The Difference Between Stupidity and Genius Is That Genius Has Its Limits

Albert Einstein? Alexandre Dumas, fils? Elbert Hubbard? Brooks F. Beebe? Anonymous?

trio09Dear Quote Investigator: The following funny saying is usually attributed to Albert Einstein:

The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.

Yet, no one provides any justification for crediting the brilliant scientist with this jest. Is this another fake Einstein quote?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this statement. Indeed, it is listed in a section called “Probably Not By Einstein” within the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

A precursor statement written in French appeared in volume 2 of the “Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle” (Great Universal Dictionary of the Nineteenth Century) within an entry for “Bêtise” (Stupidity). This volume was published circa 1865, and the quotation was credited to Alexandre Dumas: 2

Une chose qui m’humilie profondément est de voir que le génie humain a des limites, quand la bêtise humaine n’en a pas. (Alex. Dum.)

One possible translation into English is the following:

One thing that humbles me deeply is to see that human genius has its limits while human stupidity does not.

The attribution “Alex. Dum.” was probably a reference to Alexandre Dumas, fils, who was a dramatist known for the work “The Lady of the Camellias”, widely known as “Camille”. He shared his name with his father, Alexandre Dumas, père, who was the author of the popular novels “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers”

Another statement written in French appeared in the journal of a scholarly association in 1886. The words were placed between quotation marks to indicate that the joke was already in circulation, and no specific attribution was given. 3

« Le génie humain a des bornes, Mais la sottise n’en a pas. »

One possible translation into English is the following:

“Human genius has its limits, but stupidity does not.”

The earliest evidence in English located by QI was published in a periodical called “The Travelers’ Record” which acknowledged a French newspaper. The saying was included in a list titled “Some of Dumas’s Maxims”. Here were three items from the list. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4

Some of Dumas’s Maxims
[L'Echo de Paris, translated in the Transatlantic]

Let all your alms-giving be anonymous. It has the double advantage of suppressing at the same time ingratitude and abuse.

God made fools in order that life might be more tolerable to people of wit.

What distresses me is to see that human genius has limits and human stupidity none.

The saying has been circulating and evolving in English for more than one hundred years. An instance was attributed to Albert Einstein by 1994; however, Einstein died in 1955, so this citation has little probative value.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not By Einstein, Page 478, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. Circa 1865, Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe Siècle: Français, Historique, Géographique, Mythologique, Bibliographique, etcetera, Volume 2, Entry: Bêtise, Quote Page 650, Column 1, Published by Pierre Larousse, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1886, Bulletin de la Société Libre D’émulation du Commerce et de L’industrie de la Seine-Inférieure, “Dissertation sur la vulgarisation de la langue latine” par M. E. Nicolle, Start Page 85, Quote Page 86, Imprimerie de Espérance Cagniard, Rouen, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1890 February, The Travelers’ Record, Volume 25, Some of Dumas’s Maxims, (L’Echo de Paris, translated in the Transatlantic), Quote Page 8, Column 2, (Google Books Full View) link

We Women Do Talk Too Much, But Even Then We Don’t Tell Half We Know

Nancy Astor? Apocryphal?

astor08Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I saw the following comical remark attributed to the socialite and parliamentarian Lady Astor:

We women do talk too much but even then we don’t tell half we know.

Is this ascription accurate?

Quote Investigator: Nancy Astor was an important political pioneer as the first woman to take her seat as a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. In 1922 she spoke before American newspaper editors at the annual luncheon of the Associated Press held in New York. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“We women feel we have moral courage and a sort of vision,” she added. “We don’t enter politics because of ourselves. To raise you men perfectly we’ve got to do a great many disagreeable things—to spank you when a spanking is needed and to love you when that is needed. Now we are ready to enter the political arena—don’t be frightened, and don’t try to discourage us too much. We women do talk too much, but even then we don’t tell half we know.”

Astor’s words were remembered, and a few months later a newspaper in New Orleans, Louisiana printed a filler item with two lines from her address: 2

Speech by Lady Astor

We women do talk too much, but even then we don’t tell half we know.

