You Should Share the Passion and Action of Your Time at Peril of Being Judged Not To Have Lived

Plotinus? Herodotus? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Anonymous?

cannon11Dear Quote Investigator: Many are familiar with the ancient Latin injunction of the poet Horace: “Carpe diem” or “Seize the day”. The following thematically similar statement has been attributed to other figures of the ancient world: the philosopher Plotinus and the historian Herodotus:

Not to be involved with the actions and passions of your time is to run the risk of having not really lived at all.

Oddly, the same saying has been ascribed to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence linking the statement above to Plotinus or Herodotus. Unsupported attributions appeared in the 2000s, i.e., very recently.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. delivered a Memorial Day address on May 30, 1884 in Keene, New Hampshire. He spoke about a pivotal event in U.S history, the Civil War, which had ended nineteen years earlier. The speech of Holmes included the original instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When it was felt so deeply as it was on both sides that a man ought to take his part in the war unless some conscientious scruple or strong practical reason made it impossible, was that feeling simply the requirement of a local majority that their neighbors should agree with them? I think not: I think the feeling was right—in the South as in the North. I think that as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.

Over the decades the phrasing has evolved. Many instances in circulation have been simplified and streamlined.

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  1. 1884, Dead, Yet Living: An Address Delivered at Keene, New Hampshire on Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, Speaker: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, (Reprinted from the Boston Daily Advertiser by the Author’s Permission), Published by Ginn, Heath, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Your Bald Head Feels as Smooth as My Wife’s Cheek

Marc Connelly? Nicholas Longworth? S. H. Hale? Franklin P. Adams? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

barber08Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I saw a list of the funniest ripostes, but it did not include the squelcher that I believe is the best. An unhappy card player wished to embarrass a bald man who was excelling. The disgruntled man placed his hand on the winner’s gleaming dome and said, “Hey, this feels smooth and soft exactly like my sweet wife’s behind.”

In response the man touched his glabrous scalp thoughtfully and said, “That is curious. You know; you’re right.”

The punchline of this anecdote was been attributed to the playwright Marc Connelly who was a member of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table and to Nicholas Longworth who was the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. Would you explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published version of this tale found by QI was set in a barber shop and was less risqué. In July 1924 “The Roswell Daily Record” of Roswell, New Mexico printed the following. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

S. H. Hale tells this one on a fresh young barber he had working for him several years ago. This particular barber thought he would kid a bald-headed man.

“Don’t you know,” he said, rubbing the bald spot, “your head feels just like my wife’s cheek”.

The customer reached up and stroked his head for a moment and then said: “By golly it does, doesn’t it.”

The word “cheek” presented a double-entendre, but QI believes that the Roswell newspaper editor in 1924 probably expected readers to think of the face and not the buttocks.

The joke was bawdy, and it suggested cuckoldry; hence, coarser instances probably circulated only via the spoken word initially. Newspapers in the 1920s printed a version with the phrase “my wife’s cheek”, and periodicals in the 1950s printed a variant referencing “my wife’s leg”. By the 1960s a biography printed an instance with “my wife’s bottom”, and a memoir printed an instance with “my wife’s behind”.

Privately printed literature was more candid. In 1934 a limited edition collection of taboo humor included an instance with “my wife’s ass”. The rejoinder was attributed to Mark Connelly.

Nicholas Longworth was Speaker of the House from 1925 to 1931, i.e., after the barber shop version of the anecdote was circulating. He died in 1931. The earliest citation found by QI crediting the punchline to Longworth was published in a 1968 book about Washington politics. Detailed information is given further below.

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  1. 1924 July 12, The Roswell Daily Record, Local Snap Shots (Contributed), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Roswell, New Mexico. (NewspaperArchive)

Some Writers Are Only Born to Help Another Writer to Write One Sentence

Ernest Hemingway? Apocryphal?

hemingway12Dear Quote Investigator: Questions about creative influence and artistic appropriation are often fraught with rivalry and controversy. I recall an extreme remark from the prominent writer Ernest Hemingway in which he asserted that the entire purpose of one artist might be to provide a single phrase or sentence to another artist. Is my memory accurate? Is the remark audacious or arrogant? Does this quotation exist?

Quote Investigator: Yes. Beginning in May 1935 “Scribner’s Magazine” serialized Ernest Hemingway’s soon to be published book “Green Hills of Africa”. The work presented an account of the author’s multi-week safari in East Africa together with brief didactic lectures on literature which were woven into the reported conversations. Hemingway discussed American authors and the works he valued as classics. He believed that “a new classic does not bear any resemblance to the classics that have preceded it”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It can steal from anything that it is better than, anything that is not a classic, all classics do that. Some writers are only born to help another writer to write one sentence. But it cannot derive from or resemble a previous classic.

