Dorothy Parker? Alice Roosevelt Longworth? Earl Wilson? Robert Harling? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The most trenchant comment pertaining to gossip that I have ever heard is often attributed to the wit Dorothy Parker. The quip is based on altering the following conventional instruction on etiquette:
If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Here are three versions of the twisted variation:
If you haven’t anything nice to say about anyone, come sit by me.
If you don’t have anything nice to say, come sit next to me.
If you can’t say something good about someone, sit here by me.
These words have also been credited to Alice Roosevelt Longworth who was the daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt and a long-time Washington socialite known for adroit remarks. Would you please explore this saying?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a magazine profile of Alice Roosevelt Longworth titled “The Sharpest Wit in Washington” published in “The Saturday Evening Post” issue of December 4, 1965. Interestingly, the expression was not spoken; instead, it was embroidered on a pillow. Also, the word “good” was used instead of “nice”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
We walked to Mrs. Longworth’s upstairs sitting room, where she often reads until six o’clock in the morning. Books were piled everywhere on the tables and on the floor, and contemporary newspaper clippings were strewn on the side tables. Coyote skins were lying on the backs of two large, comfortable chairs, and on one of the chairs was a pillow with the words, IF YOU CAN’T SAY SOMETHING GOOD ABOUT SOMEONE, SIT RIGHT HERE BY ME.
Longworth definitely popularized the expression, and she may have crafted it. There is no substantive evidence that Dorothy Parker employed the saying though it has been attributed to her in recent decades.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1965 December 4, The Saturday Evening Post, Volume 238, Issue 24, The Sharpest Wit in Washington by Jean Vanden Heuvel, (Interview with Alice Roosevelt Longworth), Start Page 30, Quote Page 32, Column 3, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Academic Search Premiere EBSCO) ↩