Fact Check

Napkins Confusion

Confusion between dinner napkins and feminine napkins leads to interesting dinner party.

Published Nov. 24, 2002


Legend:   A youngster embarrassingly confuses sanitary pads with dinner napkins.

Example:   [Collected on the Internet, 2002]

The Good Napkins

My mother taught me to read when I was four years old (her first mistake).

One day, I was in the bathroom and noticed one of the cabinet doors was ajar. I read the box in the cabinet. I then asked my mother why she was keeping 'napkins' in the bathroom. Didn't they belong in the kitchen?

Not wanting to burden me with unnecessary facts, she told me that those were for "special occasions."

Now fast forward a few months .... It's Thanksgiving Day, and my folks are leaving to pick up the pastor and
his wife for dinner. Mom had assignments for all of us while they were gone. Mine was to set the table.

When they returned, the pastor came in first and immediately burst into laughter. Next came his wife who gasped, then began giggling. Next came my father, who roared with laughter. Then came Mom, who almost died of embarrassment when she saw each place setting on the table with a "special occasion" napkin at each plate, with the fork carefully arranged on top. I had even tucked the little tails in so they didn't hang off the edge!!

My mother asked me why I used these and, of course, my response sent the other adults into further fits of laughter.

"But, Mom, you SAID they were for special occasions!"

Origins:   This particular rendition of a time-honored anecdote has been part of online lore since at least 1998, but the story itself had been used by at least one comedian for a decade prior to that. As early

as 1989 Jay Leno was telling this very tale on himself during his stand-up routine, claiming when he was 13 his mom noticed only just before the guests were due to arrive for Thanksgiving dinner that she had no napkins for the table, and dispatched young Jay to the store to get some. "It's an emergency — my mom needs napkins!" was interpreted by the clerk he accosted to mean the lady was in dire need of sanitary pads, which is what he armed young Jay with. The lad raced back to the family home and triumphantly slammed the pretty-looking box down on the dining table in front of the since-arrived guests.

Yes, kids do indeed say and do the darndest things, and everyone's mother has odd items secreted in the bathroom that she'd rather not explain. (Mine had an array of awe-inspiring contraptions, including one that later proved to be a leg-waxing implement. I regarded it all as inexplicable adult stuff, and never asked questions lest I justly be accused of snooping, a crime, in my family at least, judged to be right up there with murder and the violent overthrow of properly-constituted governments.) And surely some kid somewhere has misinterpreted "feminine napkins" to mean "dinner napkins" with hiliarious consequent results. But it's still just a story, one meant to both make us laugh and to remind us that children are surprisingly literal and thus should not be given euphemistic explanations in place of straight talk lest those "explanations" come back to adorn the dinner table.

Barbara "wherever does one place the napkin ring, though?" Mikkelson

Last updated:   19 March 2005

  Sources Sources:

    King, Louise.   "Many Comedians Make a Handsome Living."

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch.   13 November 1989   (p. B20).