What is the origin of the English phrase "Boards are made of wood; they are long and narrow.", and what is its general connotation?

I just ran across this quotation in Edward Everett Hale's The Brick Moon (c. 1870),

This consideration helps me through many bored meetings which would be else so dismal. What did my old copy say?— "Boards are made of wood; they are long and narrow." But we do not get on!

The quotation also appears in what looks like a collection of aphorisms and funny tidbits, Good Health (January 1893), where it also forms a pun on "bored meetings."

It also appears in an 1896 sermon by the same Edward Everett Hale, also punning on "the board which directs the Bible Society."

Okay, so this is apparently a quotation from some schoolbook familiar to Edward Everett Hale circa 1890. Is this something that his readers circa 1890 would have recognized instantly? Is it just his own private joke? If it is recognizable, where is it from?

And then is there anything to the allusion or the pun that I'm missing? I suppose board meetings are long, or board members are narrow(-minded), and both are "wooden" in terms of inflexibility and/or stupidity. But on the whole, the second clause ("they are long and narrow") doesn't seem to add to the joke.

  • 1
    I've never heard that before. Then again, I'm not from the 1890s. Jul 5, 2017 at 7:29
  • It appears to be an aphorism of Hale's own devising and the copy book reference to the notebooks he used to write the story out.
    – Spagirl
    Jul 5, 2017 at 9:37

1 Answer 1


It appears to be an aphorism of Hale's own devising.

According to this Biography, Edward Everett Hale By Jean Holloway, he wrote the line to deploy, with others, in the series of children's copy books in which he set down the story 'My Double and How He Undid Me'

This rollicking whimsey with its good-humoured satire on the life of a preacher was welcomed by the editorial staff of the Atlantic - but not before it had been pruned of complicating embellishments by the ever tactful Lowell. Hale had originally submitted the stetch in "four of the manuscript books which are prepared by publishers for children learning to write." Each book had twenty-four pages, and at the top of each page, in lieu of the customary axiom for copy, Hale had set a satirical aphorism of his own which he considered appropriate to the patricular phase of his narrative.
His suggestion was that after each maxim - that is, after every 120 words - the type be changed to further the pretense that the manuscript had been received in this copybook form. Just what connection this illusion had with the tale, except perhaps to reinforce the characterisation of Ingham as one of nature's innocents, is not readily apparent, but the effect of such a jumble of typography upon Atlantic's staid format could be easily imagined.

Copy books, as described, helped children learn to write by copying sentences printed on the page. Often the sentences were 'improving' aphorisms, such as in this example, or proverbial sayings. enter image description here Quite what Hale's intent was when he originally devised lines about boards and geese it is difficult to speculate, and may require greater familiarity with the original story. The tale does seem to involve a minister employing a double to carry out some of the more tedious parts of his job, which might account for veiled jibes at board meetings. References to geese defeat me.

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