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