Vince Lombardi? Mark Twain? Arthur Brisbane? Vidal Sassoon? Stubby Currence? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is an astute saying about gaining achievements through effort that deftly refers to the alphabetical order of a dictionary. Here are two versions:
1) Success comes before work only in the dictionary.
2) The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.
This expression has been attributed to football coach Vince Lombardi, humorist Mark Twain, newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane, hair stylist Vidal Sassoon, and others. Would you please explore its origin?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain made this statement. It is not listed on the Barbara Schmidt’s TwainQuotes.com website, an important reference tool for checking expressions ascribed to the luminary. Also, it does not appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”.
The earliest strong match for this saying located by QI was published in 1935 by a newspaper columnist named Stubby Currence. The details are given further below.
QI conjectures that the expression emerged from a precursor statement that was in circulation by the 1920s. The following was printed in a New Castle, Pennsylvania newspaper in 1925, and the same statement with the words “for it” deleted was printed in a Humboldt, Iowa newspaper in 1926:
One way to find success without working for it is to look it up in the dictionary.
Three key vocabulary items were shared with the saying under investigation: “success”, “working”, and “dictionary”. But the meaning here was somewhat different. The reader might find the word “success” simply by looking it up in a dictionary, but this action was distinct from actually obtaining worldly success. The wordplay and joke structure here were distinguishable, but there were multiple points of similarity with the phrase being traced.
In 1932 “The News-Herald” newspaper of Franklin, Pennsylvania printed another version of the precursor quip. This instance semantically matched the 1925 citation, but syntactically it was closer to the next citation in 1935:
In a dictionary is the only place one can find success without working for it.
In 1935 an expression solidly matching the one given by the questioner was published in the “Bluefield Daily Telegraph” of Bluefield, West Virginia. The words appeared in a column called “The Press Box” by Stubby Currence who covered sports for the paper. QI does not know whether Currence was the crafter of the jape or simply the transmitter:
BUFF SAYS: “The dictionary is the only place where you come to SUCCESS before you get to WORK.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.