Swedish Councilor? Benjamin Disraeli? Australian Alderman? Casey Motsisi? Dennis Skinner? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Recently on twitter I saw a joke about the limits placed on unparliamentary language in Britain. A photo depicted an unhappy contemporary politician in the House of Commons with a caption similar to the following:
Politician: Half the members of the opposition are crooks.
House of Commons Speaker: Please retract.
Politician: OK. Half the members of the opposition are not crooks.
In the past, I heard an anecdote that followed the same outline and finished with the punch line:
Half the Cabinet members are not asses.
These words were attributed to the prominent British statesman Benjamin Disraeli. However, I haven’t been able to find a good citation. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: An anecdote about Benjamin Disraeli following the template of this joke has been in circulation for decades. However, the earliest evidence located by QI linking the tale to Disraeli appeared in 1958, and the statesman died in 1881. Details for this citation are given further below.
The first instance of the jape found by QI was printed in a newspaper story in July 1927 set in an unnamed town near Uppsala, Sweden. A government official reportedly lost his temper and rebuked his fellows. Boldface has been added: 1
A municipal councilor … remarked that certainly half of his colleagues were fools. An apology was demanded. He promised to make reparation and caused bills with the following correction to be posted on boardings in the town: “I said that half of the town councilors are fools. I now declare that half of the town councilors are not fools.”
Over the years the jest has evolved and has been aimed at a variety of people, including town councilors, aldermen, cabinet members, and members of the House of Commons.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1927 July 20, Altoona Mirror, The Better Half, Quote Page 12, Column 1, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