I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Here’s how the story usually unfolds: “The Lord’s Prayer has 66 words, the 10 Commandments has 179 words, the Gettysburg address has 286 words, and European Union regulations on the sale of cabbage has 26,911 words.” Ba-dum-tss.
Sometimes, a 24-word Pythagorean theorem is tossed in for good measure. Also, many re-tellers of the anecdote add the U.S. Declaration of Independence and erroneously quote the 1,322-word document as having 300 words.
Public speakers, usually of the conservative persuasion, love the Great Cabbage Memo story. It’s held up as an example of bloated and useless bureaucracies that churn out verbose reports that have no purpose. Sadly, for those who love casino capitalism and an unregulated marketplace the story is completely untrue. There is no EU report on selling cabbages.
Origin of the Great Cabbage Memo
The provenance of the story is murky, but the best candidate for its invention, although unwittingly, seems to be a U.S. government document. In 1943, the Department of Agriculture issued a report on controlling the price of cabbage seeds. It was about 2,600 words long.
Barry O’Neill, a professor of political science at the University of California, has researched this myth. He has written that “Holland, America’s main source of the seed, had fallen to the Nazis, and a California speculator bought up the remaining supply, grown in Puget Sound. When he raised the price 800%, the Roosevelt administration issued a directive setting a ceiling.”
By the early 1950s, the cabbage verbiage pops up in a letter from the president of a Chicago pickle and relish company and a newspaper quiz. But, now the word count, as in a game of broken telephone, has inflated to 26,000. Finally, it settles on the exact figure of 26,911 words, suggesting that someone has labouriously counted every one (this in the days long before you could press a button and get a word count on your computer). Hmm? 26,911 is so precise. It must be true.
Why 26,911 words?
The number of words in documents cited as the essence of brevity often varies but the cabbage report’s length always stays stubbornly the same. The unknown and mischievous rascal who created the myth misstated the length of the U.S. Declaration of Independence at 300 words. Many of those who followed have unquestioningly taken this number as gospel, which ought to be a clue that the thing is bogus.
The story takes on various forms. Sometimes the garrulous regulation is about herring fishing in the North Sea or the importation of caramel products. But always, that number remains ominously stuck on 26,911. It never changes. Is there something significant about it? The great oracle, Google, offers no enlightenment other than to deliver some street addresses.
In idle moments the curious mind starts to mull over this number when it should be doing something more productive. Perhaps, it’s a date? 26 September 1911? Italy and Turkey were fighting over what was to become Libya and on that date the Italians issued an ultimatum to the Turks. That doesn’t seem to be very significant. On that day Harry Truman wrote a totally innocuous letter to Bess Wallace. Previous centuries produce no better illumination.
Ah! Maybe it’s a biblical reference? Psalm 26, verses 9 – 11.
“Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men:
“In whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes.
“But as for me, I will walk in mine integrity: redeem me, and be merciful unto me.”
That’s a bit arcane and there is absolutely no mention of cabbages, herring, or caramel.
The 911 bit isn’t relevant because the story pre-dates the universal emergency phone number (1967) and the al-Qaeda attacks (2001).
Perhaps, that curious mind should settle for figuring out its taxes, another task that is guaranteed to produce frustration, and accept that 26,911 is simply a random number designed to look authoritative.
The Myth Continues
Meanwhile, back with Professor O’Neill, he’s found that the story popped up as a question in the popular radio quiz show Double or Nothing, and was quoted by columnist Walter Winchell. Ronald Reagan cited it as an example of everything that was wrong with big government. Even the great Walter Cronkite got sucked into repeating the myth on the CBS Evening News in 1977.
According to Snopes.com, “A New Hampshire coalition called ‘Get Government Off Our Backs!’ was also bruiting it about in 1994. In 1993, Jack Critchfield, chief executive officer of Florida Progress Corp., passed along the cabbage tale in a speech to the Greater Largo Chamber of Commerce.”
More recently, it has been quoted by numerous opponents of British membership in the European Union as that country lurched towards its referendum on the issue.
Many attempts have been made to strangle the Great Cabbage Memo legend. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Examiner, The National Review among others have tried to kill off the fable; they’ve all failed. It lives on and this article won’t cause it to die either.
In the past it made the rounds, appearing every few years and then hiding out waiting for its next eager speech writer to dig it up and give it another airing. However, today, social media breathes new life into the fairy tale on a daily basis.
It exists because it feeds the suspicion that government is a gaping maw that swallows taxpayer’s money on cockamamie projects. There are plenty of other scary stories designed to undermine the credibility of government regulation such as the health and safety rule that water buckets must have holes in the bottom to prevent drowning.
It fits the narrative that bureaucrats are a pestilence until we find we need a new hip, or a roof for the local school.
In 1995, Utah Senator Orrin Hatch gave voice to the word count fable on the Senate floor. And, in 2006, Lord Ramsbotham of Kensington told Britain’s House of Lords, “There are 277 words in the 10 Commandments. There are 300 words in the American Declaration of Independence. There are 26,911 words in the European directive on the export of duck eggs.”
- In the mid-1990s, the European Commission was looking at banning tobacco ads from newspapers and magazines. The Philip Morris Company tried to get ahead of the story by running ads that said “Pythagoras’ theorem contains 24 words, Archimedes’ Principle 67, the Ten Commandments 179, the Declaration of Independence 300, and recent European legislation concerning when and where you can smoke, 24,942.” Then, the ad continued, “The passion to regulate down to the finest detail of people’s lives can lead to infringements of personal liberty.” That 24,942 figure it turned out was the combined sum of tobacco regulations in all the countries of Europe.
- In her 1987 book Pearls of Wisdom: A Book of Aphorisms, Vivien Foster wrote that “EEC [European Economic Community] directive on the import of caramel and caramel products requires, apparently, no fewer than 26,911 words.”
- “Cabbages and Tobacco.” Barry O’Neill, Yale School of Management, August 1995.
- “The Great Cabbage Myth.” Laura Gray, BBC News, April 6, 2016.
- “Of Cabbages and Kingmakers.” David Mikkelson, Snopes.com, April 9, 2012.
- “Truth Tobacco Industry Documents.” University of California, San Francisco, undated.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2016 Rupert Taylor