nail that Jell-O

victor steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue May 24 07:05:59 UTC 2011

One more for good measure (1913):
Camera Craft. September 1913
p. 414

> Probably no word in the English language has been subjected to more
> meanings and interpretations than "art." Tolstoy, for example, asked himself
> the question, and wrote three hundred pages in reply. But he failed; the
> little word was too big for him. Thousands of lesser men have tried to
> define "art." All have failed. It is no more possible to define art than it
> is possible to define life.It is like *nailing quicksilver to a wall*.

Same text in July 1913:

Also in April 1914 on p. 262 of the same publication.


On Mon, May 23, 2011 at 8:42 PM, Garson O'Toole
<adsgarsonotoole at>wrote:

> 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.
> Garson

The American Dialect Society -

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