Saying: A man who will pun, will pick a pocket. Request for 1722 citation.

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 6 00:58:22 UTC 2013

There is an expression about puns and pickpockets that I have been
asked to explore, The saying has been attributed to Alexander Pope,
Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, John Dennis and others. Here are
several versions. The final two sayings do not condemn all puns.

A Man who will Pun, will pick a pocket.
He that would pun, would pick a pocket.
No Man would make a Pun that would not pick a Pocket.
Any man who would make such an execrable pun would not scruple to pick
my pocket.
Sir, the man that will make such an execrable pun as that in my
company, will pick my pocket.

Fred, has the best citation, I think, in the YBQ, but the YBQ can only
present a compressed excerpt.

Perhaps some kind reader has access to a database which contains scans
of the 1722 document described below. Some catalogs indicate that the
document is available online but access is restricted. The document is

An Epistle to Sir Richard Steele, on his play called The Conscious Lovers

Below is an excerpt from a periodical in 1816 which reprints an
anecdote about the origin of the expression above from the 1722
document. Perhaps you will be able to compare the text below and the
text in the scan of the 1722 epistle. If you are willing to perform
this task please send me an email (on or off list). Thank you very

The pun in the passage below is based on the word "drawer". In 1722
"drawer" could be used to reference a "waiter" in a tavern.

[ref] 1816 July, The Theatrical Inquisitor and Monthly Mirror, Volume
9, The Collector No XXXI: 11.—Punning, Start Page 30, Quote Page 33,
Published for the Proprietors by C. Chapple, Pall-Mall, London.
(Google Books full view) link [/ref]

[Begin excerpt]

The remark that a man who will make a pun will pick a pocket, though
frequently attributed to Swift, originated with Dennis. The
circumstance which gave rise to the remark is thus related in a
pamphlet written by Victor, entitled "an Epistle to Sir Richard
Steele, on his play called The Conscious Lovers." 1722:—

"Mr. Purcell and Mr. Congreve going into a tavern, by chance met
Dennis, who went in with 'em. After a glass or two had passed, Mr.
Purcell, having some private business with Mr. Congreve, wanted Dennis
out of the room, and not knowing a more certain way than punning, (for
you are to understand, Sir, Mr. Dennis is as much surprised at a pun
as at a bailiff,) he proceeded after the following manner. He pulled
the bell, and called two or three times, but no one answering, he put
his hand under the table, and looking full at Dennis, he said, 'I
think this table is like the tavern;'—says Dennis, with his usual
prophane phrase, —'God's death, Sir, how is this table like the
tavern?'—'Why,' says Mr. Purcell, 'because here's ne'er a drawer in

"Says Dennis starting up, 'God's death, Sir, the man that will make
such an execrable pun as that in my company, will pick my pocket;' and
so left the room."

[End excerpt]

Thanks for any help you can provide,

The American Dialect Society -

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