Witticisms, Plagiarism, and Language History

Not the originator

Not the originator.

My post last week, wondering who first dismissed the oboe as an ill wind, elicited a slew of interesting comments and private emails. Let me try to pull all the information together in a more organized form.

Jeff DeMarco led off the comments, noting that the oboe jibe turned up in Laurence McKinney’s humorous poetic introduction to the orchestra, People of Note. (That’s a pun. Geddit?) Published January 1, 1940, that book would appear to predate “Anatole of Paris,” the song in which Danny Kaye sings the oboe insult in The Secret World of Walter Mitty (1947); but as commenter Glenn Branch discovered, “Anatole of Paris” was actually written for Kaye by his wife Sylvia Fine in 1939 (he performed it at Camp Tamiment soon after it was written). Did Fine get the line from McKinney? Or vice versa? Or was there a staggering coincidence?

We need none of those three hypotheses, because the late 1930s turn out to be irrelevant. Glenn Branch, again, discovered that on April 24, 1931, the Princeton Alumni Weekly referenced the oboe calumny as already familiar.

How come it was well-known by 1931? Here Fred Shapiro, compiler of the inestimable Yale Book of Quotations, helped by informing me that in The Scranton Republican on January 7, 1930 (and doubtless in many other newspapers too) the famous gossip-monger Walter Winchell stated: “The Broadway definition of an oboe is ‘An ill wind that nobody blows good.’”

Another commenter, rrhersh, found not only the Winchell citation but also other later allusions to it, e.g. in The Pittsburgh Press (April 17, 1930).

The witticism spread across North America during 1930, with both attributee and subject matter morphing. When it reached the Klamath News in Oregon (May 3, 1930) it was attributed to music director Victor Saudek — and applied to the piccolo rather than the oboe!

These discoveries from early 1930 are interesting in that they definitively rule out Ogden Nash as originator. In Albin Krebs’s obituary for Nash in The New York Times, I found the statement that early on Nash “tried to write serious poetry” but that “One summer afternoon in 1930, as he sat at his office desk, finding it difficult to keep his mind off the business of writing advertising copy, he had ‘a silly idea’” and wrote his first humorous verse, a little piece called “Spring Comes to Murray Hill.”

That summer afternoon must have been at least six months after Winchell reported the oboe gag. The limericized verson attributed to Nash many times on the web may yet be found among his writings, but he couldn’t have been the original source.

The language columnist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer was the only one to push things back to before 1930: Jack Hulbert (1892–1978) apparently used the line in a show called “The House that Jack Built” at the Adelphi Theatre in London some time in the fall of 1929; it’s mentioned in The Tatler and Bystander, November 27, 1929, Page 422. Could the origin have been in Britain after all (despite that American-sounding nonstandard use of good as an adverb)?

If so, the remark crossed the Atlantic swiftly, because Edward Ziegler, an administrator for the Metropolitan Opera, told the joke to a reporter who printed it only a month later (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 29, 1929, Page 53). That’s just eight days before Walter Winchell apparently kickstarted its full-scale popularization. And it was already in New York before that: Dave Lull (in an email) tells me that The New York Evening Post had a misstated reference to the quip (with “blows nobody good” instead of “nobody blows good”), applied to the piccolo, in its November 11 edition in 1929.

Before that, however, the backward trail into the past goes cold. But this fascinatingly inconclusive historical treasure hunt made me realize something. The transmission processes for jokes almost guarantee in large numbers of cases we can never get back to the originators. Jokes are for telling, and they are passed around through processes that, like the geological ones of deposition and fossilization and erosion, will almost inevitably obscure their origins. Almost every time the best joke of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is announced, a charge arises that the winning joke was filched from another comedian. People hear phrases they like and rip them off. My very first Lingua Franca post was about a stealable joke.

People repeat things they hear other people say, and don’t always reproduce them perfectly, or attribute them correctly — or bother to attribute them at all. The passing of phrases from person to person not only obscures joke authorship but also affects all the rest of the language. The oboe calumny traveled around the Anglophone world via the same channels that caused American English to slowly diverge from British English — and then send back Americanisms to Britain, and in turn acquire Britishisms. The same processes that once turned the colloquial Latin of Roman soldiers into French.

We’ll probably never get back to a single true originator of the oboe witticism, and the reason is essentially the same as the reason that human languages change a little with each passing generation, and never seem fully polished or organized or codified.

Update, November 5th: Yesterday Barry Popik identified a number of new citations, but many follow the wording of the proverb (“an ill wind that blows nobody any good”). What I’ve been seeking is the first wit who switched the order, to get “an ill (wood)wind that nobody blows good.” Popik has examples of both, but the ones from as early as April 1920 all have the proverb wording. The earliest with the wording I’m interested in is from 16 November 1929, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Editorial Comment,” p. 10, col. 3:

H. T. C. comes through with a definition that is new to us. “An oboe,” he says, “is an ill wood that nobody blows good.”

That’s the earliest example of the form of words I’ve been tracking. The smattering of earlier attempts at jokes about wind instruments in the previous decade (Popik gives about a dozen of them) all stuck closer to the proverb.

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