Most Dangerous Phrase: We’ve Always Done It That Way

Grace Hopper? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

grace07Dear Quote Investigator: Grace Murray Hopper was a pioneering computer scientist whose work was central to the development of COBOL, one of the foundational high-level programming languages. She worked in a very fast moving technological domain where simply attempting to repeat previously successful strategies was sometimes disastrous. I am trying to determine if she crafted the following astute remark:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the periodical “Computerworld” in 1976. An article about new laws in the U.S. concerning data processing (DP) and privacy included an interview with Grace Murray Hopper who employed an instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

On the future of data processing, Hopper said the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1976 January 26, Computerworld, Volume 10, Number 4, Privacy Laws May Usher In ‘Defensive DP': Hopper by Esther Surden (Computerworld Staff), Quote Page 9, Column 3, Computerworld, Inc., Newton, Massachusetts, Now published by IDG Enterprise. (Google Books Full View) link

Laughter Is an Instant Vacation

Milton Berle? Bob Hope? Eugene P. Bertin? Connie Nelson? Robert Zwickey? Dale Turner? Anonymous?

vacation08Dear Quote Investigator: The comedian Milton Berle was a major star for decades on radio and then on television. The following insightful adage has been attributed to him:

Laughter is an instant vacation.

I have also seen these words credited to Bob Hope who was another top comedian with extraordinary longevity. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: This expression was ascribed to Milton Berle in 1977, and in 1985 Bob Hope included the adage in an essay he wrote for the UPI news service. So linkages exist for both comedians, and full citations are given further below. Yet, the phrase was already in circulation before 1977.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the “Pennsylvania School Journal” in 1968. A column called “Ravelin’s: Threads Detached from Texture” by Eugene P. Bertin stated that laughter was an “instant vacation”; however, the phrasing was not compact. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

There is a purifying power in laughter. It is truth in palatable form. It is instant vacation. Seeing the comical side of many situations makes life a great deal easier. It’s like riding through life on sensitive springs that ease every jolt.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1968 April, Pennsylvania School Journal, Ravelin’s: Threads Detached from Texture by Eugene P. Bertin, Quote Page 450, Column 1, Published by The Pennsylvania State Education Association, Editorial offices: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to great librarian at University of North Florida, Jacksonville, Florida)

Relativity: A Hot Stove and A Pretty Girl

Albert Einstein? Helen Dukas? Apocryphal?

time10Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein was asked to explain the abstruse theory of relativity so many times that he reportedly created a comical illustration involving a hot stove and a pretty girl. Would you please explore the provenance of this tale?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in “The New York Times” in March 1929. The phrase “nice girl’ was used instead of “pretty girl”: 1

Numerous anecdotes are being circulated concerning Einstein. He once told a girl secretary when she was bothered by inquisitive interviewers, who wanted to know what relativity really meant, to answer:

“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

The quotation was not directly from Einstein. Indeed, the reporter simply noted that the tale was being circulated. Yet, the vivid comparison was very popular and many variants evolved in the following years. Einstein was still based in Germany in 1929, so earlier instances of the anecdote may have been published in German.

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Notes:

  1. 1929 March 15, New York Times, Einstein Is Found Hiding On Birthday: Busy With Gift Microscope, (Wireless to The New York Times), Quote Page 3, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)

Here Lies the Body of Dorothy Parker. Thank God!

Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?

castle14Dear Quote Investigator: The notable wit Dorothy Parker constructed several epitaphs for herself. I am interested in the following:

Here Lies the Body of Dorothy Parker. Thank God!

When did she craft this fateful expression?

Dear Quote Investigator: QI has already examined a collection of epitaphs that have been ascribed to Dorothy Parker; this is the fifth and final member of the set, and it will be explored below. Here is a link to a webpage that has pointers to four other analyses.

In October 1924 “Vanity Fair” magazine published a feature presenting self-selected memorial remarks obtained from prominent artists and writers of the time:

A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs
Some Well-Known People Seize the Coveted Opportunity of Saying the Last Word

Most of the inscriptions were comical, but Parker’s blunt remark suggested an outlook of despair: 1

parkerthanksThe article was successful and “Vanity Fair” gathered another set of epitaphs for publication in June 1925. Parker responded with a more lighthearted saying: 2

Excuse My Dust

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1924 October, Vanity Fair, A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs, Start Page 42, Quote Page 43, (Dorothy Parker tombstone epitaph), Conde Nast, New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1925 June, Vanity Fair, A Group of Artists Write Their Own Epitaphs, Start Page 50, Quote Page 51, Column 3, (Dorothy Parker tombstone epitaph illustration), Conde Nast, New York. (Verified on microfilm)

Life Is Either a Daring Adventure or Nothing

Helen Keller? Van Wyck Brooks? Apocryphal?

keller09Dear Quote Investigator: An inspirational adage encouraging boldness and audacity has been attributed to Helen Keller who overcame great adversity:

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.