There’s so much good in all men; but only good women can bring it out.—Boston Transcript.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1922 April 26, New York Times, In Politics to Help the Men, Lady Astor Tells the Editors, Start Page 1, Quote Page 3, New York. (The page image has “disagreeable” instead of “disagreeable”) (ProQuest)
  2. 1922 August 20, Times-Picayune, Section 2, Speech by Lady Astor, Quote Page 3, Column 8, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

Then I Was Known as a Speculator

Ernest Cassel? Bernard Baruch? Apocryphal?

baruch09Dear Quote Investigator: There is an entertaining quotation about the changing labels that were applied to a famous financier. He was successively called a gambler, a speculator, and a banker, although he did not significantly change his methods. Do you know who crafted this humorous description of transformation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a 1944 book titled “Bernard Baruch: Park Bench Statesman” which was a biographical work about the prominent investor, businessman, and presidential advisor. Baruch attributed the quotation to Ernest Cassel who was a merchant banker and confidant of King Edward VII: 1

…Baruch would quote Sir Ernest Cassel as saying, “When as a young and unknown man I started to be successful I was referred to as a gambler. My operations increased in scope. Then I was a speculator. The sphere of my activities continued to expand and presently I was known as a banker. Actually I had been doing the same thing all the time.”

That comes pretty close to being Baruch’s favorite quotation.

Ernest Cassel died in 1921; hence, the attribution in 1944 occurred rather late. Baruch popularized the quotation, and he included an instance in his 1957 autobiography as shown further below. Yet, QI is uncertain where Baruch obtained the comical remark. Perhaps future researchers will locate an earlier citation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1944, Bernard Baruch: Park Bench Statesman by Carter Field, Quote Page 76 and 77, Published by Whittlesey House: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

Do You Want Six or Eight Slices of Pizza?

Yogi Berra? Ken Thompson? Bobby Bragan? Muriel Vernick? Danny Osinski? Andy Wimpfheimer? George Carlin? Anonymous?

pizza08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a comical tale about whether a pizza should be cut into six or eight slices. The punchline is typically attributed to an athlete such as Yogi Berra. Are you familiar with this joke? Would you please explore its history?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this anecdote located by QI was published on June 17, 1965 in a Nebraska newspaper which acknowledged a Wisconsin newspaper: 1

Ken Thompson stopped in at Dick McDaniels’ Pizza Palace the other night and ordered a pizza. When it was ready, Dick asked Ken if he wanted it cut in six or eight pieces.

Ken thought a while, and then said, “Better make it six pieces. I could never eat eight.”—Weyauwega (Wis.) Chronicle.

A variety of citations appeared in 1965 with several different ascriptions. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1965 June 17, Omaha World Herald, Quick Reading: A Smile or Two, Quote Page 24, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

Art, Like Morality, Consists of Drawing the Line Somewhere

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? Anonymous?

hands10Dear Quote Investigator: I saw the following remark on the webpage of an educator:

Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.

The phrase was attributed to Oscar Wilde, but I have not been able to find it in his oeuvre. It was listed on websites like Goodreads and Quotationspage where it was ascribed to Wilde, but I know that websites with massive compilations of quotations are often packed with misinformation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde said or wrote this statement.

In the 1920s the English author, journalist, and critic Gilbert Keith Chesterton penned a column in “The Illustrated London News”. In May 1928 he wrote a passage containing a strongly matching expression. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Some say that art is unmoral; and some of these arts are very unmoral. I may not have described them here in the correct conventional terms; but then I do not think that art is unmoral. Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.

The positions of the terms “art” and “morality” have been switched when compared to the modern instance provided by the questioner. The phrase “drawing the line” wittily referred simultaneously to an artist physically drawing a line on a canvas and figuratively creating an artwork on a subject with moral implications.

