[Ads-l] Quotation: A politician straddles the fence while keeping both ears to the ground

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Apr 28 02:37:37 UTC 2021

Nigel Rees included an instance of the joke in the subject line in his
October 2020 newsletter. Nigel (and several reference works) pointed
to an anonymous instance of this quip in H. L. Mencken's famous 1942

The Quote Investigator website now has an entry tracing the evolution
of the expression:

Politician: Straddling a Fence With Both Ears To the Ground

The earliest match I found was written by teacher and novelist Arthur
Stanwood Pier in the 1901 book “The Sentimentalists”. During one scene
the character Virginia criticized her brother Vernon. She comically
combined five different figurative phrases:

[ref] 1901, The Sentimentalists: A Novel by Arthur Stanwood Pier,
Chapter 11: The Hero Gains in Knowledge and Loses in Wisdom Quote Page
125 and 126, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books
Full View) [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
“You’re always straddling a fence, with one ear to the ground to see
which way the wind blows,” said Virginia. “It’s a picturesque
attitude, but you don’t get much leverage. You’d do better if you came
out into the open and showed your hand.”
[End excerpt]

The above instance cleverly combined metaphors, but it referred to one
ear and not two. Also, the remark was not applied to politicians in

In 1912 L. Curry Morton’s novel “The Hero and the Man” employed mixed
metaphors to describe a politician:

[ref] 1912, The Hero and the Man by L. Curry Morton, Chapter 24: As
Seen From the Hotel Kenney, Quote Page 346, A. C. McClurg and Company,
Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full view) [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
. . . he was an old-line politician somewhat noted for agility in
reversing tactics and in getting out of harm’s way, the type of
political acrobat that has been described as “always sitting on the
fence with one ear to the ground.”
[End excerpt]

Please visit the QI website to read more of this analysis.

While I was researching I performed a quick Google search on Barry
Popik's domain using "straddling the fence". Thus, I missed the fact
that he already had a helpful entry without this search phrase.
Barry's first citation is dated 1935, so I think my analysis is still
worth sharing. Here is a link to Barry's webpage:

“A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both
ears to the ground”


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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