Gore Vidal? Franklin P. Adams? George S. Kaufman? Mary Horan? Chico Marx? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The holiday season is here, and I have a question about a pun. A critic once told Gore Vidal that one of his novels was meretricious and Gore pointedly replied:
Really? Well, meretricious and a happy New Year to you too!
This anecdote is set in the 1970s and when I read about it recently I was reminded of stories about the Algonquin Round Table. The group members used to play a game in which a word was selected and a participant was challenged to create a clever sentence using it. I think meretricious was one of the words chosen, and the result was the quip used by Gore Vidal many years later. Could you check into this?
Quote Investigator: Top quotation researcher Nigel Rees explored this topic in two issues of his periodical “The ‘Quote Unquote’ Newsletter” in July 1998 1 and October 1998. 2 An episode of verbal jousting by Gore Vidal was mentioned. In addition, the newsletter noted an attribution to Franklin P. Adams by 1977. Most fascinating was an instance of the wordplay in a Marx Brothers radio show in 1933.
The earliest instance located by QI was published in December 1929 by the famous columnist Walter Winchell who referred to the sentence construction activity as a “parlor diversion.” Winchell presented two examples of puns which he attributed to the actress Mary Horan. The third example used meretricious, but the joke was not credited to a specific person.
Later citations shown below credit George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, The Marx Brothers, and Vidal Gore. Here are selected citations in chronological order.
- The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1997-2001 (Kindle), Issue: July 1998, Volume 7, Number 3, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Further Findings, Newsletter Published and distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk (Compilation 1997-2001 available as Kindle ebook) ↩
- The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1997-2001 (Kindle), Issue: October 1998, Volume 7, Number 4, Edited by Nigel Rees, Article: Earlier or Not: Meretricious – and a happy New Year, Newsletter Published and distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk link (Compilation 1997-2001 available as Kindle ebook) ↩