This was the earliest strong match located by QI, and QI believes that G. K. Chesterton should be credited with the phrase he wrote and not Oscar Wilde.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1928 May 5, Illustrated London News, Our Note Book by G. K. Chesterton, Quote Page 780, Column 1, London, England. (Gale NewsVault)

What Would You Attempt If You Knew You Could Not Fail?

Robert H. Schuller? Regina Dugan? Sebastian Thrun? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: There is a saying in self-help books that presents encouragement in the form of a question with a trace of wistfulness:

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?

This statement was highlighted in a TED talk by Regina Dugan, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Do you know the name of the person who crafted this motivational query?

Quote Investigator: Robert H. Schuller was a minister and popular speaker who was best known for hosting a syndicated television show called “Hour of Power” and for building an impressive edifice called the Crystal Cathedral. In 1973 he published the book “You Can Become the Person You Want To Be”. The second chapter started with a set of questions; these were the first three: 1

What goals would you be setting for yourself if you knew you could not fail?

What dreams would you have on the drawing board if you had unlimited financial resources?

What plans would you be making if you had thirty years to carry them out?

Schuller continued by asking each reader to think about the role he or she wished to play in the “drama of human life”:

Clarify your role before you set your goal or you’ll encounter confusion and frustration. Conflict in inter-personal relations is too often the result of a misinterpretation by the involved persons of the roles each should be playing.

Schuller’s book contained the earliest evidence located by QI of this interrogative framework being used to aid a person to delineate goals and formulate a plan or purpose. The phrasing differed somewhat from the version used by Dugan.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1973, You Can Become the Person You Want To Be by Robert H. Schuller, Chapter 2: Set Your Goals and Let Them Lift You, Quote Page 11, Hawthorn Books, New York. (Verified on paper)

Bigamy Is Having One Spouse Too Many. Monogamy Is the Same

Erica Jong? Oscar Wilde? Robert Webster Jones? H. L. Mencken? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: As a single person I enjoy the following joke about bigamy. Here are two versions:

(1) Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.

(2) Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same.

The first has been attributed to the best-selling novelist Erica Jong, and the second has been credited to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. I haven’t been able to find this remark in the works of Wilde. Are these ascriptions accurate?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 Erica Jong published a scandalous blockbuster titled “Fear of Flying” and the first chapter used the following as an epigraph: 1

Bigamy is having one husband too many. Monogamy is the same.
—Anonymous (a woman)

Note that Jong did not credit herself indicating that the joke was already in circulation.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde wrote or said this joke. The variant using “wife” instead of “husband” does have a long history. In 1922 the book “Light Interviews with Shades” by Robert Webster Jones included a quip that displayed several points of similarity including the use of matching vocabulary terms “bigamy” and “monogamy”: 2

They say bigamy means one wife too many; but so does monogamy sometimes.

Precursor jokes on this theme were being disseminated by 1841 as shown below. QI believes that the modern quip evolved from these antecedents.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1973, Fear of Flying by Erica Jong, (Epigraph of Chapter 1), Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1922, Light Interviews with Shades by Robert Webster Jones, Chapter 1: Bluebeard Tells Why He Killed Wives, Quote Page 18, Published by Dorrance & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link

A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes

Mark Twain? Jonathan Swift? Thomas Francklin? Fisher Ames? Thomas Jefferson? John Randolph? C. H. Spurgeon? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: An insightful remark about the rapid transmission of lies is often attributed to Mark Twain. Here are two versions:

(1) A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.

(2) A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on

I have not found this statement in any of the books written by Twain; hence, I am skeptical of this ascription. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: A version of this adage was attributed to Mark Twain in 1919, but Twain died in 1910. QI believes that this evidence of a linkage was not substantive. Details of the 1919 citation are given further below.

Metaphorical maxims about the speedy dissemination of lies and the much slower propagation of corrective truths have a very long history. The major literary figure Jonathan Swift wrote on this topic in “The Examiner” in 1710 although he did not mention shoes or boots. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…

The phrasing and figurative language used in these sayings have been evolving for more than three hundred years. In 1787 “falsehood” was reaching “every corner of the earth”. In 1820 a colorful version was circulating with lies flying from “Maine to Georgia” while truth was “pulling her boots on”. By 1834 “error” was running “half over the world” while truth was “putting on his boots”. In 1924 a lie was circling the globe while a truth was “lacing its shoes on”.

