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Where did ‘Poison Pen’ Come From?

You’ve probably heard the term "poison pen" before.

PoisonThere was a recent article in The Times reporting that actress Claire Forlani is being sued by an antiques dealer over a “poison pen” note about him that she sent to friends. People Magazine used it in a headline this summer to describe a letter that Tori Spelling’s mom wrote to “Middle-Aged Reality Show Stars (Like My Daughter).”

Being fond of pens, and not fond of seeing them maligned by associations with poison, we were curious about the exact meaning of this term and where it originated. So far, we haven’t had much luck discovering how it came to be, but we thought we’d share what we’ve learned.

As you might already know, a poison pen describes a letter, often written anonymously, that viciously attacks another person or group. The term also applies to the writer of such a letter. The metaphor means that the writer is dipping his or her pen in poison, rather than ink.

Basically, it’s an old-school way of describing what we would now call a “flame.”

Where the term got started seems to be something of a mystery.

We emailed associate editor Bernadette Paton at the Oxford University Press to ask her about it. Part of her job is antedating words and phrases for the Oxford English Dictionary to find their earliest uses. She helpfully provided us with a revised draft entry from the dictionary.

According to the Oxford researchers, the earliest published use of "poison pen" was 6 Sept 1911 in The Evening Post, a newspaper in Frederick, Maryland. The headline read, “More ‘poison-pen’ letters received.” What the story was about isn’t clear.

The phrase was used two years later in the 10 Jan 1913 edition of The New York Times in a story describing how a “poison pen” writer was sending anonymous postcards to coffee roasters in an attempt to disrupt the sale of 950,000 bags of coffee.

Another New York newspaper repeated it in 1914 in a sentence describing women crowding into a courtroom “hoping to hear some plausible elucidation of the ‘poison pen’ mystery.”

Does all that mean it originated in the US just after the turn of the century? Maybe, but who knows.

It was in use in the UK by at least 1939. We found a listing on the Internet Movie Database for a British movie produced that year called Poison Pen starring Dame Flora Robson. The IMDB description says:

“a small, sedate British village is shocked when its residents begin receiving hate-filled diatribes, known as ‘poison pen letters.’”

In 1942, Agatha Christie based one of her Miss Marple mysteries on the concept of the poison pen letter in The Moving Finger.” She even refers to the anonymous letter writer who sets up a murder as “Poison Pen” until the resolution of the mystery. (We won’t tell you whodunit.)

There’s a well-known independent bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona called The Poisoned Pen, so we figured we’d ask the people at the store, in case they had an idea. Owner Barbara Peters didn’t know where the term originated, but had this to say:

"Used as the basis for some classic crime plots to illustrate the effect of gossip, usually in a small community, often driving recipients to either suicide or murder. Now they come in email and are posted on line, thus at once widespread and diluted but always upsetting, sometimes harmful, and probably subject to increasing scrutiny."

So that’s it, readers, that’s all we know. We’re hoping there may be an historian or an etymologist among you who has some information on the subject. If so, please share.

One thought on “Where did ‘Poison Pen’ Come From?”

  • K. Myers

    From the Antietam Historical Society facebook page:
    "The Potomac Street Irregulars let their hair down this evening when Todd Dorsett presented "The Poison Pen of Miss Anna Zimmerman." Smithsburg, Md., took centre stage as the PSIs discussed the sad but shocking 1913 case. If we were to say that it is always the most unlikely persons who commit crimes, Miss Marple would probably reply, "On the contrary, I find that the most obvious explanation is also the correct explanation." But who would have thought that an otherwise respectable spinster of Miss Zimmerman's day would write the filthiest letters to and about her fellow townspeople! but she did, and she did it scores of times over a period of seven years. The speaker kept the eager audience in suspense until the last segment of his presentation, when he read four of her "obscene, lewd and lascivious" missives (with appropriate bleeping of one partickular word). Why did she do it? The generally accepted explanation is that she became somewhat deranged as the result of a failed engagement to marry, abandonment, and the subsequent scorn she endured from the village gossips. "The poison pen is generally dipped in bile." In 1913, a District Court jury in Baltimore convicted Miss Anna Zimmerman, of Smithsburg, of three counts of sending obscene and defamatory letters in the US Mail. The decision ended Miss Zimmerman's seven years of sending scores of "obscene and scurrilous" letters to nearly every family in Smithsburg and some in Hagerstown, Maryland. The letters caused professional men to become open enemies, spouses to become estranged, and entire families made uncomfortable. She didn't even spare children! "

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