound made by a donkey or ass. Also, “fall beneath the jaw” meant to be verbally chastised: 1

As the Duke fell before the braying of Sir John Key, so shall Lord Grey fall beneath the jaw of Stockton the baker. The parental earl will be felled by the same weapon as that with which Samson smote the Philistines in the field of Ramath-Lehi.

The 1836 edition of a classic joke book titled “Joe Miller’s Jests with Copious Additions” included an instance of the tale in which the “jawbone of an ass” referred to the jawbone of a boastful individual: 2

A young fellow, not quite so wise as Solomon, eating some Cheshire cheese full of mites, one night at the tavern: Now, said he, have I done as much as Sampson, for I have slain my thousands and my ten thousands. Yes, answered one of the company, and with the same weapon too, the jawbone of an ass.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Jawbone of an Ass

Notes:

  1. 1833 June, Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Volume 7, Number 42, “A Wind-up for Our Seventh Volume, Literary, Political, and Anti-Peelish”, Start Page 750, Quote Page 752, Published by James Fraser, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1836, Joe Miller’s Jests with Copious Additions, Quote Page 73, Whittaker and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link