French Have Taken Umbrage. English Have Taken Cognizance.

Who was fighting? Russians? French? Zulus? English? Prussians? Boers?

Dear Quote Investigator: When I worked on a student newspaper in college I was told a story about a late night editor at a major newspaper who received a terse wire report saying the “Russians Have Taken Umbrage”. The editor did not know the meaning of this phrase, and his attempt to locate “Umbrage” on a map failed. However, he was certain that this was a significant news item. The next day the paper bannered something like:

Umbrage Captured; Defenders Retreat in Disarray

I have never seen a copy of the actual news article, but the time period was World War II. Is this a newspaperman’s legend, or is there some truth in this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: First, to understand this humorous tale it is helpful to know that “to take umbrage” means “to take offense” or “to be displeased”.

Jokes based on misunderstanding “umbrage” in a military context stretch far back in time. QI has located a variant that uses this form of wordplay in “The Town and Country Magazine” in 1782. The setting of this jape is “During the war between France and England in the last reign.” The following narrative describes the experiences of a newspaper reader who is initially made unhappy by what he reads. In the text the word “Damn” is represented by “D—n” [TCFE]:

Coming to a paragraph which informed him that the French had taken umbrage, he removed his spectacles from his nose with unusual precipitation, and exclaimed, with an eagerness which evidently proceeded from the strength of his feelings, though it was at the expence of his understanding–“D–n these fellows, they will have every town they come to if they go on at this here rate.”

When he had vented his indignation at the taking umbrage, he resumed his paper, and finding, soon afterwards, in another page that the English had taken cognizance, his face brightened up amazingly; looking round the room with an air of satisfaction he said, “Aye, aye, this is something like; now we are even with the powder-puffs; aye, aye, tis’ high time to put a spoke into Mounsheer’s wheels.”

“To take cognizance” means “to take notice” or “to acknowledge”. “Mounsheer” is a deliberate misspelling of the French word “Monsieur” which is a courtesy title equivalent to the English ‘Mr.’ The passage appears in a section called “Letters to the Delineator’ and the letter writer is named Samuel Snug.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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