My postillion has been struck by lightning
"My postillion has been struck by lightning", "Our postillion has been struck by lightning", and other variations on the same pattern, are often given as examples of the ridiculous phrases supposed to have been found in phrase books or language instruction in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The word postillion may occur in its alternative spelling postilion.
Although various forms of the sentence are widely cited, the exact wording and the context in which it is said to have originally been used vary. For example, a teaching manual attributes it to a Portuguese-English phrasebook:
The phrase-book for Portuguese learners of English which included the often-quoted and bizarre sentence 'Pardon me, but your postillion has been struck by lightning' demonstrates a total lack of sense of context: who can have said this, to whom and in what circumstances?
By contrast a linguistics textbook mentions the supposedly "apocryphal" phrase during a description of foreign language teaching in "the schoolrooms of Europe at the close of the nineteenth century":
[S]entences—especially constructed to contain only the grammar and vocabulary which had already been covered—were laboriously translated, in writing, into and out of the student's first language. Such sentences, often bizarrely remote from any conceivable use, have been the occasion for jokes ever since. We have probably all heard references to the apocryphal "My postilion has been struck by lightning" and the infamous plume de ma tante.
The source of the expression is obscure. Despite the quote's alleged nineteenth-century origin, author Nigel Rees reports in Brewer's Famous Quotations that he was unable to discover any reference earlier than the 1930s.
However, the August 30, 1916 edition of the British magazine Punch includes this item: "An officer serving in the Balkans writes to say that he has just come across a Hungarian-English phrase-book which starts with the useful phrase, 'My postilion has been struck by lightning.'"
Another early usage of the phrase occurs in a 1932 book entitled Little Missions, written by "Septimus Despencer":
It was my fortune once to be marooned for twenty-four hours in a siding of a railway station in what is now Jugoslavia but was then South Hungary. I wandered into the village, and in the village shop which sold everything I found a dozen of old second-hand books. One of them was a Magyar-English Manual of Conversation containing useful phrases such as every traveller needs to know. The first section was headed 'On the road', and the first sentence in it (which I instantly mastered) was: 'Dear me, our postilion has been struck by lightning.' This is the sort of thing that only happens in Hungary; and, when it happens, this is the sort of remark that only Hungarians make.
According to its introduction, the travels reported in the book occurred during "[t]he three years following the armistice of 1918": thus Despencer's discovery of the phrase would be dated during the period 1919-1921. In the April 2008 issue of the Quote ... Unquote newsletter, Nigel Rees speculates that the phrase "passed into general circulation" from Despencer's book.
Examples of similar phrases do occur in nineteenth century phrase books. The 1870 edition of Baedeker's phrasebook gives German, French and Italian equivalents of the sentence "Are the postilions insolent?" The 1877 edition of John Murray's Handbook of Travel-Talk contains translations of "Oh, dear! The postilion has been thrown (off) down", followed in succession by "Is he hurt? Run for assistance to the nearest cottage", "Ask for a surgeon", "I am afraid that he has broken his leg—his arm", "He has bruised his head", and finally "He must be carried home gently".
In James Thurber's 1937 New Yorker article "There's No Place Like Home", a phrasebook from "the era of Imperial Russia" contains the "magnificent" line: "Oh, dear, our postillion has been struck by lightning!". Thurber speculates that such a "fantastic piece of disaster" must have been rare, "even in the days of the Czars". Thurber heard of the quote from "an writer in a London magazine".
"The Postilion Has Been Struck By Lightning" is the title of a two-stanza poem by Patricia Beer, published in 1967. The poem was later selected for inclusion in The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse. In it, the author laments the death in a thunderstorm of "the best postilion I ever had".
In 1977 actor Dirk Bogarde made use of the phrase when he titled the first volume of his autobiography A Postillion Struck By Lightning. According to Nigel Rees, Bogarde explains that while on a childhood vacation (presumably in the 1920s) he discovered an old phrase book, seemingly dating from 1898. The phrase book contained such sentences as "The muslin is too thin, have you something thicker?", "My leg, arm, foot, elbow, nose, finger is broken" and "The postillion has been struck by lightning".
In a 1995 paper, linguist David Crystal defined "postilion sentences" as "sentences introduced in teaching [that] seem to have little or no chance of ever being used in real life". They are named after the phrase "The postilion has been struck by lightning", which Crystal describes as a famous example of such a sentence. He goes on to suggest that "an unexpectedly large number of sentences, used routinely with children with language impairment, are of this type", and gives as examples "That table's got four legs", and "Clap (your) hands!". He concludes that, "if teaching and therapeutic time is to be truly efficacious", postilion sentences should be avoided.
- Broughton, Geoffrey; Christopher Brumfit; Roger Flavell; Roger D. Wilde; Anita Pincas (1988). Teaching English as a Foreign Language (2nd ed.). London; New York: Routledge. p. 41. ISBN 0-415-05882-1.
- Cook, Guy (2003). Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 0-19-437598-6.
- Rees, Nigel (2006). Brewer's Famous Quotations: 5000 Quotations and the Stories Behind Them. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 29. ISBN 0-304-36799-0.
- Punch, August 30, 1916; v. 151, p.162, col. 3
- Despencer (1932), p. 49
- Despencer (1932), p. 5
- The "Quote...Unquote" Newsletter 17 (2). April 2008. p. p.1. Retrieved 2008-08-17.
- Punch. 1935-07-03. p. p. 8.
- Baedeker, Karl (1870). Conversationsbuch für Reisende: In vier sprachen, Deutsch, Französisch, Englisch, Italienisch (20th ed.). Coblenz: K. Bädeker. p. 210. OCLC 46352073.
- Murray, John (1877). A Handbook of Travel-Talk (New edition, carefully revised ed.). London: John Murray. p. 44. OCLC 71977549.
- reprinted in Thurber, James (1969). My World -- and Welcome to It. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 300. ISBN 0-15-662344-7.
- Beer, Patricia (1967). The Postilion Has Been Struck by Lightning, and Other Poems. London: Macmillan. OCLC 9581965.
- Enright, Dennis Joseph (ed.) (1980). The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse, 1945-1980. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-214108-2.
- Bogarde, Dirk (1977). A Postillion Struck by Lightning. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-7011-2207-2.
- Crystal (1995), p. 12
- Crystal (1995), p. 14
- Crystal (1995), p. 15
- Crystal (1995), p. 16
- Crystal (1995), p. 22