Robert Benchley? Lon Robinson? Joseph Charles Salak? Bruce Caldwell? H. M. Stansifer? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Some people never know when to stop talking. I wish more people knew about the following quotation. Here are two versions:
Drawing on my fine command of language, I said nothing.
Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.
I have seen this attributed to the humorist and movie actor Robert Benchley. I have also seen it credited to Mark Twain. Would you look into this question?
Quote Investigator: A comical statement related to this theme was printed in 1900: 1
“He has a fine command of language,” says Mr. Dooley; “he seldom lets any escape.”
The important precursor statement given below was in circulation by 1920. The expression was printed without attribution along with several other quips and adages in an article titled “Pithy Sayings From Glens Falls Now and Then”. During the ensuing decades the phrase was reprinted many times: 2
It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing.
In 1921 the saying was printed in a Kansas City, Missouri newspaper which gave an acknowledgement to another periodical: 3
“It often shows a fine command of language to say nothing,” observes the Jameson Gem.
Also in 1921 a rephrased and more elaborate version of the statement was printed in a Miami, Florida newspaper: 4
After all, nothing so much testifies to a fine command of language as an ability to say nothing at the right time.
In 1926 another version of the saying was printed in a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania newspaper: 5
At times it requires a fine command of language to keep silent.
QI hypothesizes that the quotation under investigation evolved from these precursors.
Mark Twain died in 1910, and there is no substantive evidence that he made this remark. Robert Benchley died in 1945. The first ascription to Benchley located by QI appeared in 1949. The ascription to Benchley has weak support based on current knowledge.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1900 August 11, New York Times, A “Practical” View of Mr. Coler, Quote Page 6, Column 2, New York. (The original printed text used the spelling “anny” instead of “any”) (ProQuest) ↩
- 1920 December 6, The Indicator, Volume XLVI, Number 23, Pithy Sayings From Glens Falls Now and Then, Page 360, Column 1, Indicator Publishing Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1921 April 14, Kansas City Times (Morning edition of Kansas City Star), Missouri Notes, Page 16, Column 6, Kansas City, Missouri. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1921 April 19, Miami Herald, The Galley, (Short item), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Miami, Florida. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1926 September 10, Gettysburg Times, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 7, Column 4, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