nail that Jell-O

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 23 17:18:49 UTC 2011

Here's one version that Safire did not mention:

"they readily admit that trying to define a public figure is like attempting
to *nail jellyfish to a wall*."

I also found a "custard" (1960) and "hot butter" (apparently 1980). I did
not find Roosevelt's original, but did find two accounts of the comment from
1938 and 1925. (Also see below.)

There is also this passage from The Golden Bough that is far more prosaic,
but does involve nailing intengibles to a wall (from Part IV: The Scapegoat,

A farmer in Islay told an enquirer some years ago how a passing stranger
> once cured his grandmother of toothache by driving a horse-nail into the
> lintel of the kitchen door, warning her at the same time to keep the nail
> there, and if it should come loose just to tap it with a hammer till it had
> a grip again. She had no more toothache for the rest of her life.8 In
> Brunswick it is open to any one to nail his toothache either into a wall or
> into a tree, as he thinks fit; the pain is cured quite as well in the one
> way as in the other.4 So in Beauce and Perche a healer has been known to
> place a new nail on the aching tooth of a sufferer and then knock the nail
> into a door, a beam, or a joist.5 The procedure in North Africa is
> similar. You write certain Arabic letters and numbers on the wall; then,
> while the patient puts a finger on the aching tooth, you knock a nail, with
> a light tap of a hammer, into the first letter on the wall, reciting a verse
> of the Coran as you do so. Next you ask the sufferer whether the pain is now
> abated, and if he says "Yes" you draw out the nail entirely. But if he says
> " No," you shift the nail to the next letter in the wall, and so on, till
> the pain goes away, which it always does, sooner or later.1 A Bohemian who
> fears he is about to have an attack of fever will snatch up the first thing
> that comes to hand and nail it to the wall. That keeps the fever from him.
> 2
> As in Europe we nail toothache or fever to a wall, so Devils and in Morocco
> they nail devils. ...

The timing is interesting, since the book came out shortly before
Roosevelt's use of "currant jelly".

Here's another fairly complete account of Roosevelt's comment (1918):
Boys' Life: The Boy Scouts' Magazine. Volume 8:10. October 1918
A Boy's Life of Roosevelt. p. 52

But here's the definitive one. It supplies the date (July 2, 1915) and the
source--"private letter to me" (written by William Roscoe Thayer), as well
as the complete relevant text:

To make things more interesting, it's in the biography of Hay published in
1915 (so it's not likely to have appeared in the earlier edition ;-) ).


On Mon, May 23, 2011 at 11:19 AM, Ben Zimmer
<bgzimmer at>wrote:

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

The American Dialect Society -

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