Bottle and Potato Traced to the Source

Recently John Holbo cited two lines of doggerel by Michael Hamburger:

To Einstein as to Plato,
Time was a hot potato.

For English majors of a certain age, this calls to mind “Survey of Literature, a late-Twenties jingle by the once-respected John Crowe Ransom:

In all the good Greek of Plato
I lack my roast beef and potato.
A better man was Aristotle,
Pulling steady on the bottle.

This in turn evokes Monty Python’s more recent “Bruce” sketch:

Aristotle, Aristotle was a bugger for the bottle…..

(As it happens, in Cockney rhyming slang “Aristotle” supposedly means “arse / ass –> “glass” –> “bottle” –> “Aristotle”; it was then shortened to “aris”,  which is close enough to “arse” to make the whole story seem a little fishy).

No one remembers who Owen Wister (1888-1938) was anymore, but his version almost certainly  predates Ransom’s:

Said Aristotle unto Plato,
“Have another sweet potato?
“Said Plato unto Aristotle,
“Thank you, I prefer the bottle.”

This Gilbert and Sullivan couplet from Patience (1881) is, in turn, earlier than Wister’s squib, but it misses the Aristotle / bottle rhyme:

Then a sentimental passion–of a vegetable fashion–must excite your languid spleen–
An attachment a la Plato–for a bashful young potato, or a not too French French bean!

The locus classicus of these rhymes is probably here, from one of England’s most-renowned poets:
[But maybe not! See below]

I‘ll call the work “Longinus o’er a Bottle, Or, Every Poet his own Aristotle.”

Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto I, #204 

By Swift, by Machiavel, by Rochefoucault, By Fénélon, by Luther, and by Plato; By Tillotson, and Wesley, and Rousseau, Who knew this life was not worth a potato…..

Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto VII, #4


Aristotle / bottle rhymes by Daniel Defoe and several unknown or anonymous poets.
The Learned Men who study Aristotle
Correct him with an Explanation Bottle.

Ogden Nash I
So Socrates and Plato
Ate dessert without finishing their potato

Ogden Nash II
Like Burns, I have a weakness for the bottle,
Like Shakespeare, little Latin and less Greek;
I bite my fingernails like Aristotle;
Like Thackeray, I have a snobbish streak.

Very thorough discussion of the history of the words “potato” and “yam” in English, French, and other languages

Python sketch  / Cockney rhyming slang / Wister / Patience  / Hamburger / Ransom / Byron I / Byron II

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