[Ads-l] Quote: A camel is a horse designed by a committee

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Sep 22 09:43:42 UTC 2023

I received a request to explore the popular quip in the subject line.
The Quote Investigator article is here:

Full: https://quoteinvestigator.medium.com/934d111cb41e
Abbrev: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2023/09/22/horse-camel/

Barry Popik has a helpful article which is accessible via the Way Back
machine. (His website is currently inaccessible.)


Barry's article reprints a supposed 1952 citation listed in the
Wiktionary entry for "a camel is a horse designed by a committee".


The date of the Wiktionary citation is incorrect. The 1952 date was
probably based on an old unverified match in Google Books. The current
match in Google Books for the citation text indicates that the book
appeared in 1969 or later.

The earliest match I have located appeared in "Reader's Digest"
magazine in September 1954 within a section titled "Toward More
Picturesque Speech". The word 'horse' was omitted; hence, the match
was incomplete. Yet, the key idea was communicated with the words
'camel' and 'committee'.

[ref] 1954 September, Reader’s Digest, Volume 65, Number 389, Toward
More Picturesque Speech, Quote Page 128, The Reader's Digest
Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

[Begin excerpt]
A camel looks like something put together by a committee (T. R. Quaife)
[End excerpt]

In December 1957 the full quip with the word 'horse' appeared within a
joke published in "Sports Illustrated" magazine. Barry identified this

[ref] 1957 December 9, Sports Illustrated, Events & Discoveries, Start
Page 22, Quote Page 23, Column 1, Time Inc., New York. (Verified with

[Begin excerpt]
Child: Daddy, what is a camel?
Father: What is a what?
Child: What is a camel?
Father: A camel is a horse that was designed by a committee.
[End excerpt]

Thus, T. R. Quaife is the leading candidate for creator of the core
expression using 'camel' and 'committee'. An anonymous person improved
the saying by adding the word 'horse'.

Thematic precursors depicted the humorous transformation of animals
such as the donkey, horse, camel, and cow. Below is an overview with
dates representing the evolution of the joke:

1801: Der Esel kommt mir vor wie ein Pferd ins Holländische übersetzt.
(Georg Christoph Lichtenberg) Translation: The donkey seems to me like
a horse translated into Dutch.

1946 Feb: Daffynition: CAMEL: A warped horse. (Paul H. Gilbert)

1949 Nov: A camel is a horse that swallowed its saddle. (Attributed to
Jimmy Durante)

1950 Oct: “What is your definition of a camel?” “That’s a cow upside
down.” (Billy Glason)

1954 Sep: A camel looks like something put together by a committee
(Attributed to T. R. Quaife in “Reader’s Digest”)

1955 Nov: Even a camel reminds you of an animal that was put together
by a committee. (Anonymous)

1956 Feb: giraffe—it’s the kind of an animal that looks like it had
been put together by a committee. (Anonymous)

1957 Apr: camel—a beast that looks as if it had been designed by a
committee. (Anonymous)

1957 Dec: Child: What is a camel? Father: A camel is a horse that was
designed by a committee. (Anonymous)

1958 Feb: A camel is a horse put together by a TV network planning
board. (Credited to Ed Byron by Leonard Lyons)

1958 Mar: Heard the new definition of a camel? It's a race horse
designed by a committee. (Anonymous)

1958 Jul: The refreshed definition of a camel: a horse planned by a
committee. (Anonymous)

1959 Jun: Definition of a camel: this is “a greyhound put together by
a committee.” (Anonymous)

1961 Apr: A camel is a horse designed by a committee. (Attributed to
Charles F. Kettering)

1964 Jul: The camel was an example of a horse designed by a committee.
(Attributed to Alec Issigonis)

A separate Quote Investigator article about the 1801 saying is located here.

Feedback welcome

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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list