Don’t Wrestle with a Chimney Sweep or You Will Get Covered with Grime

William Adams? James Boswell? Walter Scott? Jonah Barrington? Viscount Bolingbroke? Henry Van Dyke? John Bright? John J. Keane? William Wedgwood Benn? Tony Benn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When you are attacked with falsehoods and invective it is natural to respond with abusive language; however, viewers of the interaction may feel revulsion for both the attacker and the defender. This notion has been expressed using a vivid analogy. Here are three examples:

  1. You can’t wrestle with a chimney sweep and come out clean.
  2. He who wrestles with a sweep must expect to be begrimed with soot.
  3. Never wrestle with a chimney sweep.

The British politician Tony Benn employed this saying. Would you please examine its history?

Quote Investigator: The celebrated multi-volume biography “The Life of Samuel Johnson” by James Boswell included a pithy instance of the expression in a section recounting events in 1776. The saying was spoken to Samuel Johnson by William Adams who was Master of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. Interestingly, Johnson disagreed with the advice. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Johnson coincided with me and said, “When a man voluntarily engages in an important controversy, he is to do all he can to lessen his antagonist, because authority from personal respect has much weight with most people, and often more than reasoning. If my antagonist writes bad language, though that may not be essential to the question, I will attack him for his bad language.”

ADAMS. “You would not jostle a chimney-sweeper.”

JOHNSON. “Yes, Sir, if it were necessary to jostle him down.”

Adams employed a version of the metaphor without elaboration, and Johnson understood it readily; hence, both may have already heard similar phrases.

QI has an article on an entertaining variant adage that appeared later: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Don’t Wrestle with a Chimney Sweep or You Will Get Covered with Grime


  1. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Time period specified: 1776, Quote Page 24 and 25, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link

“He Is a Self-Made Man.” “Yes, And He Worships His Creator.”

Speaker: William Allen Butler? Henry Clapp? John Bright? Junius Henri Browne? Howard Crosby? Henry Armitt Brown? Benjamin Disraeli? William Cowper?

ancient08Topic: Horace Greeley? Benjamin Disraeli? George Law? David Davies?

Dear Quote Investigator: Whenever I hear the claim that an individual who has excelled in life is a self-made man or a self-made woman I think of a well-known clever riposte:

Person A: He is a self-made man.
Person B: Yes, I have heard him say that many times, and he certainly worships his creator.

This quip is based on a comical form of self-reference. The definition of “self-made” implies that the man’s creator is the man himself. Hence, when he worships his creator he is worshiping himself. Do you know who originated this joke and who was being criticized?

Quote Investigator: A precursor that expressed the core of the joke appeared in a satirical poem composed in 1858 titled “Two Millions” by William Allen Butler. The work described a millionaire who obeyed the following “higher law” with “all his heart and soul and mind and strength”: 1

To love his maker, for he was SELF-MADE!
Self-made, self-trained, self-willed, self-satisfied,
He was himself, his daily boast and pride.

Thanks to Professor Ian Preston who located the above citation and shared it with QI. The entire poem was reprinted in the magazine “Titan” in London. 2 Also, sections of the work were reprinted by reviewers in periodicals such as “The Knickerbocker” in New York. 3 Thus, the jest was further disseminated.

A close match to the popular form of the joke appeared in March 1868 in multiple newspapers such as “The Stillwater Messenger” of Minnesota and the “Burlington Hawk Eye” of Iowa. In the following statement “The World” was a reference to a New York newspaper. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4 5

The World says Horace Greeley is “a self-made man who worships his Creator.”

Also in March 1868 the “Springfield Republican” of Massachusetts and the “Utica Daily Observer” of New York identified the originator of the jibe as Henry Clapp who was the editor of a New York literary newspaper called “The Saturday Press”: 6 7

Henry Clapp says that Horace Greeley is a self made man, and worships his creator.

In July 1868 “Harper’s Magazine” published a version of the remark and suggested that Greeley would probably respond with good humor: 8

We take it that no man laughed more heartily than Mr. Greeley did when he was told what Henry Clapp had said about him. Said Clapp: “Horace Greeley is emphatically a self-made man, and he worships his Creator!”

In 1869 a non-fiction volume titled “The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York” by Junius Henri Browne was published, and the author applied the joke to a New Yorker named George Law: 9

He is frequently to be seen walking and driving about on his private business; occasionally appears at Fulton Market in quest of oysters, which he swallows voraciously as if he were more savage than hungry; and now and then figures as a vice-president of some public meeting, which he never attends. Such is Live-Oak George, who, as has been said, is a self-made man, and worships his creator.

By June 1870 a different version of the joke was circulating in England. The phrase “adores his maker” replaced the phrase “worships his creator”. A short item published in newspapers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Leicester claimed that the politician John Bright had aimed the barb at the politician Benjamin Disraeli: 10 11

One of Mr. Disraeli’s admirers, in speaking about him to John Bright, said, “You ought to give him credit for what he has accomplished, as he is a self- made man.” “I know he is,” retorted Mr. Bright, “and he adores his maker.” -Court Journal.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “He Is a Self-Made Man.” “Yes, And He Worships His Creator.”


  1. 1858, Two Millions by William Allen Butler, (Dedication: To The Phi Beta Kappa Society of Yale College, this poem, written at their request, and delivered before them, July 28, 1858, is dedicated), Quote Page 9, Published by D. Appleton & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1858 November, Titan: A Monthly Magazine, Volume 27, “Two Millions” by William Allen Butler, Start Page 605, Quote Page 606, Published by James Hogg & Sons, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1858 September, “The Knickerbocker, Or, New-York Monthly Magazine”, Volume 52, Literary Notices, (Review of William Allan Butler’s “Two Millions” with extensive excerpts), Start Page 291, Quote Page 291, Published by John A. Gray, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1868 March 11, The Stillwater Messenger, Clippings and Drippings: Personal and Literary, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Stillwater, Minnesota. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1868 March 11, Burlington Hawk Eye, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Burlington, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1868 March 12, Springfield Republican, Gleanings and Gossip, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Springfield, Massachusetts. (Genealogybank)
  7. 1868 March 16, Utica Daily Observer, Tea Table Gossip, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Utica, New York. (Old Fulton)
  8. 1868 July, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine [Harper’s Magazine], Editor’s Drawer, Start Page 281, Quote Page 283, Column 1, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  9. 1869 (Copyright 1868), The Great Metropolis: A Mirror of New York by Junius Henri Browne, Chapter LXXX: George Law, Start Page 642, Quote Page 644, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1870 June 3, Newcastle Courant, MULTUM IN PARVO, [Humor paragraph with acknowledgement to Court Journal], Quote Page 3, Column 4, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. (19th Century British Library Newspapers)
  11. 1870 June 18, Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury, Varieties, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Leicester, England. (This newspaper used the phrase “speaking of him” instead of “speaking about him”)(19th Century British Library Newspapers)