A Gentleman Is a Man Who Never Gives Offense Unintentionally

Oscar Wilde? Lord Chesterfield? John Wayne? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Books of etiquette once provided a definition of a gentleman that included the following assertion:

A gentleman never insults anyone intentionally.

The clever addition of a two-letter prefix humorously spun the definition:

A gentleman never insults anyone unintentionally.

This statement is often attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Would you please examine this quip?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a London periodical called “The Saturday Review” in September 1905. This version used the phrase “gives offence” instead of “insults”. No attribution was provided, and the word “extant” signaled that the comical remark was already in circulation: 1

The best extant definition of a gentleman is “a man who never gives offence unintentionally”…

Oscar Wilde died in in 1900, and he was linked to the quip by 1929, but that was very late. QI has not yet found any substantive evidence that Wilde created or used this joke.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Gentleman Is a Man Who Never Gives Offense Unintentionally

Notes:

  1. 1905 September 2, The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art, The Tripper Mind, Start Page 301, Quote Page 302, Column 1 and 2, Published at The Office of The Saturday Review, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Niagara Falls: The First Great Disappointment in Married Life

Oscar Wilde? Ann Landers? Gershon Legman? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 1882 the coruscating wit Oscar Wilde came to the United States to see the country and to conduct a series of lectures. When he visited the Niagara Falls, a classic honeymoon destination, he was unimpressed. Here are two variants of a saying that has been attributed to him:

Niagara Falls is the first great disappointment in American married life.

Niagara Falls is the second great disappointment of the American bride.

I am having trouble finding a contemporaneous citation for either of these remarks. Are these really the words of Oscar Wilde?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde saw the Niagara Falls in February 1882 and made a collection of serious and comical pronouncements about the hydrological wonder. The earliest evidence of a strongly matching statement located by QI appeared in an August 1883 interview printed in “The New York World” and reprinted in other newspapers. Wilde had returned to the U.S. to superintend the production of his play “Vera” in New York, and he spoke to a journalist from the periodical. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When the reporter hinted that American patriotism had been grievously wounded by Mr. Wilde’s criticism upon Niagara, the poet laughed and said modestly:

Niagara will survive any criticism of mine. I must say this, however, that it is the first disappointment in the married life of many Americans who spend their honeymoon there.”

Wilde employed this quip about the waterfall in lectures that he later delivered in England and Ireland though the precise wording varied.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Wilde employed the variant joke with the phrase “second great disappointment”. It was in circulation by 1927, but this was many years after the death of Wilde in 1900. The variant was initially anonymous and then it was reassigned to Wilde probably because of confusion between the two similar jokes. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Niagara Falls: The First Great Disappointment in Married Life

Notes:

  1. 1883 August 13, The Daily Patriot, Oscar Wilde Returns: In Commonplace Clothing and Shorn of His Glorious Locks, (Acknowledgement: “From Yesterday’s New York World”), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)

Now We Sit Through Shakespeare in Order to Recognize the Quotations

Orson Welles? Oscar Wilde? James Aswell? Richard Lederer? Anonymous?

yorick11Dear Quote Investigator: The influence of William Shakespeare’s works on the English language has been enormous; consider the following phrases:

To thine own self be true
It was Greek to me
Brevity is the soul of wit
To be, or not to be
Not a mouse stirring

The cultural ubiquity of the Bard’s words inspired the following humorous remark:

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.

This statement has been attributed to two very different people who share the same initials: Oscar Wilde and Orson Welles. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in 1936 by a syndicated columnist named James Aswell who was based in New York. Several Shakespearean productions were being staged in the city, and one featured the actor John Gielgud. Aswell presented the remark of a “debbie” which was a slang term for “debutante”; he then appended his own comment. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1 2

A pert debbie, attending the Gielgud interpretation the other night, quipped in the lobby: “But how can anyone listen to all those old saws and ancient wisecracks they’ve been hearing all their lives?” . . . Well, a lot of people go to Shakespeare to recognize the quotations.

In 1945 the tireless anecdote collector Bennett Cerf included a thematic joke in his compilation titled “Laughing Stock”, and Cerf also reprinted the jest in his syndicated newspaper column: 3 4

Guy Williams, of the Omaha World Herald, had his ears pinned back by a nice old lady to whom he had urgently recommended a volume of Shakespeare’s plays. “I can’t understand why you all make such a fuss over that man,” she told him after she had looked over the book. “All he’s done is string together a whole lot of very old, well-known quotations.”

In 1949, Evan Esar published the collection “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”, and he assigned an instance of the quip in Aswell’s 1936 column to the prominent auteur Orson Welles: 5

WELLES, Orson, born 1915, American actor, director, and producer of motion pictures, radio, and stage.

Now we sit through Shakespeare in order to recognize the quotations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Now We Sit Through Shakespeare in Order to Recognize the Quotations

Notes:

  1. 1936 October 17, Ballston Spa Daily Journal, My New York by James Aswell, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Ballston Spa, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1936 October 19, The Morning Herald, My New York by James Aswell, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Uniontown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1945, Laughing Stock: Over Six-hundred Jokes and Anecdotes of Uncertain Vintage, Edited by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 130 and 131, Grosset and Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive)
  4. 1946 March 15, Greensboro Record, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 6A, Column 4 and 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Orson Welles, Quote Page 212, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)

Art, Like Morality, Consists of Drawing the Line Somewhere

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? Anonymous?

hands10Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following remark on the webpage of an educator:

Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.