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  1. 1935 May, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 97, Number 5, Green Hills of Africa by Ernest Hemingway, Start Page 257, Quote Page 262, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)

If You Build a Better Mousetrap the World Will Beat a Path to Your Door

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Elbert Hubbard? Sarah S. B. Yule? John R. Paxton? Anonymous?

mouse14Dear Quote Investigator: A remarkably popular adage about innovation highlights mousetraps and celebrity:

Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.

The origin of this saying was complex, and the topic has been contentious. Historically, the following people have been linked to the phrase: philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, aphorist Elbert Hubbard, clergyman John R. Paxton, and quotation collector Sarah S. B. Yule. Would you please examine this subject?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strongly matching statement located by QI was published in “The Atlanta Constitution” of Atlanta, Georgia on May 11, 1882 in a section called “Current Comment”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The Value of Good Work,
Ralph Waldo Emerson.

If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbors, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.

Emerson died on April 27, 1882, so the above passage was ascribed to him shortly after his death. In the following days, months, and years the quotation appeared in a wide variety of periodicals and books together with the acknowledgement. For example, on May 15, 1882 the text along with Emerson’s name was printed in “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Cincinnati, Ohio. 2 On May 19, 1882 it was reprinted in the “The Decatur Daily Republican” of Decatur, Illinois. 3

Minor alterations in the text occurred as the quotation was widely replicated. The term mousetrap was sometimes presented as two words: “mouse trap” and sometimes hyphenated: “mouse-trap”. In modern times, the term often appears as a single unhyphenated word: “mousetrap”. The word “neighbors” was sometimes given in the singular form.

The saying was employed as a filler item in newspapers, and it also appeared in columns containing miscellaneous short news items and sayings. The specific circumstances when Emerson spoke or wrote the statement were never supplied.

Over the decades the phrasing has evolved. For example, by 1901 a version with “build a better mouse-trap” instead of “make a better mouse-trap” was circulating.

An exact match for the passage above has never been found in the published writings or personal journals of Emerson. However, a solid thematic match was written in his journal dated 1855 in a section about “Common Fame”. A mousetrap was not mentioned; instead, other goods and services were specified: 4

Common Fame. I trust a good deal to common fame, as we all must. If a man has good corn, or wood, or boards, or pigs, to sell, or can make better chairs or knives, crucibles or church organs, than anybody else, you will find a broad hard-beaten road to his house, though it be in the woods.

Emerson was a popular speaker who delivered numerous public lectures over a period of decades. He used his journals as source material for his speeches, but the phrasing employed in the notebooks and speeches was variable. QI believes Emerson probably did voice the passage with “mouse trap” during a speech.

Indeed, a woman named Sarah S. B. Yule stated that she heard one of Emerson’s public addresses and copied the “mouse trap” statement into a notebook. In 1889 she placed the remark into a published compilation of quotations and adages titled “Borrowings”. Detailed information is given further below.

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  1. 1882 May 11, Atlanta Constitution, Current Comment: The Value of Good Work: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest)
  2. 1882 May 15, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Personal, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1882 May 19, Decatur Daily Republican, Tea-Table Talk, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Decatur, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1912, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson with Annotations, Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, 1849-1855, Volume 8, Year Specified for Journal Entry: 1855, Quote Page 528, Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

Sometimes I’m Terrified of My Heart, of Its Constant Hunger for Whatever It Is It Wants

Edgar Allan Poe? Poe? Anne D. Danielewski? Anonymous?

poe09Dear Quote Investigator: Edgar Allan Poe authored groundbreaking tales in three different genres: horror, mystery, and science fiction. Numerous websites attribute the following emotion-laden passage to the literary master:

Sometimes I’m terrified of my heart; of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants; the way it stops and starts.

I have been unable to locate these words in any story written by the famous nineteenth-century romanticist. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive support for the ascription to Edgar Allan Poe.

Instead, the lines should be credited to the American singer/songwriter Poe. She released an album called “Haunted” in 2000, and the quotation was spoken by her during the fifth track which was about 52 seconds long. The audio can currently be heard on YouTube and Amazon: 1

Sometimes, I’m terrified of my heart, of its constant hunger for whatever it is it wants; the way it stops and starts.

