I’m Looking for Loopholes

W. C. Fields? Ben Hecht? Gene Fowler? Thomas Mitchell? Apocryphal?

fields08Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant comedian and movie actor W. C. Fields led an unrestrained showbiz life displaying a fondness for alcohol and mistresses. He was not known as a religious man, but as his death approached he began to peruse the Bible. When a friend asked him about this behavior he humorously explained that he was:

Looking for loopholes.

Would you please explore this anecdote and quotation?

Quote Investigator: W. C. Fields died in 1946, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared many years later in November 1960 in “Playboy” magazine. The prominent screenwriter and director Ben Hecht wrote a nostalgic piece reflecting on his experiences in Hollywood. Hecht recounted a story about the journalist Gene Fowler and his friend Fields that included an instance of the quotation. The nickname “Bill” was used for W. C. Fields. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Fields was Fowler’s favorite self-destroyer. No man ever worked so patiently at wrecking his soul and body as did this prince of comedians. A Mississippi of gin sluiced through him in his declining years.

Fowler visited his ailing crony shortly before his death. He found Fields sitting in the garden reading the Holy Bible. “I’m looking for loopholes,” Bill explained, shyly.

Another version of the tale was published in 1966; the person visiting Fields was identified as the actor Thomas Mitchell instead of Fowler. Of course, it was possible that Fields used the quip more than once, and therefore both versions might be accurate. The 1966 citation is given further below.

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  1. 1960 November, Playboy, Volume 7, Number 11, “If Hollywood is Dead or Dying as a Moviemaker, Perhaps the Following Are Some of the Reasons” by Ben Hecht, Start Page 56, Quote Page 134, Column 2, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)

Literature Is of No Practical Value Whatsoever

Vladimir Nabokov? Apocryphal?

bovary08Dear Quote Investigator: The Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov was a consummate prose stylist. When he was a professor teaching his students about literature he apparently shared the following candid opinion:

Literature is of no practical value whatsoever.

Is this quotation accurate?

Quote Investigator: In 1980 the posthumous book “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov was released; the volume contained a collection of college lectures assembled from the pages of Nabokov’s handwritten and typed notes. The discourse on Gustave Flaubert’s novel “Madame Bovary” included the following commentary about fiction. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A child to whom you read a story may ask you, is the story true? And if not, the child demands a true one. Let us not persevere in this juvenile attitude towards the books we read. Of course, if somebody tells you that Mr. Smith has seen a blue saucer with a green operator whiz by, you do ask, is it true? because in one way or another the fact of its being true would affect your whole life, would be of infinite practical consequence to you. But do not ask whether a poem or a novel is true. Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature.

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  1. 1980, Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov, Edited by Fredson Bowers, Lecture: Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary, Start Page 125, Quote Page 125, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Bruccoli Clark, New York. (Verified on paper)

He Was Prepared To Lay Down His Life for Eight Cousins or Two Brothers

J. B. S. Haldane? John Maynard Smith? W. D. Hamilton? Apocryphal?

jbshaldane10Dear Quote Investigator: Kin selection is an important and sometimes controversial idea in genetics. The prominent biologist J. B. S. Haldane reportedly said:

I would gladly give up my life for two brothers or eight cousins.

I have been unable to find a citation for this remark. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In August 1975 the influential evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith published a book review in the periodical “New Scientist”. Within the review Smith described encountering his mentor J. B. S. Haldane at a public house called the Orange Tree. The time was not specified in the article, but Haldane died in 1964. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I first heard the idea in the now-demolished Orange Tree off the Euston Road; J. B. S. Haldane who had been calculating on the back of an envelope for some minutes, announced that he was prepared to lay down his life for eight cousins or two brothers. This remark contained the essence of an idea which W. D. Hamilton, a lecturer in zoology at Imperial College, London, was later to generalise. Unfortunately, Haldane, although he referred to the idea in an article in Penguin New Biology, did not follow it up, and may not have appreciated its importance.

QI believes that the quotation under examination was based on Smith’s testimony. The common version in circulation has been grammatically altered so that it fits the form of a direct statement by Haldane.

Smith referred to a 1955 article by Haldane in the journal “New Biology” titled “Population Genetics”. The kernel of the idea of kin selection was presented by Haldane at this early date, but the quotation was quite different: 2 3

What is more interesting, it is only in such small populations that natural selection would favour the spread of genes making for certain kinds of altruistic behaviour. Let us suppose that you carry a rare gene which affects your behaviour so that you jump into a river and save a child, but you have one chance in ten of being drowned, while I do not possess the gene, and stand on the bank and watch the child drown.