Is this accurate?

Quote Investigator: Helen Keller did write a closely matching statement; however, the appended phrase “at all” was not present in the original text.

In 1940 Keller published “Let Us Have Faith” and a chapter titled “Faith Fears Not” contained the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. God Himself is not secure, having given man dominion over His works! Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold. Faith alone defends. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1946 (1940 Copyright), Let Us Have Faith by Helen Keller, Chapter: Faith Fears Not, Quote Page 50 and 51, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans of 1946 reprint of 1940 edition)

Great Minds Discuss Ideas; Average Minds Discuss Events; Small Minds Discuss People

Eleanor Roosevelt? Charles Stewart? Henry Thomas Buckle? James H. Halsey? Hyman G. Rickover? Anonymous?

topics08Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is largely used to deride people who are preoccupied with gossip:

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.

The words are attributed to social activist and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, but I have been unable to find a solid supporting citation. Similar statements have been ascribed to philosopher Socrates and U.S. Naval engineer Hyman Rickover. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a 1901 autobiography by Charles Stewart. As a child in London, Stewart listened to the conversation of dinner guests such as history scholar Henry Thomas Buckle who would sometimes discourse engagingly for twenty minutes on a topic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

His thoughts and conversation were always on a high level, and I recollect a saying of his, which not only greatly impressed me at the time, but which I have ever since cherished as a test of the mental calibre of friends and acquaintances. Buckle said, in his dogmatic way: “Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.”

Stewart was pleased with Buckle’s adage, but he did not let its implicit guidance dictate his conversations. He wished avoid the tedium of monotonous dialogues:

The fact, of course, is that any of one’s friends who was incapable of a little intermingling of these condiments would soon be consigned to the home for dull dogs.

Buckle’s tripartite remark specified the categories: persons, things, and ideas. The questioner’s statement used the division: people, events, and ideas. So the statements did differ; indeed, the remark evolved during decades of circulation, and it was reassigned to a variety of individuals.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1901, Haud Immemor: Reminiscences of Legal and Social Life in Edinburgh and London 1850-1900 by Charles Stewart, Quote Page 33, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London. (Google Books Full View) link

You’re Never Too Old, Too Wacky, Too Wild, To Pick Up a Book, and Read to a Child

Theodor Seuss Geisel? Anita Merina? Anonymous?

reading08Dear Quote Investigator: There is an enthusiastic quotation about reading that has been attributed to the famous children’s author Dr. Seuss:

You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book & read to a child.

I haven’t been able to track down the precise book in which this was written. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This verse was written in a style reminiscent of Dr. Seuss, the pen name of Theodor Seuss Geisel. However, QI believes that it was not actually constructed by him.

In March 1998 a guest columnist in “The Augusta Chronicle” printed a poem containing the lines above and credited Anita Merina who was a staff member of the National Education Association (NEA). Merina’s poem was part of a campaign called “Read Across America” designed to encourage children and adults to read: 1

It’s never too cold, too wet or too hot
To pick up a book, and share what you’ve got
You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild
To pick up a book, and read to a child.
In churches and chambers, let’s gather round
Let’s pick up a book, let’s pass it around
There are children around you, children in need
Of someone who’ll hug, someone who’ll read
So join us March 2nd in your special own way
And make this America’s read to Kids Day.

—Anita Merina, 1997

This poem says it all! The members of the Richmond County Association of Educators, the student Georgia Association of Educators and the National Education Association invited everyone to join a nationwide reading effort on March 2 to celebrate the birthday of the late, beloved Dr. Seuss.

The nationwide effort, called “Read Across America,” originated with NEA’s collaboration with Dr. Seuss’ widow to focus America’s attention on the importance of reading in our children’s lives. It was a great success.

The poem has been closely associated with the name of Dr. Seuss as shown in the excerpt above; hence, confusion and misattribution were understandable.

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Notes:

  1. 1998 March 9, Augusta Chronicle, Guest Column: National event celebrated importance of reading, by Gretchen Simpson of Augusta (National Education Association director of Georgia), Quote Page 5A, Column 1, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)

Education Is the Inculcation of the Incomprehensible Into the Ignorant by the Incompetent

John Maynard Keynes? Josiah Stamp? Ernest Brown? Anonymous?

university07Dear Quote Investigator: The most outrageous quotation about education that I have ever heard has been attributed to the famous economist John Maynard Keynes. Here are three versions:

1) Education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.

