anyone for an anecdote fact-check? (yeah, yeah)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Mon Dec 27 07:45:52 UTC 2004

On Sun, 26 Dec 2004 22:26:22 -0500, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>

>The New York Times
>December 26, 2004 Sunday
>  In the academic world, custom dictates that you may be considered a
>legend if there is more than one well-known anecdote about you.
>Morgenbesser, with his Borscht Belt humor and preternaturally agile
>mind, was the subject of dozens. In the absence of a written record
>of his wisdom, this was how people related to him: by knowing the
>stories and wanting to know more. The most widely circulated tale --
>in many renditions it is even presented as a joke, not the true story
>that it is -- was his encounter with the Oxford philosopher J. L.
>Austin. During a talk on the philosophy of language at Columbia in
>the 50's, Austin noted that while a double negative amounts to a
>positive, never does a double positive amount to a negative. From the
>audience, a familiar nasal voice muttered a dismissive, ''Yeah,
>The variation in the participants of the story, the fact that it
>tends to be conveyed by the proverbial colleague-of-a-colleague, the
>fact that even the supporters of a particular  version typically
>refer to some vague event like the "talk on the philosophy of
>language... in the 50s" above, and the insistence that it is indeed a
>"true story" as above I find somewhat suspicious if not downright
>urban legendary.  I suspect Mr. Ryerson vasn't dere himself, and I do
>wonder if there's any way to either pin the story down or explode it,
>as a way to honor the memory of Morgenbesser either with the due
>credit for the mot(s) he deserves or with the determination of the
>truth of the matter even if it's the truth of apocrypha.  Any

On the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup, Mark Webb found a citation of the
Morgenbesser anecdote from 1977 (NYT Magazine):

Webb later heard that Morgenbesser confirmed the anecdote but was "sick
of hearing about it":

--Ben Zimmer

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