If the child is your own child or your brother or sister, there is an even chance that the child will also have the gene, so five such genes will be saved in children for one lost in an adult. If you save a grandchild or nephew the advantage is only two and a half to one. If you only save a first cousin, the effect is very slight. If you try to save your first cousin once removed the population is more likely to lose this valuable gene than to gain it. But on the two occasions when I have pulled possibly drowning people out of the water (at an infinitesimal risk to myself) I had no time to make such calculations.

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  1. 1975 August 28, New Scientist, Survival through suicide by John Maynard Smith, (Book Review of Edward O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology—The New Synthesis”), Quote Page 496, Column 2, Published by New Science Publications, London; Now Published by Reed Business Information, UK. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1955 April, New Biology, Volume 18, Edited by: M. L. Johnson, Michael Abercrombie, and G. E. Fogg, Population Genetics by J. B. S. Haldane, Start Page 34, Quote Page 44, Penguin Books, London and New York. (This citation has not yet been verified by QI; it is based on the webpage of a lab in the Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle)
  3. Website: Joe Felsenstein / Kuhner Lab, Location of Lab: Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Webpage title: Haldane on kin selection, 1955, Description of webpage: Excerpt from article titled “Population Genetics” by J.B.S. Haldane published in the journal “New Biology” in 1955, Date on website: Undated. (Accessed evolution.gs.washington.edu on May 5, 2016) link

If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance

Derek Bok? Ann Landers? Char Meyers? Robert Orben? John Lubbock? P. B. de La Bruère? Rev. S. C. Morris? Charles Duncan Mclver? Albert Einstein? Barack Obama? Anonymous?

library07Dear Quote Investigator: The cost of attending college has been increasing more rapidly than the rate of inflation for decades. Students and parents have been struggling with bills and loan payments. A popular adage offers a provocative perspective:

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

These words have been attributed to Derek Bok who was a President of Harvard University and to Ann Landers who was a popular syndicated advice columnist. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest exact match known to QI appeared in an advertisement for a realty company in June 1974. A real estate agent named Char Meyers was featured in the ad which was published in a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper. The adage was displayed as an epigraph at the top of the ad, and it was not really connected to the content. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

NEVER PAINT AGAIN Newly listed west 3 bedroom, family room, all aluminum exterior. Beautifully wooded rear yard.

QI believes that Char Meyers was an unlikely candidate for authorship of the saying. But a set of citations that appeared shortly afterward in July 1974 did point to a likely contender. A newspaper supplement called “Family Weekly” was incorporated into the Saturday issues of multiple papers around the U.S.A. The supplement included a column titled “Quips & Quotes” which contained miscellaneous sayings. The adage was printed in the column and credited Robert Orben: 2 3

Prices are increasing so fast that you need that “double-your-money-back guarantee” just to break even. —Anna Herbert

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. —Robert Orben

Orben was a very successful comedy writer who supplied jokes to others via books and a newsletter. He also wrote material contractually for other comedians, business executives and politicians. QI conjectures that Orben constructed this precise formulation; however, the remark was not particularly novel.

A variety of statements using the same keywords and expressing the same idea have been circulating since the early 1900s. For example, in 1902 an advertisement for a Conservatory of Music in Ottumwa, Iowa contained the following: 4

“Education is expensive but ignorance is more so.”

The saying was linked to Derek Bok because Ann Landers published a column in 1978 that credited him. However, in 1998 she wrote a follow-up column stating that Bok had contacted her directly and disclaimed authorship of the quotation. Detailed citations are given further below.

Great thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who examined this topic and located key citations. QI and Popik shared research results.

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  1. 1974 June 18, Capital Times, Section: Classified Advertisements, (Advertisement for Parkwood Realty). On the House by Char Meyers, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1974 July 28, The Gallup Independent, Section: Family Weekly (Newspaper Supplement), Quips & Quotes, Quote Page 15, Column 2, Gallup, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1974 July 28, The Progress, Section: Family Weekly (Newspaper Supplement), Quips & Quotes, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Clearfield, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1902 August 28, Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, (Advertisement for the Ottumwa Conservatory of Music), Quote Page 8, Column 6, Ottumwa, Iowa. (Chronicling America) link

Clear Your Mind of Cant / Clear Your Mind of Can’t

Samuel Johnson? James Boswell? Thomas Carlyle? Apocryphal?

mind08Dear Quote Investigator: Two statements that sound the same but have very different meanings have been attributed to the esteemed dictionary maker and man of letters Samuel Johnson:

1) Clear your mind of cant.
2) Clear your mind of can’t.