Note that the audio and video available on YouTube changes over time. E. A. Poe is long dead, but the Poe who crafted the words above is very much alive and has a large cohort of fans and enthusiasts. Poe’s birth name was Anne Decatur Danielewski according Wikipedia,, and

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  1. YouTube video, Title: Terrified Heart Poe, Uploaded on March 12, 2012, Uploaded by: Amanda Johnston, (There is a delay before the final word is spoken), Description by Uploader: Song by Poe, Album – Haunted, 2001, (Album actually released in October 2000 according to (Accessed on on March 21, 2015) link

We Are Too Prone to Judge Ourselves by Our Ideals and Other People by Their Acts

Dwight Morrow? Harold Nicolson? Harold Nicholson? William Nevins? Tryon Edwards? Edward Wigglesworth? Stephen R. Covey?

nevins10Dear Quote Investigator: There is a pervasive problem in human psychology of a self-serving double-standard that can be stated as follows:

We judge ourselves by our ideals, but we judge others by their actions.

This remark has been attributed to the American diplomat Dwight Morrow and the British diplomat Harold Nicolson. Sometimes “Nicolson” is misspelled as “Nicholson”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The compelling notion of two disparate standards has engaged a wide variety of speakers and writers for more than 170 years. The language of expression has evolved during this long period. For example, one version of the saying in 1892 contrasted the internal “intentions” of the self with the externally visible “actions” of others. An instance in 1997 contrasted the “motives” of the self with the external “behavior” of others. Here is a summary of the shifting vocabulary:

1836 motives / actions
1885 intentions / doings
1892 intentions / actions
1909 motives / acts
1915 intentions / performance
1930 ideals / acts
1932 ideals / deeds
1932 intentions / acts
1932 ideals / conduct
1997 motives / behavior

The Reverend William Nevins was a minister and religious writer who preached to congregations in the northeast United States. In 1836 a posthumous compilation of his writings was released that included the following adage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In judging ourselves, we cannot be too severe; in judging others, we cannot be too candid. We should judge ourselves by our motives, but others by their actions.

The semantics of this early version of the saying differed from popular instances in modern times. The word “should” signaled the difference. The reader was supposed to embrace an attitude of self-criticism regarding his or her motivations, and the reader was supposed to be objective and forgiving when evaluating the actions of others.

The common instances in circulation today do not use the word “should”. Indeed, judging oneself based on “ideals” or “motivations” has been depicted as self-serving or self-centered.

Dwight Morrow did employ an instance of the saying during a speech reported in “The New York Times” in 1930. Harold Nicolson wrote a book about Morrow in 1935, and in that work he ascribed the saying to Morrow not himself. Detailed information is given further below.

Here is a chronological series of additional citations that trace the metamorphosis of the saying.

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  1. 1836, Select Remains of the Rev. William Nevins with a Memoir, Quote Page 383, Published by John S. Taylor, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

We Judge Ourselves by What We Feel Capable of Doing, While Others Judge Us by What We Have Already Done

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? William Nevins? Stephen M. R. Covey? Anonymous?

longfellow08Dear Quote Investigator: The way we judge ourselves often differs markedly from the way others judge us. We tend to evaluate ourselves based on what we are capable of doing, or what we intend to do, or what we say we will do. However, no one else has access to our internal thoughts and dreams. Hence, others judge us by what we have actually accomplished.

I believe this idea has been eloquently and compactly articulated in the past. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The eminent poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published a novel in 1849 titled “Kavanagh” that included the following statement:

. . . we judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done.

One character in the story was a school teacher named Churchill. The text above appeared on the first page of the tale. Here is a longer excerpt starting with the first words of the book. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

Great men stand like solitary towers in the city of God, and secret passages running deep beneath external nature give their thoughts intercourse with higher intelligences, which strengthens and consoles them, and of which the laborers on the surface do not even dream!

Some such thought as this was floating vaguely through the brain of Mr. Churchill, as he closed his school-house door behind him; and if in any degree he applied it to himself, it may perhaps be pardoned in a dreamy, poetic man like him; for we judge ourselves by what we feel capable of doing, while others judge us by what we have already done. And moreover his wife considered him equal to great things.

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  1. 1849, Kavanagh: A Tale by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Quote Page 3, Published by Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (University of Virginia Library: Ebooks) link

He Who Laughs, Lasts

Mary Pettibone Poole? W. E. Nesom? George F. Worts? H. L. Mencken? Joe Laurie Jr.? Franklin P. Adams? Anonymous?

rembrandt08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous proverb that asserts the last person to laugh is the person who laughs the best or the longest. I am interested in a cleverly modified statement emphasizing the connection between humor and longevity:

He who laughs—lasts.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: For many years this comical remark has been ascribed to Mary Pettibone Poole who published a compilation of quotations and quips in 1938 with the vividly absurdist title “A Glass Eye at a Keyhole”. Poole placed this joke in a section “Beggars Can’t Be Losers”: 1

He who laughs, lasts!

None of the statements in Poole’s work were given attributions, and some were probably original; however, many were not. QI can now report some earlier instances of the joke above.

