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.
During the nineteenth century, publishers began producing multilingual phrase-books for businessmen and wealthy travellers. An early example is Georg Wolfrum's Handbuch für Jünglinge (1825), which gives English, German, French and Italian versions of "Are the postilions insolent?" The same question is found in Baedeker's Conversationsbuch für Reisende.
John Murray's Handbook of Travel-Talk (1847) includes a section entitled "Accidents on a Journey". It gives English, French, German and Italian translation suggestions for a variety of mishaps which might befall a traveller, such as one's postillion becoming injured, or finding oneself in stormy weather:
Oh, dear! The postilion has been thrown (off) down.
Is he hurt? Run for assistance to the next cottage.
Ask for a surgeon.
I am afraid he has broken his leg — his arm.
He has been bruised on his head.
He must be carried home gently.
It rains in torrents.
It lightens—it thunders.
A theatre review in the September 14, 1889 issue of the London illustrated weekly The Graphic includes a phrase very similar to the one under discussion, attributing it to Murray's travel guide:
The proprietor of the Greenwich Theatre has hit on the notion of ornamenting his playbills with a picture of the house, on which every exit is marked in conspicuous fashion. Somebody has objected that in the face of fire or panic no one would be likely to consult this guide to the methods of escape. This reminds one of the criticism of a gentleman on Mr. Murray's "Travel Talk," when he found the exclamation, "Dear me, our postillion has been struck dead by lightning!" set forth for his convenience in four languages.
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 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.
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".
In James Michener's 1954 novel Sayonara, the heroine Hana-Ogi tries to learn a little English from a phrasebook to communicate with her American lover and based on its recommendation starts with this phrase, much to his bewilderment.
"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 titled the first volume of his autobiography A Postillion Struck By Lightning. According to Bogarde, he heard of the sentence while on a childhood holiday in France. It came from an old French phrase-book belonging to the nanny of another family.
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.; emphasis added
- Cook, Guy (2003). Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 31–32. ISBN 0-19-437598-6.; emphasis added
- Wolfrum, Georg (1825). Handbuch für Jünglinge. Bamberg: Johann Casimir Dresch. pp. 288–9.
- e.g. Baedeker, Karl (1870). Conversationsbuch für Reisende: In vier sprachen, Deutsch, Französisch, Englisch, Italienisch (20th ed.). Coblenz: K. Bädeker. pp. 210–211. OCLC 46352073.
- Murray, John (1847). The Handbook of Travel-Talk. London: John Murray. p. 40-1.
- "Theatres". The Graphic. London. xl (1033): 335. 1889-09-14.; emphasis added.
- Punch, August 30, 1916; v. 151, p.162, col. 3; emphasis added
- Despencer (1932), p. 49
- Despencer (1932), p. 5; emphasis added.
- "The "Quote...Unquote" Newsletter" (PDF). 17 (2). April 2008: 1. Retrieved 2008-08-17.
- reprinted in Thurber, James (1969). My World -- and Welcome to It. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 300. ISBN 0-15-662344-7.
- Michener, James A. (1954). Sayonara. New York: Random House. p. 113.
- 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.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
- Bogarde, Dirk (1977). A Postillion Struck by Lightning. London: Chatto & Windus. ISBN 0-7011-2207-2.
- Bogarde, op. cit., pp. 102, 110
- Crystal (1995), p. 12
- Crystal (1995), p. 14
- Crystal (1995), p. 15
- Crystal (1995), p. 16
- Crystal (1995), p. 22