[Ads-l] Antedating "Chestnut" - an old joke or story

Shapiro, Fred fred.shapiro at YALE.EDU
Thu Jan 10 11:25:18 UTC 2019

Laurence Senelick published an article in American Speech in 1986, titled "Two Theatrical Derivations: Chestnut and P.D.Q."  Senelick wrote: "The derivation of chesnut can be rather precisely determined,.  The actress Kate Ryan records (1915, 145-46) that Joseph Jefferson III attributed it to the Boston comedian William Warren who, in turn, drew it from a play called The Broken Sword.  This 'melo-drama' by William Dimond, adapted from a French original, La Vallee du torrent, was first performed at Covent Garden, London, in 1816; it was published and played in Philadelphia in 1826 and revived at the Boston Museum, where Warren was a bulwark of the company, in 1844 and 1850.  In the second scene of the first act of the play, Captain Zavier (Zavior in the London edition) and his servant Pablo are reminiscing: [Pablo tells joke about a 'chesnut']  The joke is repeated once more in the course of the scene.  Ryan alleges that Warren, who often played Pablo, quoted the line about repeating a story twenty-seven times at stage dinners, whenever confronted with a hackneyed anecdote, and the usage caught on."

I don't vouch for the validity of Senelick's theory, but I thought it might be useful for the current discussion.

Fred Shapiro

From: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU> on behalf of ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
Sent: Thursday, January 10, 2019 12:06 AM
Subject: Re: Antedating "Chestnut" - an old joke or story

Here is an 1871 citation that might be pertinent. (I have no desire to
be impertinent.) The tale is told by "Mr. Beecher". This seems to be
the famous Henry Ward Beecher whose writings appeared in the New York

The "old joke" prominently featured a chestnut although the
commentator below claims that the original joke was about a bad egg.

The 1871 date is close to the initial 1876 citation found by Peter.

Beecher's tale was a meta-joke about recycling old thoughts and ideas.

Date: November 16, 1871
Newspaper: The Burlington Free Press
Newspaper Location: Burlington, Vermont
Article: (Untitled item)
Quote Page 2, Column 2 and 3
Database: Newspapers.com


[Begin excerpt]
It is bad to hear old, old jokes quoted for new, it is worse to have
the good old stand-bys wholly misquoted. Of this Mr. Beecher is
guilty. In his last article in the N. Y. Ledger, in which he urges men
to eat worms, since the worms eat everything that man values, he says:

He who eats the worm, eats the chestnut in a higher and refined form!
Because men do not reflect upon these rarely beautiful
transmigrations, they go on cherishing prejudices against the eating
of worms. Stories are told which greatly amuse the unreflecting, but
which cause the truly phlosophical to marvel. As when the Irishman, on
biting open a chestnut, saw a worm draw back from the sudden flash of
light, and exclaimed, "Ye spoke too late." and swallowed him? The
Irishman was a true philosopher.

Now that is an old joke, actually murdered. It was not a chestnut at
all but an egg of doubtful reputation, on which the Hibernian
philosopher experimented. The chicken peeped, as it went down his
throat, and the exclamation "ye spoke too late," as he swallowed him,
was apt and witty. A chestnut indeed! Mr. Beecher's chestnut story is
"a bad egg' -- we really thought better of him; but since he has
appeared in the role of a sympathizer with Tweed, he has become
demoralized, we fear, in various ways.
[End excerpt]

Garson O'Toole

On Wed, Jan 9, 2019 at 7:31 PM Peter Reitan <pjreitan at hotmail.com> wrote:
> "Chestnut" is a few years older than the earliest citation I have seen elsewhere, which was 1880.
> "Chestnut" dates to at least 1876, when it was defined with almost precisely its current meaning.
> "“Chestnut” means “old story,” or “old joke.” We don’t mean the vegetable chestnut, but the technical, ejaculatory one."
> The Republican Journal (Belfast, Maine), May 25, 1876, page 2.
> The next earliest examples start to appear beginning three years later.  Most examples related to minstrel acts telling bad jokes, but "chestnuts" or "old chestnuts" could also refer to old songs or familiar plays.
> The word seems to have picked up steam after a new joke went viral in 1884:
> "Jenny – Why are old jokes called chestnuts? Don’t know, unless it is because they are bad-in-age. Boston Folio."
> Detroit Free Press, September 11, 1884, page 8.
> The popularity of the joke and the newly widespread word led to a brief fad of carrying "chestnut bells" that people would ring, obnoxiously, when someone started telling an old or familiar joke or story.
> I also found an earlier purported explanation of the origin of the word, which appeared before the joke went viral, unlike the several other explanations from the period I've seen elsewhere which all appeared between a year or three years after the viral joke.
> This earliest explanation claims (I don't believe it) that the expression started in St. Louis where one newspaper that used lots of old jokes was located on Chestnut Street (which is true, I checked).  A rival paper claimed that the other paper was routinely called the "Old Chestnut" because of its location (no evidence of that), and old jokes were called "Old Chestnuts" because they came from the other paper.  This explanation dates to 1881.
> Grammarphobia has a good post that goes through the other explanations from the period.
> https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.grammarphobia.com%2Fblog%2F2017%2F01%2Fold-chestnut.html&data=02%7C01%7Cfred.shapiro%40yale.edu%7C5417591d4b5340cb43ca08d676b96bf4%7Cdd8cbebb21394df8b4114e3e87abeb5c%7C0%7C0%7C636826936080591548&sdata=Aisg4nmCNV11M42zYXlHUgfQ3O7cmwwQ6kGQvq9wNj8%3D&reserved=0
> One of the explanations claimed that it happened in 1867 with a touring stage troupe performing a particular play with a funny line about a chestnut tree that comes up as one of the characters is retelling an old story but saying cork tree, instead of chestnut this time - "Chestnut!"
> Anyways, the story names four people who were present at the time, and I was able to find an advertisement for a performance of that play, in the state where he said it happened, that involved all of those particular performers in 1869, which seems close, and may lend a bit of credence to his story.  Another person told a similar story, about the same play, but said it happened years after the first known example of the word.
> The "bad in age"/badinage pun has its own long history dating to the 1820s, as does a prototypical bad pun about the differences between a chestnut horse and a horse chestnut which came from the House of Commons in the 18-aughts.
> I have a post about it all here:
> https://na01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com/?url=https%3A%2F%2Fesnpc.blogspot.com%2F2019%2F01%2Fhorses-jokes-and-bells-unfunny-history.html&data=02%7C01%7Cfred.shapiro%40yale.edu%7C5417591d4b5340cb43ca08d676b96bf4%7Cdd8cbebb21394df8b4114e3e87abeb5c%7C0%7C0%7C636826936080591548&sdata=nMtlZsGRvIaOyWSGHOol8IqmNyuuw8pbiFIVvQD6xe0%3D&reserved=0
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