In the first statement the noun “cant” referred to insincere, trite, or sanctimonious speech. Johnson was telling a friend not to dwell on this form of verbal nonsense.

In the second statement the term “can’t” referred to negative thoughts that undermine one’s self-confidence. But I think that this phrasing was too modern for Johnson who died in 1784. It sounds like a maxim from a current motivational book or poster. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The first expression was spoken to James Boswell by Samuel Johnson on May 15, 1783 as recorded in the famous biographical work “Boswell’s Life of Johnson”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

JOHNSON. “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do. You may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.”

The second phrase was attributed to Johnson by 1929, but that was a very late date; clearly, the attribution was a mistake caused by confusion of the homophones: cant and can’t..

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  1. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Time period specified: May 15, 1783, Quote Page 454 and 455, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

Music Itself Is Going To Become Like Running Water or Electricity

David Bowie? Apocryphal

bowie07Dear Quote Investigator: Music streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music have grown greatly in popularity and power in recent times. Some pundits assert that music in the future will be viewed as a utility like water, gas, or electricity. But this insight was not novel; I recall that David Bowie made a comparable point back in the early 2000s. Correct?

Quote Investigator: An article titled “David Bowie, 21st-Century Entrepreneur” by Jon Pareles was published in “The New York Times” on June 9, 2002. Bowie made several striking comments about the future of the music industry including the following: 1

Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity.

The upheavals in the music domain have been extraordinary, but some of the changes Bowie envisioned have not yet occurred, e.g., the end of copyright:

The absolute transformation of everything that we ever thought about music will take place within 10 years, and nothing is going to be able to stop it. I see absolutely no point in pretending that it’s not going to happen. I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will no longer exist in 10 years, and authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing.

Piracy of music is commonplace, but the music labels and artists continue to collect billions for the sale of digital music, CDs, and vinyl supported by copyright.

Bowie was very shrewd about the future shift in revenue for artists because he understood the primacy and unreproducibility of direct experience:

You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.

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  1. 2002 June 9, The New York Times, Section: Arts & Leisure, David Bowie, 21st-Century Entrepreneur by Jon Pareles, Start Page 1, Quote Page 30, New York. (ProQuest)

Either Write Things Worth Reading or Do Things Worth the Writing

Benjamin Franklin? Thomas Fuller? Apocryphal?

franklin15Dear Quote Investigator: If you wish to be remembered by posterity in a literate culture you have two options:

1) Write something that people wish to read.
2) Do something grand that inspires people to write.

The famous statesman Benjamin Franklin has a secure place in history for both of these reasons. Apparently, he crafted a remark that was similar to the one above although he was more eloquent. Would you please locate this adage?

Quote Investigator: Franklin published a series of almanacs in the 1700s that were very popular, and many of the statements that are credited to him today were printed in these almanacs. The pertinent adage appeared in the 1738 edition of “Poor Richard’s Almanac” whose more complete title was “Poor Richard, An Almanack For the Year of Christ 1738, Being the Second after LEAP YEAR.”

The phrases of the expression were interleaved with astronomical facts concerning the month of May 1738. QI has underlined the adage in red in the image below which shows part of Franklin’s book: 1

If you wou’d not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worth reading,
or do things worth the writing.


Many of the sayings in the almanacs were not coined by Franklin. He read several contemporary compilations and sometimes selected statements he found interesting. He also rewrote existing adages and even combined sayings.

The core of the adage under investigation appeared earlier in a collection titled “Introductio ad Prudentiam: Or, Directions, Counsels, and Cautions, Tending to Prudent Management of Affairs in Common Life” by Thomas Fuller which was published in 1727. Adage number 686 was the following: 2

If thou wouldest win Immortality of Name, either do things worth the writing, or write things worth the reading.