In November 1917 the humor magazine “Judge” printed a poem by W. E. Nesom titled “Perverted Proverbs” that playfully modified adages. The fifth stanza was the following. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

If laughter be an aid to health,
Then logic of the strongest
Impels us to the cheerful thought
That he who laughs lasts longest.

The above citation was located by top researcher Stephen Goranson, and W. E. Nesom may have been the originator of this proverbial twist. Currently, this is the earliest evidence known to QI.

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  1. 1938, A Glass Eye at a Keyhole by Mary Pettibone Poole, Section: Beggars Can’t Be Losers, Quote Page 40, Published by Dorrance and Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to Dennis Lien and the University of Minnesota library system)
  2. 1917 November 3, Judge, Poem: Perverted Proverbs by W. E. Nesom (Fifth stanza), Unnumbered Page (2 pages away from back cover), Column 3, Published by Leslie-Judge Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

To Fulfill a Dream, To Be Allowed to Sweat over Lovely Labor, To Be Given the Chance To Create, Is the Meat and Potatoes of Life. The Money Is the Gravy

Bette Davis? Richard Branson? Apocryphal?

voyager08Dear Quote Investigator: In 2014 Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, wrote an essay discussing some of his favorite quotations. One motivational remark about creating and fulfilling a dream was attributed to the Hollywood star Bette Davis. 1 Are you familiar with this quotation? Would you please tell me where it is was published?

Quote Investigator: Some fortunate individuals in our society acquire great wealth during youth or middle age. A sybaritic life of indolence and decadence must be a temptation for a large number of pecunious people. Yet, many continue to work hard for decades.

The acclaimed actress Bette Davis was highly-paid during her long career. The following illuminating passage about her desires appeared in her 1962 autobiography titled “The Lonely Life”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

To survive and to prosper doing what one wants is the dreamiest of lives. To fulfill a dream, to be allowed to sweat over lovely labor, to be given the chance to create, is the meat and potatoes of life. The money is the gravy. As everyone else, I love to dunk my crust in it. But alone, it is not a diet designed to keep body and soul together.

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  1. Website: Virgin Group, Article title: My three favourite quotes on imagination, Article author: Richard Branson, Date on website: October 13, 2014, Website description: Information about the Virgin Group and postings by the founder Richard Branson, (Accessed on February 11, 2015) link
  2. 1962, The Lonely Life: An Autobiography by Bette Davis, Chapter 13, Quote Page 190, Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified on paper)

My Ancestors Didn’t Come Over on the Mayflower. They Were Just Standing There When It Docked

Will Rogers? J. J. Swartz? Owen Davis? Anonymous?

mayflower01Dear Quote Investigator: The enormously popular American humorist Will Rogers had some ancestors who were Cherokee Indians, and apparently one of his jokes was about his forebears and the early European colonists who arrived on the Mayflower. Are you familiar with this quip? Was it really spoken by Rogers?

Quote Investigator: Yes. The first instance of the jest ascribed to Rogers located by QI was published in 1926 in “The Dallas Morning News” of Dallas, Texas. The comedian gave a performance in the city and stated that he had recently obtained a passport to permit travel to Europe which entailed providing proof of his U.S. birth. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“I never had my Americanism doubted before. My mother and my father both were part Cherokee Indian. Of course my people didn’t come over on the Mayflower but we were there to meet the folks when they landed,” he proclaimed.

Rogers employed the joke multiple times before his death in 1935 although the phrasing varied. Yet, the earliest evidence located by QI appeared several years before 1926 in 1914. A journal called “The Native American” reported on an exhibit from Nez Perce Indians of agricultural goods, baskets, bead-work, and other items that included a sign presenting an instance of the joke without attribution. The traveling display was shown in a larger exposition held in Portland, Washington. The slang term “chesty” in the following passage meant conceited: 2

Another card reads: “Some people are ‘chesty’ because their ancestors came over in the Mayflower. But remember, the ancestors of the Indians were on the reception committee when the Mayflower arrived.” The Indians’ exhibit attracts much attention from the thousands of visitors at the exposition. It is in charge of J.J. Swartz.

It was possible that Rogers created the quip before 1914, and the sign was derived from his line. Alternatively, the joke was already in circulation when Rogers adopted and popularized it.

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  1. 1926 November 5, Dallas Morning News, Will Rogers in His Annual Dallas Appearance is Found More Comic than Philosophic by John Rosenfield Jr., Quote Page 9, Column 5, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1914 December 5, The Native American: Devoted to Indian Education, Volume 15, Number 41, Article Title: Lapwai, Idaho, Article Author: Nez Perce Indian, Quote Page 553, Column 1, Published by United States Indian Training School, Phoenix, Arizona. (Google Books Full View) link