Geoff Pullum has been investigating the origins of the witticism that the oboe is “an ill wind that nobody blows good”; having chuckled at it repeatedly myself over the years (in an earlier post Geoff calls it “one of the funniest quotations I’ve ever studied”), I was extremely interested in his findings. He enlisted the great Fred Shapiro, compiler of the Yale Book of Quotations, who turned up a citation by Walter Winchell in the Scranton Republican of January 7, 1930, which rules out Ogden Nash (he had been proposed as originator); Ben Zimmer pushed it back to the fall of 1929. I’ll let you discover the details at his post; I want to quote the end, which expands on the idea that “The transmission processes for jokes almost guarantee in large numbers of cases we can never get back to the originators”:
People repeat things they hear other people say, and don’t always reproduce them perfectly, or attribute them correctly — or bother to attribute them at all. The passing of phrases from person to person not only obscures joke authorship but also affects all the rest of the language. The oboe calumny traveled around the Anglophone world via the same channels that caused American English to slowly diverge from British English — and then send back Americanisms to Britain, and in turn acquire Britishisms. The same processes that once turned the colloquial Latin of Roman soldiers into French.
We’ll probably never get back to a single true originator of the oboe witticism, and the reason is essentially the same as the reason that human languages change a little with each passing generation, and never seem fully polished or organized or codified.
An interesting thought, well put.