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  1. 1738, Poor Richard, An Almanack For the Year of Christ 1738, Being the Second after Leap Year (Poor Richard’s Almanac), Benjamin Franklin, Month: May, Column: 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Images from Historical Society of Pennsylvania; accessed at rarebookroom.org on April 27, 2016) link
  2. 1731, Introductio ad Prudentiam: Or, Directions, Counsels, and Cautions, Tending to Prudent Management of Affairs in Common Life, Compiled by Thomas Fuller, M.D., Third Edition, Quote Page 40, Saying Number 686, Printed for W. Innys at the West-End of St Paul’s, London. (First edition was published in 1727; the quotation was verified with scans of the 1731 third edition)(HathiTrust) link link

If You Always Do What You’ve Always Done, You Always Get What You’ve Always Gotten

Henry Ford? Jessie Potter? Dayle K. Maloney? Cathy Bolger? Susan Jeffers? Jackie “Moms” Mabley? Tony Robbins? Anonymous?

do12Dear Quote Investigator: Why do people repeat foolish, ineffective, or self-destructive behaviors? Self-help books contain an adage about the consequences of thoughtless repetition. Here are three versions:

1) If you do what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.

2) If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.

3) If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you will keep getting what you’ve always gotten.

This saying has been credited to the automotive tycoon Henry Ford and the motivational speaker Tony Robbins. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press has an entry for this expression. Interestingly, researchers have only been able to trace it back to the 1980s. 1

The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Milwaukee Sentinel” of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1981. The speaker was an educator and counselor on family relationships and human sexuality named Jessie Potter who worked for a non-profit organization she founded. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten.” That was the advice of Jessie Potter, the featured speaker at Friday’s opening of the seventh annual Woman to Woman conference.

The director of the National Institute for Human Relationships in Oak Lawn, Ill., Ms. Potter drew on anecdotes and frank comments about sex and love in asserting that change is needed in the American way of growing up, falling in love, raising a family and growing old.

The phrasing of the adage is highly variable; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The linkage to Henry Ford who died in 1947 appears to be spurious. Jessie Potter helped to popularize the saying, and she may have coined it, but uncertainty remains.

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  1. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 57, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1981 October 24, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Search For Quality Called Key To Life by Tom Ahern, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)

Google Can Bring You Back 100,000 Answers. A Librarian Can Bring You Back the Right One

Neil Gaiman? Apocryphal?


Dear Quote Investigator: In today’s world of search engines and myriad webpages some have questioned the future of libraries and librarians. The award-winning fantasy author Neil Gaiman coined an insightful saying on this topic. In essence, a librarian can help guide you to find the right answer from the hundreds of thousands proffered by search engines. Are you familiar with this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 2010 Neil Gaiman was appointed Honorary Chair of National Library Week in the U.S. On April 16 of that year Gaiman spoke about the changing role of the library in the 21st century during an interview conducted in Indianapolis, Indiana, and a segment of his commentary was uploaded to YouTube. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

We used to live in a world in which there wasn’t enough information. Information was currency. Now we’re in a world in which there’s too much information. There’s information absolutely everywhere. So instead of sending a librarian out into the desert to come back with the one rock that you need from the desert, it’s now a matter of sending a librarian into a jungle to come back with the one tree, the one leaf, in the jungle that you probably wouldn’t be able to get.

Google can bring you back, you know, a hundred thousand answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.

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  1. YouTube video, Title: Neil Gaiman on Libraries, Uploaded on April 19, 2010, Uploaded by: indyPL (Indianapolis Public Library), (Excerpt starts at 1 minute 20 seconds of 1 minutes 56 seconds), Video description: “Neil Gaiman, author and Honorary Chair of National Library Week, speaks about the value of libraries, librarians and librarianship before his lecture at the annual McFadden Memorial Lecture Series hosted by Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library on April 16, 2010.”) (Accessed on youtube.com on April 23, 2016)(The text does not exactly correspond to the words spoken by Gaiman. Redundancies and verbal stumbles have been excised) link

Using Money You Haven’t Earned To Buy Things You Don’t Need To Impress People You Don’t Like

Will Smith? Walter Winchell? Robert Quillen? Edgar Allan Moss? Tony Wons? Ken Murray? Emile Gauvreau? Will Rogers?

shop09Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever purchased an item and wondered the next day what motivated your inexplicable action? Here are two versions of an entertaining saying about consumerism:

1) Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.

2) We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.

Statements like this have been credited to the famous comedian Will Rogers, the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, and the Hollywood star Will Smith. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a June 1928 column by the syndicated humorist Robert Quillen in which he labelled the expression “Americanism”: 1

Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.

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  1. 1928 June 4, The Detroit Free Press, Paragraphs by Robert Quillen, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)