February 22, 2005

Vulcan salutations to the Elfin Goblins of the Mountains

Greg James Robinson at the History News Network's blog Cliopatria reports a worrying discovery.

In his memoir PRESENT AT THE CREATION (p. 237), Dean Acheson—perhaps incautiously--reproduces the text of President Harry Truman’s personal letter of farewell to him, dated June 30, 1947, upon Acheson’s resignation as Undersecretary of State. The last paragraph reads:

“May you live long and prosper and may I always deserve your good will and friendship—you always have mine.”

We are required to consider the implications of Truman’s use of the phrase “live long and prosper,” which became popularly known through its use by Mr. Spock in the TV and movie series STAR TREK as the standard Vulcan expression of farewell--at least in English translation.

Applying the tools of historical scholarship, Robinson considers and rejects various benign explanations for this coincidence, and concludes that

Once these possibilities are discounted, we are left with the conclusion that Harry Truman was in contact with Vulcans and was using his letter to Acheson as code. It is undeniable that the letter to Acheson was dated THE DAY BEFORE the crash landing of an object in Roswell, New Mexico that was reported to be a Flying Saucer. Preumably then Truman was intent on telling Acheson, following his resignation, to enter in contact with the aliens and open diplomatic channels.

I'm afraid that I have grave news to impart: this conspiracy is much older and broader than Robinson imagines.

Using the LION database, I've been able to find two earlier sources for the phrase "live long and prosper".

One is a play attributed to "John Kerr", published in 1826 under the title


Early in Act I, Scene 1, "Rip enters U. E. R. with gun and game-bag, singing. He advances carelessly on R. as Rory and Vedder retire up to table and drink." Rip's first speech:

Rip. [Rip Van Winkle]
Rip! Rip! what will you make of it now? thou'rt a sad dog, and that's the truth on't. That thou art idle, there is no denying, and unlucky in everything you attempt, is a still more deplorable fact! Now did I start off this morning with full determination of being industrious, and filling my bag with game, to sell at to-morrow's market. On the road to the forest, who should I meet but Van Bryant, the one-eyed Serjeant, who insisted on my taking a glass with him; but plague take it, we drank half a dozen a piece---'twas all out of pure good nature; for had I not done so, the Serjeant would have been so drunk, that he couldn't have seen out of his other eye, and then who knows if ever he could have found his way home. Well, off I starts again, and who should I stumble over but old Dame Griskin, carrying a large basket of provisions; and I couldn't do less than help her home with her load, poor soul. She, too, invited me to drink a little drop: truly, though I only toomed out half a bottle, and the old woman drank no more than myself, yet she got so top-heavy, that I was obliged to tuck her up in bed, before taking my leave---then away I went to the mountains, and though I saw double, deuce a single bird could I shoot! Altogether, methinks, I've made a pretty day's work of it; and with the row and the rumpus that may be expected from my amiable rib at home, I shall finish the evening in the usual way! really I must make an alteration in things---I must reform, nor drink any more, saving when I'm dry. Yes, was any body now to offer me a cup of liquor, I'd say to him, in a polite manner,
[Vedder, who has in the interim advanced L. H., hands Rip a horn]
here's your good health, and your families' good healths, and may you all live long and prosper.
Vedd. [Nicholas Vedder]
Why, neighbour, we feared from your long stay, that some of the elfin goblins of the mountains had got hold of you; where the tarnashion have you been, friend Van Winkle?
Rip. [Rip Van Winkle]
Oh! very busy; had a hard day's work of it---nothing slipt through my fingers that were comeatable.
[Rory advances on R. of Rip.]
Rory. [Rory]
But they've slipt through your bag, for 'tis full of emptiness.
[having examined Rip's game-bag.]
Rip. [Rip Van Winkle]
Cut no jokes on my bag, or I shall give you the sack, nor take another glass at your house. Why, I'm the best customer you ever caught---egad, its enough to be bullied by one's wife at home, without having every pumpkin cutting capers at my expense abroad---but its all over; I'll never drink again.
Vedd. [Nicholas Vedder]
Till you're dry,
[fills Rip's cup,]
as you remarked.
Rip. [Rip Van Winkle]
Here's your good health, and your families' good healths, and may you all live long and prosper.
Vedd. [Nicholas Vedder]
And now, friend Rip, sit down and smoke a pipe, and make yourself comfortable.

Well, to make a long story shorter, the phrase "live long and prosper" recurs no fewer than twelve times in the course of the play, ending with the closing line:

Rip. [Rip Van Winkle]
Thank you, sir. Now I shall be able to set myself down, tell my stories, take my glass, and to all those who have patience to listen to my wonderful dream on the Catskill, I'll drink their health, and,
[stepping forward]
Ladies and gentlemen! here's your good health! and your families', and your future families' good health! and may all live long and prosper!

I draw your attention to the fact that this play was "PERFORMED IN THE LONDON AND AMERICAN THEATRES". If someone in 1826 had meant to send a message to observant aliens, what better method than this? And who might have wanted to send such a message? If we ask, what else happened in 1826? regular readers of this blog will be quick to answer, "the death of Thomas Jefferson". A coincidence? Perhaps.

The other "live long and prosper" citation is to another, later play, attributed to "Charles Burke (1822-1854)".


"Burke" uses the same technique as "Kerr" to slip the phrase "live long and prosper" repeatedly into his play, first here:

Rip. [Rip Van Winkle]
Rip, Rip, was is dis for a business. You are a mix nootse unt dat is a fact. Now, I started for de mountains dis mornin', determined to fill my bag mit game, but I met Von Brunt, de one eyed sergeant ---comma see hah, unt brandy-wine hapben my neiber friend; well, I couldn't refuse to take a glass mit him, unt den I tooks anoder glass, unt den I took so much as a dozen, do I drink no more as a bottle; he drink no more as I---he got so top heavy, I rolled him in de hedge to sleep a leetle, for his one eye got so crooked, he never could have seed his way straight; den I goes to de mountain, do I see double, d---d a bird could I shooted. But I stops now, I drinks no more; if anybody ask me to drink, I'll say to dem---
[Vedder comes down, R. and offers cup to him.]
---here is your go-to-hell, and your family's go-to-hell, and may you all live long and prosper.

Could the bizarre and erratic accent rendition be some sort of code?

The second repetition of the Vulcan farewell is in a more ominous context, after the "elfin goblins of the mountains" have condemned Rip to twenty years of sleep. Rip toasts them:

They're a deadly, lively, jolly set; but I wonder what kind of spirits dese spirits are drinking! surely, dere can be no harm in taking a drop along mit dem.---
[Fills a flagon.]
Here goes!---Gentlemen, here's your go-to-hells, and your broad chopped familly's, and may you all live long and prosper.
Omnes. [Omnes]
Ha, ha, ha!

The last repetition, of course, is the very last line of the play:

Rip. [Rip Van Winkle]
Is dat my baby? come here Rip, come here you dog; I am your father. What an interesting brat it is.
Knick. [Knickerbocker]
But tell us Rip, where have you hid youself for the last twenty years?
Rip. [Rip Van Winkle]
Ech woll---ech wool. I will take mine glass and tell mine strange story and drink the health of mine frients. Unt, ladies and gents, here is your goot health and your future families and may yo all live long and prosper.

There are no other instances of this simple four-word phrase in all of English poetry and drama, at least as known to LION. In particular, Washington Irving's short story of 1820, introducing the character of Rip van Winkle, does not contain the fateful Vulcan idiom. Thus it was introduced as a catchphrase into the plays of "Kerr" and "Burke". By whom, and for what audience?


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 22, 2005 04:26 PM