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

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Wed Dec 29 03:44:56 UTC 2004

On Mon, 27 Dec 2004 14:02:09 -0500, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>

>At 2:45 AM -0500 12/27/04, Benjamin Zimmer wrote:
>>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":
>Thanks, Ben.  Very interesting.  Clearly different from yesterday's
>version in at least four ways:
>(1)  It's placed in London rather than at Columbia
>(2)  The stooge's claim applies to all languages rather than just to
>(3)  The stooge is unnamed and suffers career death; clearly we're
>not talking J. L. Austin here.
>(4)  Sidney Morgenbesser's name is spelled "Sydney"
>So at least one of these versions is very wrong.  Too bad nobody
>asked Morgenbesser for the details he was sick of hearing about,
>since they seem to change from telling to telling.

There are also versions in which the target is not J.L. Austin but Stuart
Hampshire -- who, like Morgenbesser, died this past year.  (Hampshire
wouldn't fit the 1977 account either, since like Austin he hardly suffered
career death.)  Jack Rosenthal mentioned the anecdote (without giving
names) when he filled in for Safire for an "On Language" column in 1995,
and a subsequent letter to the editor identified the protagonists as
Morgenbesser and Hampshire.  The letter was from Princeton political
scientist Alan Ryan, who claimed no direct knowledge of the incident,
hedging his account with "Se non e vero e ben trovato."  The
identification of Hampshire in the anecdote was noted on the Linguist List
after Ryan's letter appeared in the Times:

This blog <>, commenting
on a Christopher Hitchens article about Morgenbesser in Vanity Fair,
questions Hitchens' identification of the supposedly "pompous" victim as
Austin and also gives Hampshire as an alternative.  (By all accounts
neither Austin nor Hampshire were particularly pompous, but the joke
obviously works better with a stuffed shirt as the target.)

--Ben Zimmer

More information about the Ads-l mailing list