The phrase was attributed to Oscar Wilde, but I have not been able to find it in his oeuvre. It was listed on websites like Goodreads and Quotationspage where it was ascribed to Wilde, but I know that websites with massive compilations of quotations are often packed with misinformation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde said or wrote this statement.

In the 1920s the English author, journalist, and critic Gilbert Keith Chesterton penned a column in “The Illustrated London News”. In May 1928 he wrote a passage containing a strongly matching expression. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Some say that art is unmoral; and some of these arts are very unmoral. I may not have described them here in the correct conventional terms; but then I do not think that art is unmoral. Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.

The positions of the terms “art” and “morality” have been switched when compared to the modern instance provided by the questioner. The phrase “drawing the line” wittily referred simultaneously to an artist physically drawing a line on a canvas and figuratively creating an artwork on a subject with moral implications.

This was the earliest strong match located by QI, and QI believes that G. K. Chesterton should be credited with the phrase he wrote and not Oscar Wilde.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Art, Like Morality, Consists of Drawing the Line Somewhere

Notes:

  1. 1928 May 5, Illustrated London News, Our Note Book by G. K. Chesterton, Quote Page 780, Column 1, London, England. (Gale NewsVault)

Bigamy Is Having One Spouse Too Many. Monogamy Is the Same

Erica Jong? Oscar Wilde? Robert Webster Jones? H. L. Mencken? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: As a single person I enjoy the following joke about bigamy. Here are two versions:

(1) Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.

(2) Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.

The first has been attributed to the best-selling novelist Erica Jong, and the second has been credited to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. I haven’t been able to find this remark in the works of Wilde. Are these ascriptions accurate?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 Erica Jong published a scandalous blockbuster titled “Fear of Flying” and the first chapter used the following as an epigraph: 1

Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.
—Anonymous (a woman)

Note that Jong did not credit herself indicating that the joke was already in circulation.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde wrote or said this joke. The variant using “wife” instead of “husband” does have a long history. In 1922 the book “Light Interviews with Shades” by Robert Webster Jones included a quip that displayed several points of similarity including the use of matching vocabulary terms “bigamy” and “monogamy”: 2

They say bigamy means one wife too many; but so does monogamy sometimes.

Precursor jokes on this theme were being disseminated by 1841 as shown below. QI believes that the modern quip evolved from these antecedents.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Bigamy Is Having One Spouse Too Many. Monogamy Is the Same

Notes:

  1. 1973, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, (Epigraph of Chapter 1), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified on paper in 3rd printing July 1974)
  2. 1922, Light Interviews with Shades by Robert Webster Jones, Chapter 1: Bluebeard Tells Why He Killed Wives, Quote Page 18, Published by Dorrance & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link

I Would Challenge You To a Battle of Wits, But I See You Are Unarmed

William Shakespeare? Mark Twain? Oscar Wilde? Winston Churchill? Abby Buchanan Longstreet? Frank Fay? Pierre de Roman? Joey Adams? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a collection of similar jokes based on word play and the terms: battle, armed, wit, and half-wit. Here are some examples:

1) I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed.
2) Never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed man.
3) Never, ever, enter a battle of wits half-armed.
4) In a battle of wits he comes only half prepared to the battle.

The first of these has been attributed to the luminary William Shakespeare. But I have searched his oeuvre and this statement was absent. Versions of the popular quip have been attached to the powerful quotation magnets Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that the Bard of Avon penned this jest. Attributions to Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Winston Churchill are also unsupported. The earliest evidence of comparable word play located by QI appeared in an 1866 novel which the author, Abby Buchanan Longstreet, released under a pseudonym. Longstreet described a character blushing and then employed an instance of the trope. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The blood swung its reddest pennant out over the boy’s cheeks, but Trissilian’s mood was not to be resented, or resisted. A battle of wits was to be fought, and the Boy in Blue was unarmed to-night.

Because this witticism can be expressed in many ways searching for it was difficult. Hence, earlier examples probably do exist. QI hopes this article provides a useful sampling for readers and future researchers.

In December 1927 a thematically connected quip appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper. But this item did not reference a battle or armaments: 2

He—Mabel says she thinks I’m a wit.
She—Well, she’s half right.

In December 1928 Walter Winchell’s widely-distributed gossip column printed an instance of the joke. The punch line was credited to the comedian and actor Frank Fay who was engaged in a sharp disagreement with an interior decorator: 3

“Mr. Fay, is this going to be a battle of wits?”
“If it is,” was the indifferent retort, “you have come unarmed!”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Would Challenge You To a Battle of Wits, But I See You Are Unarmed

Notes:

  1. 1866, Remy St. Remy, Or: The Boy in Blue by Mrs. C. H. Gildersleeve (Abby Buchanan Longstreet), Quote Page 236, Published by James O’Kane, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1927 December 30, The Tyrone Daily Herald, Merry Moments: Half One, Anyway, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Tyrone, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1928 December 12, Lexington Herald, The Diary of a New Yorker by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Lexington, Kentucky. (GenealogyBank)

Briefest Correspondence: Question Mark? Exclamation Mark!

