Abraham Lincoln? John W. Hulbert? Pious Clergyman? George Bradburn? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous riddle about the difference between a supposition and a fact:
How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg?
Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.
There are different versions of this puzzler, and each is based on a different type of animal, e.g., a sheep, a calf, a horse, or a pig. But the template for the question and answer remains the same. Abraham Lincoln has usually been given credit for this instructive brainteaser. Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: There is substantive evidence that Abraham Lincoln did employ this comical riddle by 1862, and detailed citations are given further below. But Lincoln was referring to a conundrum that was already in circulation.
The earliest evidence located by QI was published in multiple newspapers in 1825. The “Berkshire Star” of Massachusetts published a set of “Legislative Anecdotes” while acknowledging the “Washington County Post” of New York. One tale was told by John W. Hulbert who was a member of the New York House of Assembly. The story was about a parson who was interrogating a job candidate whom he disliked, so he employed a trick question to embarrass the jobseeker. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
In the course of the debate, Mr. Hulbert remarked that the attempt to call the thing what it was not, reminded him of the story of a good old clergyman in Yankeetown who, though very pious, was fond of a joke.
The parson was sent for, to examine a young man who had offered himself for a school-master, but on his appearance before the trustees, the parson did not like his looks. When it came his turn to speak the parson said he would put a single question.
“Suppose,” said he, “you call a sheep’s tail a leg, how many legs will the sheep have?” “Why five, to be sure,” answered the would-be-school-master with an air of wisdom. “Very well” said the parson: “So if you call a sheep’s tail a leg, it is a leg, is it? But never mind, if the trustees say so, you may keep the school for what I care!”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1825 April 28, Berkshire Star, Legislative Anecdotes, Quote Page 3, Column 3 and 4, Stockbridge, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1825 May 24, Woodstock Observer, From the N.Y. Washington Co. Post Legislative Anecdotes (Acknowledgement to Washington Co. Post, New York), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Woodstock, Vermont. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1825 June 1, Massachusetts Spy, Legislative Anecdote (Acknowledgement to Washington Co. Post, New York), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Worcester, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