Robert Heinlein? Emma D. E. N. Southworth? Wilfrid S. Bronson? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Science fiction luminary Robert Heinlein employed the following phrase in two of his novels:
That’s the moose’s problem.
The phrase seems to mean:
That problem should be dealt with by someone else.
Would you please explore the origin of this expression?
Quote Investigator: A class of jokes has a punchline of the following type:
- That is the moose’s problem.
- That is the deer’s problem.
- That was the moose’s business.
QI conjectures that Heinlein was alluding to these jokes. The earliest instance of the gag located by QI appeared in the 1872 novel “A Noble Lord” by Emma D. E. N. Southworth. A braggart named Colonel Brierly was spinning an exaggerated tale about a land he had visited. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Magnificent game! I tell you, sir, I have seen forests of titanic oaks, whose boles were yards in circumference, standing scarcely three feet apart, and with their limbs and twigs so interlocked and interwoven as to form an impenetrable green thicket! Yes, sir! And I have seen bounding through these forests magnificent deer, sir!—majestic creatures six feet high, whose splendid antlers branched ten feet apart! Yes, sir!” exclaimed the Colonel, glancing around the table.
The reaction of a character named Captain Faulkner made his skepticism obvious, and Brierly became angry enough to demand that Faulkner state his criticisms:
“Oh well, if you must know,” coolly returned the Captain, “I was but wondering how the deuce those majestic deer, with antlers branching ten feet wide, managed to bound through those magnificent forests where the titanic oak trees stand but three feet apart.”
For a moment the Colonel was dumbfounded, and then he exclaimed:
“By Jupiter, sir, that was their business – not mine, or yours!”
A laugh at this retort went round the table.
After this exchange Colonel Brierly became the enemy of Captain Faulkner, and eventually the two fought a deadly duel with Brierly as the victor.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.