August 12, 2012

“All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening.”


“All the things I really like to do are either immoral, illegal, or fattening.” 
       Attributed to
Alexander Woollcott (1897-1943)
       American journalist, drama critic and member of the
Algonquin Round Table
       This famous dry witticism
is widely credited to Woollcott, sometimes with the last three words in the order “...illegal, immoral, or fattening.” It does not seem to have appeared in his written works, though some sources wrongly claim it’s from his piece “The Knock at the Stage Door,” first published in the September 1922 issue of The North American Review. (It isn’t.)
       Woollcott biographer Howard Teichmann says Woollcott used the line in conversations, presumably with his fellow Algonquin Round Table members. But documentation of a specific oral or written use remains elusive. Thus, most books of quotations simply note that the saying is “attributed” to Woollcott. Some give the December 1933 issue of Reader's Digest as a citation for his use. However, as noted by authoritative sources like The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, it was just listed in a set of quotes in that issue and attributed to Woollcott without any specific source. 
W.C. Fields may have helped popularize the saying by uttering a version in the 1934 film Six of a Kind. Playing the character Sheriff “Honest John” Hoxley, he grouses to a woman who asks him why he drinks so much: “According to you, everything I like to do is either illegal, immoral or fattening.” Another early use in film came in the 1939 movie Love Affair. In that, actress Irene Dunne says to Charles Boyer: “The things we like best are either illegal, immoral or fattening.” (Thanks to my fellow writer and retro culture buff Dan Leo for the tip on Irene’s quote.)
       Since the 1930s, the notion that things people like are either illegal, immoral or fattening has taken on proverbial status. It is now commonly used or varied without an attribution to Woollcott or any other source.
      The juxtaposition of the words illegal and immoral was not new when Woollcott used it. As far back as the early 1800s it was common — especially in law-related contexts — to use
phrases such as “illegal, immoral, or contrary to public policy” and “illegal, immoral, against public policy, or prohibited by statute.” In fact, I suspect Woollcott may have been parodying this older formulation.


“It’s not like it’s illegal, immoral or unethical. I think they’re going to find this was not the bogeyman they’re making it out to be.”
Kenneth Reichel
       Mayor of Madison Lake, Minnesota
Commenting on the fears of some local townspeople who opposed allowing the “World’s Largest Bikini Parade” to be part of the town’s venerable July 28 Paddlefish Days parade. Opponents worried that having women (and a few men) marching down the street in itsy-bitsy bikinis would not be “in keeping with a family tone.” As it turned out, the event proceeded without inflicting any major moral casualties, but (alas) failed to set a record for the number of bikini-wearing marchers in a parade.


“The familiar saying ‘Everything I do is either illegal, immoral, or fattening’ might be modified to include ‘or causes cancer.’ So many substances have been indicted by laboratory tests on animals that it is possible that a sort of complacency could be developing in the minds of the public.”
C. Ray Asfahl
       Industrial safety expert
       In his book Industrial Safety and Health Management (2009)


       Sign posted on the website


“It’s neither illegal nor immoral to ask somebody for money. It’s neither illegal nor immoral to threaten to expose somebody’s theft. But it’s both illegal and immoral to ask somebody for money, threatening that if you don’t get the money, you’ll expose their theft.”
Andrew Bailey
       Philosophy professor at the University of Guelph, Ontario 
       A logic puzzler noted in his book
First Philosophy (2012). Bailey goes on to explain: “This is a paradox only if you accept the principle that if it’s not illegal (or immoral) to do X, and it’s not illegal (or immoral) to do Y, then it’s not illegal (immoral) to do X and Y. But that’s clearly a false principle.” Got it?

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