I imagine a lot of you are familiar with a little rhyme that I learned as a child thus:

The other day upon the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there.
He wasn’t there again today;
Gee, I wish he’d go away!

I’ve run into slightly different versions from time to time, and when I saw one at Pepys’ Diary (which, incidentally, Cory Doctorow seems to think has been around for ten years) that ended “I do so wish/ He’d go away,” I thought I’d investigate and see if there was a canonical version. It turns out there is, it’s by Hughes Mearns, and it’s called (of all things) “Antigonish” (though it’s usually thought of as “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There”). As you might expect, Wikipedia has the full story; it bears that title because it was “Inspired by reports of a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house in Antigonish, Nova Scotia” (which, by the way, is pronounced ant-i-go-NISH, main stress on the last syllable and lighter stress on the first; I am familiar with it from The Antigonish Review), it was written around 1899 but not published until 1922, it became a big hit in 1939 (as “The Little Man Who Wasn’t There”) for Glenn Miller (YouTube), and it “has been used numerous times in popular culture, often with slight variations in the lines” (many examples listed). The things you learn!


  1. I’ve never heard the little nan who wasn’t there before today. I found it very interesting. Enjoyed it. Thank you for posting it.

  2. Side point about pronunciation: Antigonish is exactly the kind of word I have trouble placing stress on. I’m primed for the “anti” morpheme, so I start pronouncing antee-go-nish. But that seems wrong, so I try antihguhnish. No clue which is “correct”.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    I live in Nova Scotia, and “AntigoNISH” is correct. Nothing to do with being against “goNISH” – the name is from an indigenous word (in Mi’gmaw, more commonly known as Micmac, an Algonkian language). (The “-i-” in “ant-i-gonish” could be misleading – “AN-tigga-NISH” would be a better rough transcription).
    I am familiar with a different version of the rhyme. This one could be related to the town, if someone adapted an earlier version (as in Pepys) to the local “ghost on the stair” tradition, one of numerous accounts of ghosts in various locations in the province.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    Sorry, I thought “Pepys” referred to something Pepys had written, not to someone’s comment on that site.
    The version I recall starts with “As I was going to the fair” and ends with “I wish that man would go away” (if I remember correctly – but at least no mention of a stair).

  5. Pau Amma says:

    One variant I remember from MAD had “I think he’s with the CIA” as the last line.

  6. Being a native Portuguese speaker I tend to put emphasis in the end of words, which often means my English sounds very funny. But “AntigoNISH” is totally how it sounded in my head in the first place. It’s good to be right for a change!

  7. xiaolongnu says:

    This is a Proustian madeleine for me – Antigonish (pronounced as Marie-Lucie describes) is the site of an annual Highland Games, in which my father’s pipe band competed every year. (I spent many weekends of my childhood in Atlantic Canada at one bagpipe competition or another.) I am quite sure that Antigonish is also where I went to my first ever Chinese restaurant, and tried chopsticks for the first time. An auspicious beginning!

  8. Borrowed words have no rule, especially not local pronunciations.

  9. My stress inclination (Southern AmE.) is ANtiGOnish intuitively interpreting the anti- as a prefix and -ish as a suffix, like ANti-POl-ish or ANti-BRIT-ish. But, even if these were not affixes, I would be influenced by the pattern.

  10. xiaolongnu! Long time no see! I’m glad Antigonish drew you here.

  11. marie-lucie says:

    GW: ANtiGOnish sounds like an adjective about Antigone, Oedipus’s daughter. AntigoNISH is quite an interesting town in Nova Scotia.

  12. Marie-Lucie, I thought Antigone was an-TIG-a-nee, so my initial pronunciation of Antigonish was stressed on the second syllable.

  13. marie-lucie says:

    KCinDC, the main thing is that you should stress the NISH part.

  14. I got some interference from both “Antigone” and “antagonism” when I first saw the word.

  15. I had always thought of the first stanza of this poem as a perfect little ghost story, suggestive, humorous, and inconclusive. (For me the last line was ‘I wish that man would go away!’ I don’t think it’s improved by the follow-up stanzas given on Wikipedia; I feel Hughes Mearns should have stopped after one quatrain. But thank you for bringing its history to light. David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ is probably the most famous popular culture reworking of this stanza.

  16. I don’t think it’s improved by the follow-up stanzas given on Wikipedia; I feel Hughes Mearns should have stopped after one quatrain.
    I quite agree, and this is another example of the wisdom of crowds, which has boiled so many wordy quotations down to their essence.

  17. And a lot of the misquotations of famous people are what they should have said, and are literarily good even if historically bad.
    Everett Dirksen was happy to be credited with “A billion here and a billion there, and eventually it adds up to real money”. But he didn’t remember ever saying it.

  18. a ghost of a man roaming the stairs of a haunted house
    So this is the original esprit de l’escalier ?

  19. Yep, this is what language is for: in just four short lines, with a tone that covers several different emotional territories, it presents a mystery, the response to the mystery, and the non-solution of the mystery.

  20. Some of my favorite misquotations:
    “We call nothing profound unless wittily expressed.” –Northrop Frye, improved by me
    “What is the sound of Perl? Is it not the sound of a [Ww]all that people have stopped banging their head against?” –Larry Wall, inventor of Perl, also improved by me
    “Evolutionary psychology is the theory that men are nothing but horn-dogs, and that women only want them for their money.” –Susan McCarthy, likewise improved by me

  21. That is, the quotation was also improved by me, not Perl.

  22. That is, it was the quotation that I improved; Perl did not improve the quotation, nor did I improve Perl.

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