For reasons not worth getting into, I was struck by the urge to find the history of the most common example of a loaded question: “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

It’s a question that demands a yes or no answer, but either response requires the respondent to affirm a) having a wife and b) having beaten her in the past, and then to either confirm or deny an intent to keep doing so. Someone unmarried or who doesn’t beat his or her wife has to reject the question outright.

And, of course, simply by asking the question, the questioner has poisoned the well for any audience, leaving them with the sense that the respondent is a wife-beater, and any semblance of ambiguity in the reply will make the respondent seem even guiltier.

Wikipedia simply cites it as the “traditional example” of a loaded question, but it seems unlikely that the author would be entirely unknown. It’s used as shorthand in a 1977 letter to the editor of College English, suggesting that it was already commonplace by then.

Similarly, a book of sermon guidance (published 2008) uses the aphorism as a title for the section discussing a loaded question in the Gospel of Mark, without any explanation, again suggesting that it’s widely-known and uncontroversial.

Commenters in the Straight Dope forums tracked it back to a Bugs Bunny cartoon (from 1956), where it seems to be presented as common knowledge and uncontroversial, in punning with Groucho Marx’s show You Bet Your Life:

BUGS (AS GROUCHO): Welcome, welcome to You Beat Your Wife. Say the magic word and win $1,000. What’s your name, sir, and what do you do?

ELMER: Elmer Fudd. I’m a hunter. I’m hunting a wabbit. A cwazy fwesh wabbit.

BUGS: Well, Mr. Fudd, for $1,000, would you stop beating your wife?

ELMER: Well, yes. . . I, I mean no! I mean, well, that is I never. . .

BUGS: Well, while you’re making up your mind, I’m going to go slip out of these wet clothes, and into a dry martini, eh?

The earliest use I could find in JSTOR (an archive of academic papers) is from a 1929 article on how to avoid being tripped up on the witness stand, where it is simply called “the classical question.” It’s fairly obviously a colloquialism, so we wouldn’t expect it to occur first in academic writing anyway.

In Paul Elbourne’s Meaning: A Slim Guide to Semantics, he notes:

This property of presuppositions, that both the original sentence and its negation entail the presupposed proposition, makes presuppositions in a sense hard to escape from. This fact lies behind the old chestnut about the lawyer who asks a defendant, ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ … This kind of example has a long history. The Megarian school of Greek philosophy in the third century BC favoured the version ‘Have you stopped beating your father?’ The medieval philosophers toned the example down somewhat to ‘Have you stopped beating your donkey?’ But then in modern times wives supplanted donkeys. (Nowadays, in a nod to gender equality, one occasionally sees the example cited as ‘Have you stopped beating your spouse?’) As the American linguist Laurence Horn says, the history of this example ‘represents a discouraging commentary on twenty-three centuries of progress in social sensitivity.’

Horn’s comment came in a passing footnote. Samuel Wheeler’s more extensive examination of this and other Megarian paradoxes is well worth reading as well.

That the question still has the capacity to shock after 23 centuries is its own small miracle.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    March 4, 2012

    Well, Josh? Have you??

  2. #2 Ted Dahlberg
    March 14, 2012

    Fascinating. And it’s always a little sobering to be reminded that we’re not quite as different from the people of ancient times as we might think.