Although various forms of the sentence are widely cited, the exact wording and the context in which it is said to have originally been used vary. For example, a teaching manual attributes it to a Portuguese-English phrasebook:
The phrase-book for Portuguese learners of English which included the often-quoted and bizarre sentence 'Pardon me, but your postillion has been struck by lightning' demonstrates a total lack of sense of context: who can have said this, to whom and in what circumstances?By contrast a linguistics textbook mentions the supposedly "apocryphal" phrase during a description of foreign language teaching in "the schoolrooms of Europe at the close of the nineteenth century":
[S]entences -- especially constructed to contain only the grammar and vocabulary which had already been covered -- were laboriously translated, in writing, into and out of the student's first language. Such sentences, often bizarrely remote from any conceivable use, have been the occasion for jokes ever since. We have probably all heard references to the apocryphal 'My postilion has been struck by lightning' and the infamous plume de ma tante.
An early usage of the phrase occurs in a 1932 book entitled Little Missions, written by "Septimus Despencer":
It was my fortune once to be marooned for twenty-four hours in a siding of a railway station in what is now Jugoslavia but was then South Hungary. I wandered into the village, and in the village shop which sold everything I found a dozen of old second-hand books. One of them was a Magyar-English Manual of Conversation containing useful phrases such as every traveller needs to know. The first section was headed 'On the road', and the first sentence in it (which I instantly mastered) was: 'Dear me, our postilion has been struck by lightning.' This is the sort of thing that only happens in Hungary; and, when it happens, this is the sort of remark that only Hungarians make.According to its introduction, the travels reported in the book occurred during "[t]he three years following the armistice of 1918": thus Despencer's discovery of the phrase would be dated during the period 1919-1921. In the April 2008 issue of the Quote ... Unquote newsletter, Nigel Rees speculates that the phrase "passed into general circulation" from Despencer's book.
In a 1935 issue of Punch magazine, "Look! Our Postillion has been struck by lightning" is said to be "one of the 'Useful Common Phrases' appearing in a Dutch manual on the speaking of English".
Examples of similar phrases do occur in nineteenth century phrase books. The 1870 edition of Baedeker's phrasebook gives German, French and Italian equivalents of the sentence "Are the postilions insolent? The 1877 edition of John Murray's Handbook of Travel-Talk contains translations of "Oh, dear! The postilion has been thrown (off) down", followed in succession by "Is he hurt? Run for assistance to the nearest cottage", "Ask for a surgeon", "I am afraid that he has broken his leg -- his arm", "He has bruised his head", and finally "He must be carried home gently".
When the emperor was seated in the carriage, the postillion set off like lightning, and arrived at the appointed stage with an astonishing speed, and such as no other horses the emperor had used could equal.
"The Postilion Has Been Struck By Lightning" is the title of a two-stanza poem by Patricia Beer, published in 1967. The poem was later selected for inclusion in The Oxford Book of Contemporary Verse. In it, the author laments the death in a thunderstorm of "the best postilion I ever had".
In 1977 actor Dirk Bogarde made use of the phrase when he entitled the first volume of his autobiography A Postillion Struck By Lightning. According to Nigel Rees, Bogarde explains that while on a childhood vacation (presumably in the 1920s) he discovered an old phrase book, seemingly dating from 1898. The phrase book contained such sentences as "The muslin is too thin, have you something thicker?", "My leg, arm, foot, elbow, nose, finger is broken" and "The postillion has been struck by lightning".
In a 1995 paper, linguist David Crystal defined "postilion sentences" as "sentences introduced in teaching [that] seem to have little or no chance of ever being used in real life". They are named after the phrase "The postilion has been struck by lightning", which Crystal describes as a famous example of such a sentence. He goes on to suggest that "an unexpectedly large number of sentences, used routinely with children with language impairment, are of this type", and gives as examples "That table's got four legs", and "Clap (your) hands!". He concludes that, "if teaching and therapeutic time is to be truly efficacious", postilion sentences should be avoided.