An Ill Wind.

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.


  1. George Grady says

    For posterity, although you linked Geoff Pullum’s first post, here’s the one you quoted from.

  2. Argh! I noticed I hadn’t added the link while I was composing the post and reminded myself to add it before hitting “Post,” but obviously I forgot. Fixed, and thanks!

  3. That quip is clever but unnecessarily insulting… I think the oboe is the most beautiful-sounding woodwind, if you treat it right anyway, which is admittedly no easy thing. (I am reminded of the sneers that the accordion received, when first invented, from skilled musicians who complained that everyone and anyone played the accordion (badly) because you could make it sound OK by just pushing buttons, unlike older instruments where it’s challenging even to get a decent sound out of them.)

  4. if you treat it right anyway, which is admittedly no easy thing.

    Thus the quip, which exaggerates for humor. I like the oboe too, though not so much as the clarinet; I’m a sucker for a clarinet quintet.

  5. The oboe has a long, thin double reed, requiring a technique that is notoriously difficult to master and exhausting to maintain. Single reeds like the clarinet and the saxophone are easier to play because the reed vibrates against a mouthpiece that is shaped to fit the mouth more naturally.

  6. A simple Spoonerism that turns out to say something very witty and possibly profound is the kind of thing that (a) would spread very rapidly, and (b) might occur to more than one person. For an example of the latter (not a Spoonerism, but a play on words), a few years ago (maybe 5) I thought of something I could have said, but didn’t think of, 40 years ago when a peanut farmer and governor of Georgia ran for President: “he put the goober in gubernatorial”. When I goobered googled the phrase, I found it had already been used 17 times, though none of the targets was an actual peanut farmer. I just Binged it again, and got 1,450 hits, mostly aimed at Gary Johnson, Rick Perry, and other present or former governors in flyover country. So this also illustrates point (a) above: it looks like more than one person thought of the joke independently, but most of those 1,450 surely heard it from someone else and couldn’t resist passing it on, with or without a change of governor.

    P.S. 5 minutes later: Probably shouldn’t have called the oboe joke a Spoonerism. Swapping whole words, not just initial sounds of words, is more like comic hyperbaton, as in “Nice we’re having weather, isn’t it?” or “What’s a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?” or “What can I do you for?”

  7. The famous recommendation for a mediocre student:
    “Mr. Jones would undoubtedly be an addition to your fine program.”

  8. “If you lend me this money I will be forever indebted to you.”

  9. That’s excellent!

  10. But why the oboe and not the French horn? Perhaps the oboe is the most difficult among the woodwinds but the horn section is what Russian musicians call “киксодром” (“clam field,” kind of). I remember a discussion thread entitled “Почему киксуют валторнисты?” (“Why do horn players clam?”)

  11. John Cowan says

    By the way, Jimmy Carter was in fact not a peanut farmer except in a small way; primarily he was a peanut processor who bought other people’s peanuts and did the necessary with them.

  12. Google “viola jokes” and you’ll find whole anthologies. For grammarians their content is probably analyzable under either the occupational case (“How do you get a violist to play pianissimo tremolando? Mark his part ‘Solo'”) or the instrumental (“Why do some people take an instant dislike to the viola? It saves time”).

  13. I didn’t know about viola jokes until I dated a viola player — she had a million of ’em.

  14. I find it odd (and I say this as a violist) that viola jokes are overwhelmingly collected and told by viola players. You might not expect that there would be that much instrument-specific culture within the sting section,* but violists are characteristically a self-deprecating bunch. Of course, there are jokes about other instruments, but nothing like viola jokes in quantity.

    After he got tired of his P. D. Q. Bach concert shtick (and when his age was probably wearing on his ability to climb down from concert hall balconies**), Peter Schickele continued to tour. As he always had, he would come into town and perform with the local orchestra, but rather than a pure humor show, he mixed jokes with more serious performance, including a lot of his own lesser-known works, such as the soundtrack for Silent Running. Being a composer and conductor himself, he told a lot of jokes about conductors, but he told a roughly equal number of viola jokes, and only a few others about other kinds of musicians.

    * Perhaps I should not be surprised about this though, because there certainly is a fair amount of instrument-specific culture related to the concert repertoire. For some instruments (violin, cello, flute, piano, etc.) there exist vast repertoires of virtuoso pieces. However, the number of great sonatas and concertos for viola, string bass, oboe, or French horn is much more limited. Any professional violist probably has an opinion about, for example, Harold in Italy by Berlioz.

    ** A regular part of the performance routine was that the concert would start late. After a delay, there would be an announcement that “Professor”*** Schickele was missing. He could not be located and had probably gotten on the wrong bus, so the concert would have to be cancelled. However, at just that moment, Schickele would emerge, usually on the balcony, yelling that he had somehow made it, so the show could indeed go on. Rather than try to find his was from the balcony to the stage door normally, he would lower a rope and climb down into one of the aisles, then rush forward and belly flop onto the stage. When he was starting out, in his thirties, Schickele would actually sometimes jump directly from the balcony to the stage, if the performance space was small enough.

    *** He was on the faculty of the fictional University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople.

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