The world wide web and other repositories of knowledge attribute to Auden the definition, “A professor is one who talks in someone else’s sleep.” Until recently the oldest source of the attribution that I knew of was Evan Esar’s Dictionary of Humorous Quotations (Doubleday, 1949), p. 20. I’ve now learned that Auden was merely repeating an old joke, and have found the original source of the attribution.
The first record of Auden’s use of the joke seems to be a weekly mimeographed single-page newsletter distributed by the Columbia University Press under the title The Pleasures of Publishing. The issue for 15 April 1940 (Volume VII, Number 15) opens with this item:
W. H. Auden, the poet, amused several of our professorial friends at a recent luncheon by defining their office. “A professor,” said he, “is one who talks in someone else’s sleep.”
This was quoted in the “Trade Winds” column in The Saturday Review of Literature, 27 April 1940, p. 24, which was presumably the source of its first appearance in book form, in An Almanac of Reading, by Charles Lee (Coward McCann, 1940), p. 25, and its later appearance in Evan Esar’s 1949 collection.
Auden seems to have heard the joke in the autumn of 1939 when he recorded it in a journal. Earlier citations of the joke - published long before anyone thought of attributing it to Auden - include an anonymous one in a University of Virginia student magazine, The Virginia Spectator (Volume I, Number 3), Christmas Issue 1937, p. 29, where it appears in a column of jokes titled “Wahooria,” under the heading “Somnivocalist”: “Definition of a professor: One who talks in someone else’s sleep.” This is a relatively late instance of a joke that seems to have been told about preachers and professors since at least the early twentieth century. Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, tells me that he has found many earlier examples, and I will yield to him the privilege of publishing them.
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