Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Many A True Word Is Said In Jest

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 7, 2011

Have you ever been the brunt of a someone’s cutting remark only to have that person recant with the comment “just kidding” and a big grin on the speaker’s face?  All of us have found ourselves in that position from time to time.  Contrary to popular misconception, however, the “just kidding” comment only serves to take some of the sting out of what the speakers believes to be true about his or her subject.

Recently, on March 2, 2011 the Mail and Guardian newspaper in Cape Town carried a story about South African government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi and his comments about Indian South Africans.  The Democratic Alliance Federal Chairperson, Wilmot James, took Jimmy Manyi to task for his remarks.  The newspaper reported the following:

Contacted for comment on Wednesday, Manyi confirmed he had made the remarks in his Durban address, but said they were in jest.  “The remarks were made in jest; just a jest, on a light note. I was quoting figures at the time. The remark was really just made in jest,” he said.  He declined to comment further.

On May 7, 1905 the New York Times published a story their regular column, “The Financial Situation.”  The story addressed the large decline on Wall Street over the course of 14 days — larger than what had been seen in several months leading up to those two weeks.  It stated in part:

It may seem a sorry jest to those whose margins have run off, and who find themselves out on the sidewalk just as the fiddler scrapes a merrier tune.  And yet, many a true word is spoken in jest.

On January 30, 1849 in the Public Ledger newspaper of St. John’s, Newfoundland (Canada), an article appeared where the identities of the parties involved was kept from readers.  The storyteller, however, regaled readers with a personal experience that began aboard the Washington steamer bound to New York where she met an English woman married to an American merchant from New York.  Years later, the storyteller read of the American merchant’s death in the obituaries and she wondered about the English woman she had met years ago.  As life would have it, the storyteller contracted yellow fever while living in New Orleans and her doctor advised her to return to England.  She set out towards New York but upon arriving there, she was so ill that she contacted a doctor that the English woman on the Washington steamer had mentioned in conversation.  The story ended with:

After prescribing for me, and receiving the customary fee of two dollars, he was about to leave the room; when a few words from me nailed him to the spot.  They were these, “Pray, Doctor, is Mrs. A— still in New York?”  He coloured slightly — looked first at me, then at his boots — at length said, “She is; and at my house; we were married a month ago.”  I was thunderstruck.  Many a true word is spoken in jest!

In Jonathan Swift’s “A Complete Collection of Polite and Ingenious Conversation In Several Dialogues” in published in 1738, the following exchange between Miss Notable, Colonel Atwit and Mr. Neverout is found:

MISS NOTABLE:
I vow, madam, I saw something in black; I thought it was a spirit.

COLONEL ATWIT:
Why, miss, did you ever see a spirit?

MISS NOTABLE:
No, sir; I thank God I never saw any thing worse than myself.

MR. NEVEROUT:
Well, I did a very foolish thing yesterday, and was a great puppy for my pains.

MISS NOTABLE:
Very likely; for they say, many a true word’s spoke in jest.

In “The Merry Man’s Resolution or A London Frollick” written by Thomas Joy, a ballad singer of Oxford, and found in the “Roxburghe Ballads” published in 1665, we read:

Be n’t angry with this fellow, I protest
That many a true word hath been spoke in jest.
By degrees he layes a wager, money’s scant
Until five shillings out; then ends his Rant.

In the book, “Proverbs in Scot” by J. Carmichael and published in 1628 the following proverb is found.  Keep in mind that in 1628, suith meant true and bourding meant jesting also known as joking or, more recently, kidding:

Manie suith word said in bourding.

The sense of the proverb, however, can be traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer and his “Monk’s Prologue I” found in his “Canterbury Tales” of 1390.  Again, the word sooth meant true and since the speaker mentions that truth is “ofte in game” we can take that to mean he is referring to jesting which we now know is kidding.

This maketh that oure wyves wole assaye
Religious folk, for ye mowe bettre paye
Of Venus paiementz than mowe we;
God woot, no lussheburghes payen ye!
But be nat wrooth, my lord, though that I pleye.
Ful ofte in game a sooth I have herd seye!”

Idiomation was unable to find an earlier published version of this expression “many a true word is said in jest” however that it would appear in the Canterbury Tales implies that it was common knowledge at the time putting the expression to at least the mid 1300s.

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