Victor Hugo? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular humorous anecdote about an exchange of letters between Victor Hugo and his publisher shortly after the publication of “Les Misérables”. Each message consisted of only a single character. Are you familiar with this story? Recently, I heard a version of the tale with Oscar Wilde replacing Victor Hugo. Would you explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The novel “Les Misérables” was published in 1862, and the earliest instance of the Hugo anecdote known to QI appeared in 1892. Details for this citation are given further below. However, the thirty year delay casts doubt on the story. The connection to Oscar Wilde appeared much later.

A similar tale about the exchange of extraordinarily concise messages was printed four decades earlier in April 1850 in “The Nottinghamshire Guardian” paper in Nottinghamshire, England: 1

In the briefest correspondence known, only two figures were used, the first contained a note of interrogation (?), implying “Is there any news?” The answer was a cipher (0), “None.”

After presenting the item above, a different complementary story was told about a message painted on a chimney:

This was clever; but neighbour Shuttleworth, in Nottingham Market Place, beats it. He has on his chimney two large T’s, one painted black the other green, to intimate that he sells black and green tea.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Briefest Correspondence: Question Mark? Exclamation Mark!

Notes:

  1. 1850 April 25, The Nottinghamshire Guardian, VARIETIES, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Nottinghamshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

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

You Can’t Use Up Creativity. The More You Use, The More You Have

Maya Angelou? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

angelou03Dear Quote Investigator: Recently on Pinterest and Twitter I have seen the following quotation attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

However, I thought these were the words of the acclaimed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou. Would you please resolve this conflict?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made this remark. It is not listed in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, an extensive collection compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a periodical in 1982 which was initiating a series of articles: 2

With this edition, Bell Telephone Magazine begins a series to profile those people whose attitudes and approaches to problems and challenges bear the mark of creativity — of courage, of talent, of innovative problem solving.

Maya Angelou was the first subject of the series, and her wide accomplishments as a writer, singer, dancer, actress, and teacher were discussed. Angelou commented on the inexhaustibility of creativity. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“You can’t use up creativity,” she stresses. “The more you use, the more you have. It is our shame and our loss when we discourage people from being creative. We set apart those people who should not be set apart, people whom we assume don’t have a so-called artistic temperament, and that is stupid.

“Too often creativity is smothered rather than nurtured. There has to be a climate in which new ways of thinking, perceiving, questioning are encouraged. People also have to feel they are needed.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Can’t Use Up Creativity. The More You Use, The More You Have

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1982, Bell Telephone Magazine, Volume 61, Number 1, Creativity: It’s the Thought that Counts by Mary Ardito, Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Published by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia, Athens library system)
  3. 1982, Bell Telephone Magazine, Volume 61, Number 1, Creativity: It’s the Thought that Counts by Mary Ardito, Start Page 32, Quote Page 33, Published by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia, Athens library system)

Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Already Taken

Oscar Wilde? Thomas Merton? Gilbert Perreira? Menards? America Ferrera? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have spent hours trying to determine whether Oscar Wilde wrote the following as commonly claimed:

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

I have not found a single good citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made this remark. It is not listed in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, an extensive collection compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1

The earliest compelling thematic match known to QI appeared in the literary journal “The Hudson Review” in 1967. The influential spiritual thinker and mystic Thomas Merton published an essay titled “Day of a Stranger” which referred to “being yourself”: 2 3

In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.

Merton humorously stated that there was “very little chance of my being anybody else”, whereas the quotation under examination offered a different comical rationale: “everyone else is already taken”, but the crux was similar. Interestingly, Merton cautioned against self-consciously trying to be oneself.

The “Day of a Stranger” essay was reprinted multiple times in anthologies, journals, and collections. It may have facilitated the later construction of the quotation. Many thanks to adept researcher Bodhipaksa who told QI about this citation.

The first strong match located by QI was disseminated via the Usenet discussion system in December 1999. The words were appended to the end of a message posted to a newsgroup used primarily by residents of the Netherlands. The statement was enclosed in quotation marks signaling that it was already in circulation; also, no attribution was specified: 4

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

Oscar Wilde did write several remarks about identity and appearance that were thematically related to this quotation, but the perspective was different.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Already Taken

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1967 Summer, The Hudson Review, Volume 20, Number 2, Day of a Stranger by Thomas Merton, Start Page 211, Quote Page 211, Hudson Review, Inc., New York. (JSTOR) link
  3. 1991, Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings by Thomas Merton, Edited by Lawrence Cunningham, Day of a Stranger, Start Page 214, Quote Page 215, Paulist Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 1999 December 27, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: nl.markt.comp, dds.markt, nl.markt.overig, From: Erick T. Barkhuis @email.com, Subject: Re: comleet systeem, (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 31, 2016) link