nail that Jell-O

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Tue May 24 00:42:53 UTC 2011

The 1915 citation supplied to William Safire by Prof. Joe E. Decker
and the one located by Victor are excellent. Barry Popik examined this
saying and found a newspaper article quoting Teddy Roosevelt that was
dated April 9, 1912. Here is a long link and a short link to Barry's
webpage on this topic:

I was asked to trace a variant of this quote and found the same basic
story about Panama with Roosevelt receiving credit for introducing the
figure of speech with a dateline one day earlier:

Cite: 1912 April 08, Seattle Daily Times, Colonel Roosevelt Opposed to
Taftian Reciprocity Policy, [Start Page 1] Page 2, Column 2, Seattle,
Washington. (GenealogyBank)

Laughter greeted a new metaphor the colonel made while speaking of Panama.
"Somebody asked me why I did not get an agreement with Colombia. They
might just as well ask me why I do not nail cranberry jelly to the
wall. It would not be my fault or the fault of the nail; it would be
the fault of the jelly."

There is another interesting, I think, citation in the same year,
1912, in which a close variant of this figure of speech was used to
describe diplomacy in China.

Cite: 1912, Recent Events and Present Policies in China by J.O.P Bland
[John Otway Percy Bland], Page 262, [J.B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia], William Heinemann, London. (Google Books full view)

An American Minister, with much less to complain of than his British
colleague, compared the results of his labours to "boxing a feather
bed"; another authority has likened the task of foreign diplomacy at
Peking to fastening a jelly on to a wall with tacks.

It is possible that the author, Bland, heard Roosevelt's pronouncement
and he modified it to apply to diplomacy in China. Alternatively, the
metaphor may have already been in use by Foreign Service personnel in
China. In that case, Roosevelt did not really coin the phrase.


On Mon, May 23, 2011 at 2:25 PM, Ben Zimmer
<bgzimmer at> wrote:
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> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: nail that Jell-O
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On Mon, May 23, 2011 at 1:18 PM, victor steinbok wrote:
>> On Mon, May 23, 2011 at 11:19 AM, Ben Zimmer wrote:
>>> 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
>>> jelly.''
> [...]
>> 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 ;-) ).
> That's likely the source that Decker used. In a letter to the editor
> responding to Safire's original query about the phrase, he had
> explained that the quote appeared in a letter to Thayer.
> --bgz
> --
> Ben Zimmer
> ------------------------------------------------------------
> The American Dialect Society -

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