nail that Jell-O

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon May 23 15:19:01 UTC 2011

On Mon, May 23, 2011 at 11:11 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
> There was a mention of this phrase - indirectly - in 2003.  I first heard
> these precise words (emphasis by ed.) during the 1992 Presidential campaign.
> "Getting Sarah to meetings and events was _like nailing Jell-O to a tree_."
> Slippery. Elusive. Hard to pin down.

Both the "jelly" and "Jell-O" variants were discussed by William
Safire back in April 1986:

More to the point of the tree or wall dribbling a gelatinous
substance, who was the coiner of that simile about nailing Jell-O?
Some Irregulars pointed to the 1981 book ''Nailing Jelly to a Tree,''
by Jerry Willis and William Danley Jr., about the nebulous world of
computer software. Another found it in a 1976 Federal court opinion by
a judge having difficulty defining ''public figure'' in a libel
The earliest use, at least until an earlier one is found, was
submitted by Prof. Joe E. Decker of the University of Tampa: ''You
could no more make an agreement with them,'' wrote Theodore Roosevelt
in 1915, describing his troubles with the Colombian Government leaders
during negotiations for rights in the Panama Canal Zone, ''than you
could nail currant jelly to a wall - and the failure to nail currant
jelly to a wall is not due to the nail; it is due to the currant


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

More information about the Ads-l mailing list