Top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake identified the passage by Swift listed above and several other important items covered in this article.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1710 November 2 to November 9, The Examiner, Number 15, (Article by Jonathan Swift), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Printed for John Morphew, near Stationers-Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Old Age Isn’t So Bad When You Consider the Alternative

Maurice Chevalier? Harry Oliver? Louis Calhern? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: The following piece of humorous proverbial wisdom has been attributed to the film star Maurice Chevalier. Here are two versions:

(1) Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.
(2) Growing old isn’t so terrible — when you consider the alternative.

Is this ascription accurate? When did this remark originate?

Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Maurice Chevalier did deliver this comical line by 1959; however, the quip was already in circulation. The earliest citation located by QI was published in 1952 in a Long Beach, California newspaper. The columnist did not provide an ascription and stated that the phrase was already in use: 1

The situation reminds me of that famous quotation: “Growing old isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”

In March 1953 a newspaper in Ottawa, Kansas printed an instance of the remark without ascription as a short filler item: 2

Growing old doesn’t seem quite so bad when you stop to consider the alternative.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1952 August 2, Long Beach Press-Telegram, In the Spotlight: Arati Saha Also Can Claim Olympic Mark by Fred Delano, Quote Page B-2, Column 1, Long Beach, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1953 March 20, The Ottawa Campus, (Freestanding comical remark), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Ottawa, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive)

There But for the Grace of God, Goes God

Winston Churchill? Leo C. Rosten? Walter Winchell? Herman Mankiewicz? Apocryphal?
orsonDear Quote Investigator: Winston Churchill had an unhappy experience negotiating with a politician who held a very high opinion of himself. Afterward Churchill reportedly concocted the perfect remark for deflating the pretensions of an egomaniac:

There, but for the grace of God, goes God.

However, I have heard that this same jibe was aimed at the renowned auteur Orson Welles during the filming of “Citizen Kane”. Would you please explore the provenance of this witticism?

Quote Investigator: This remark was based on a comical modification of a resonant phrase from history. Here are two instances:

There but for the grace of God, go I.
There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford.

More information about the origin of this penitent statement is available here.

The earliest evidence of the quip located by QI was printed in the 1941 book “Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers” by Leo C. Rosten which included the quotation applied to filmmaker Orson Welles. Rosten did not identify the person who delivered the barb. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When Orson Welles (of whom someone said, “There, but for the grace of God, goes God”) was first shown through a studio he exclaimed, “This is the biggest electric train any boy ever had!” The remark is acute and revealing.

QI is not certain of the precise release date in 1941 of the “Hollywood” book. On January 20, 1941 the widely-distributed syndicated columnist Walter Winchell presented a different version of the circumstances surrounding the quotation. The target of the barb was a religious figure named Father Divine instead of Orson Welles. The word “niftied” was a vocabulary item employed by Winchell. It meant the spoken phrase was “nifty”, i.e., deft. The name “Divine” was spelled “Devine” in the paper: 2

The Story Tellers: The DAC News reports that a Harlemite watching Father Devine whisk by in a long limousine, niftied: “There, but for the grace of God—goes God.”

Above are the two earliest citations located by QI, and the temporal ordering was uncertain. The tale mentioning Orson Welles has circulated continuously to the present day. The version with Father Divine has largely disappeared from collective memory. A third version with Winston Churchill speaking the humorous line entered circulation by 1943 as indicated by the citation listed further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1941 copyright, Hollywood: The Movie Colony: The Movie Makers by Leo C. Rosten, Quote Page 51, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Facsimile produced on demand in 1973 by University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan) (Verified on paper in facsimile)
  2. 1941 January 20, Omaha World Herald, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 5, Column 5-6, Omaha, Nebraska.(GenealogyBank)