2) Education: the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent.

3) Education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indolent by the inept.

Recently, I encountered an attribution of this alliterative remark to Josiah Stamp who was an industrialist, an economist, and a director of the Bank of England. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a book titled “Ideals of a Student” by Sir Josiah Stamp. The preface was dated September 1933, and Stamp wrote that the section containing the quotation was based on a commencement address he delivered “at Toronto this year”. Stamp was probably referring to the University of Toronto. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

What is the position of education in all this? Well, its place in this scheme ought to be easily visible to all of us. The time has gone by when we can say that education is “the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.” Now upon us students is the responsibility: for these complexities of economic life require certain qualities of judgment.

Stamp used quotation marks to signal that the expression was already in circulation; hence, he appeared to disclaim authorship. He also expressed disagreement with the statement. Nevertheless, in the following years his name was firmly attached to the saying.

The connection to John Maynard Keynes was established by 1962 when the diplomat Abba Eban wrote an article stating that he heard the saying from Keynes at Cambridge during the 1930s. The detailed citation for this article is given further below.

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Notes:

  1. 1933, Ideals of a Student by Sir Josiah Stamp, Chapter 2: On the Democratic Hope, Quote Page 53, Published by E. Benn, London. (The preface was dated September 1933 and in the preface Josiah Stamp stated that chapter 2 was based on a commencement address he delivered “at Toronto this year”, i.e., at the University of Toronto in 1933) (Verified with scans; great thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University library system)

What I Hate About Writing Is the Paperwork

Peter De Vries? Apocryphal?

paperwork07Dear Quote Investigator: There is an amusing quip that is perfect for National Novel Writing Month. Here are two versions:

1) I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.
2) Writing: I like everything about it but the paperwork.

This comment has been attributed to the novelist, poet, and playwright Peter De Vries whose satiric tales were regularly featured in “The New Yorker”. I wanted to share this joke now because the literary world is unstable. People are using word processors and publishing e-books. A future generation may find the remark anachronistic. Would you please tell me where this quotation appeared?

Quote Investigator: Peter De Vries did present an instance of this joke in his 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben”, but the phrasing differed from the two versions specified by the questioner. A character named Mopworth dreamed of auctorial success. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Standing at the window with his hands in his pockets, Mopworth had a vision of the day when he would be interviewed by the press on the publication of his book. He had some mots all ready. “What I hate about writing is the paperwork.” And: “A writer is like the pencil he uses. He must be worn down to be kept sharp.”

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Notes:

  1. 1964, Reuben, Reuben by Peter De Vries, Chapter 27, Quote Page 314, Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans; thanks to Thomas Fuller)

Always Remember That You Are Absolutely Unique. Just Like Everyone Else

Margaret Mead? Jim Wright? John Peers? Meade? Red Green? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

snow09Dear Quote Investigator: A very funny quotation about individuality has been attributed to the influential anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.

I would like to include this in a book I am preparing, but I have not been able to find a good citation, yet. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the assertion that this remark was made by Margaret Mead. In fact, QI conjectures that the ascription was constructed based on the misreading of a passage in the 1979 citation presented further below.

The earliest evidence located by QI of a similar type of quip appeared in 1971 and was written by an assistant editorial director for the “The Dallas Morning News” named Jim Wright. Wright criticized a best-selling book from the 1970s called “The Greening of America” by a Yale academic. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In other words, the Yale professor’s best-selling work answers the burning question that every teen-age youth revolutionary is asking today: “How can I be unique just like everybody else?”

Because this joke can be expressed in many ways it has been difficult to trace, and the existence of instances before 1971 would be unsurprising to QI.

An exact match for the saying under investigation was printed in a 1979 compilation from John Peers with a remarkably long title: “1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Trusty Truisms, Homey Homilies, Colorful Corollaries, Quotable Quotes, and Rambunctious Ruminations for All Walks of Life”: 2

Meade’s Maxim:
Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.

Note that Peers labeled the adage “Meade’s Maxim” and not “Mead’s Maxim”. In addition, sometimes Peers selected a label for comical effect, e.g.: 3

The Skier’s Rumination:
Don’t ever eat yellow snow.

So, the saying may not even be solidly linked to someone named Meade.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1971 March 13, Dallas Morning News, On Second Thought: By the Numbers: I, II, III, Nonconform! by Jim Wright, Section: D, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 155, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 85, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)