It’s one of the funniest quotations I’ve ever studied, and perhaps the hardest to source. A search through the chaos of the web rapidly reveals that it has been speculatively attributed to at least a dozen people: Sir Thomas Beecham, Ambrose Bierce, Bennett Cerf, Ornette Coleman, Johnny Dankworth, Duke Ellington, Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye, Laurence McKinney, Ogden Nash, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain. Even the musical instrument it describes is also in dispute: I have seen it confidently applied to the French horn, clarinet, flute, bagpipes, saxophone, and oboe.
The witticism is based on a proverb that must date from at least the the early 16th century (a version is cited in a 1546 book on proverbs by John Heywood, and “Ill blows the wind that profits nobody” appears in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3, 1581). It turns up in almost its modern form in Rob Roy by Walter Scott (1817). When Andrew Fairservice “chose to impute the accident of one of the horses casting his shoe to the deteriorating influence of the Union” he was answered by “a severe rebuke from Mr. Jarvie":
Whisht, sir! — whisht! it’s ill-scraped tongues like yours, that make mischief atween neighbourhoods and nations. There’s naething sae gude on this side o’ time but it might hae been better, and that may be said o’ the Union. Nane were keener against it than the Glasgow folk, wi’ their rabblings and their risings, and their mobs, as they ca’ them now-a-days. But it’s an ill wind blaws naebody gude.
Mr. Jarvie is defending the Acts of Union (1706–1707) joining England and Scotland (the novel is set in 1716, when the idea of Scotland’s laws being made in England was still new). He means the Union is not all bad, and will blow in at least some good things for someone. (Of course, that’s still a matter for debate.)
At some time during the 200 years after Scott’s novel, somebody, somewhere, first twisted the proverb into a new shape to describe some unidentified wind instrument as “an ill wind that nobody blows good.”
Let’s dismiss first the rumor that Sir Thomas Beecham said it (about the French horn or any other instrument). Beecham was born into a wealthy family of industrialists in Lancashire, England, in 1879. He read classics at Wadham College, Oxford. A wealthy Victorian-era Oxonian classicist would not coin a phrase that uses good in verb-modification function. He wouldn’t have been even vaguely acquainted with a nonstandard dialect that used good like an adverb. This phrase was coined by an American.
We can also dismiss at least one American candidate. One person on the web reports “a local journalist” as claiming that Ellington used the description, of the clarinet. Not plausible. Ellington was raised to have refined manners and speech; it was his almost aristocratic style that led to him being nicknamed “Duke.” One-liner put-downs in nonstandard vernacular wouldn’t have been his thing at all. No, it wasn’t Duke. This is just another instance of quotations being misattributed to high-prestige famous males.
Bennett Cerf (1898–1971) includes the phrase, applied to the oboe, in Laughing Stock (1952; it is requoted from there in The Music Quotation Book, ed. by Joyce and Maurice Lindsay). But Cerf was a joke-book compiler; he never suggested that he had coined the remark.
Ogden Nash (1902–1971) is a more serious possibility. An American who could rhyme bespectacled with neck tickled would probably be unconventional enough to talk about blowing good, in the service of humor. This limerick appears many times on the web, attributed to Nash:
The oboe’s a horn made of wood.
I’d play you a tune if I could,
But the reeds are a pain,
And the fingering’s insane.
It’s the ill wind that no one blows good.
But nobody gives a date or a published source for it. Undated, unsourced limericks plagiarized from each other are not evidence of authorship.
Just last week I heard someone on BBC Radio 4 attribute the saying to Ornette Coleman. But it wasn’t him. Coleman was only 17 when The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was released, and one thing we do know (see this page) is that in that 1947 film Danny Kaye sang a song called “Anatole of Paris” (written for him by his pianist, lyricist, songwriter, and wife, Sylvia Fine) in which the introductory section contains the following lines (see him sing it here):
Pa was forced to be a hobo
Because he played the oboe
And the oboe it is clearly understood
Is an ill wind that no one blows good.
But could the Ogden Nash poem be genuine, and earlier? Was Sylvia Fine alluding to it? As far as I can see, the original source of the witticism awaits identification. And my standard source for such things let me down: Fred Shapiro’s Yale Book of Quotations says nothing about this bon mot. Now what? Help me, Fred Shapiro, you’re my only hope!