The Best Lack All Conviction While the Worst Are Full of Passionate Intensity

William Butler Yeats? Bertrand Russell? Charles Bukowski?

doubt11Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever been absolutely certain about a fact and later determined that you were completely wrong? If you learn from that experience you become less arrogant and more empathetic. I wish more people would achieve this form of personal growth. Here are three versions of a relevant saying:

The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent full of doubt.

This thought has been linked to the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet W. B. Yeats, the prominent British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and the notable American writer Charles Bukowski. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The three individuals you mentioned each expressed different versions of this idea, and detailed citations are given below.

In 1920 W. B. Yeats published the poem “The Second Coming”, and the final two lines of the first section presented an instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Date: 1920 November, Periodical: The Dial, Article Title: Ten Poems, Poem: The Second Coming, Author: William Butler Yeats, Quote Page: 466, Publisher: The Dial Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

The Most Exciting Phrase in Science Is Not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s funny …’

Isaac Asimov? Alexander Fleming? Archimedes? Anonymous?

petri15Dear Quote Investigator: The classic phrase that is supposed to be uttered by a scientist when he makes a major discovery is “Eureka!” That was the famous cry of the ancient Greek sage Archimedes. But the prominent science fiction writer Isaac Asimov insightfully noted that the actual remark preceding a breakthrough probably reflected surprise and uncertainty such as:

“That’s odd.”
“That’s funny.”
“Hey, wait a minute.”

The scientific advance occurred when the anomalous observation was further scrutinized. Would you please explore this topic to find out when Asimov made this statement?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a message posted to the Usenet discussion system in 1987. The message was part of a source code listing of a computer program called “fortune”. This program was part of the installation of the popular UNIX operating system, and “fortune” was inspired by the notion of a fortune cookie.

When the program was run it displayed one item from a large collection of sayings and quotations that was kept in a simple database file. The quotation below appeared in a version of the program that was distributed on June 3, 1987: 1

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”
— Isaac Asimov

Asimov died in 1992, so the words were ascribed to him while he was alive; however, the data in the “fortune” program did not provide a precise citation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Date: 1987 June 3, Usenet Newsgroup: comp.sources.games, Subject: v01i040: fortune – quote for the day, Part14/16, From: games-request at tekred.UUCP, Description: Source code listing for fortune computer program distributed via Usenet. (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed February 28, 2015)

Shoot Them Now, While They’re Happy

Dorothy Parker? Apocryphal?

typeparker07Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant wit Dorothy Parker’s career was based on writing. She composed screenplays in Hollywood, and she authored columns for the magazines “Esquire” and “The New Yorker”. Yet, she was not always happy with her literary livelihood.

Recently on Pinterest I saw a piece of comically lethal acerbic advice that Parker reportedly gave to friends of aspiring writers. Would you please tell me if this quip is an authentic Parkerism? Where exactly did it appear?

Quote Investigator: In November 1959 Dorothy Parker penned a book review column in “Esquire” magazine that evaluated the revised edition of the famous writing guide “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White. Parker gave the work her highest recommendation and said it should be kept and treasured as a “forever” book. She also prescribed a form of euthanasia for budding writers. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

William Strunk taught Mr. White English at Cornell, and certainly he had no more gifted and proficient a pupil. It is a book to put alongside Fowler’s works, and I can think of no higher praise; I greatly doubt if there is any.

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1959 November, Esquire, Book Reviews by Dorothy Parker, Start Page 26, Quote Page 28, Column 4, Published by Arnold Gingrich, Esquire Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Verified on microfilm)

Firearms Stand Next in Importance to the Constitution Itself. They Are the American People’s Liberty Teeth and Keystone under Independence

George Washington? C. S. Wheatley? Apocryphal?

george08Dear Quote Investigator: Are you familiar with the “liberty teeth” speech attributed to George Washington? Researchers have been unable to find evidence that Washington delivered this speech, and some phrases are apparently anachronistic. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in 1926 which was long after the death of the famous first president. Someone named C. S. Wheatley was the author of a short opinion piece about guns in a magazine called “Hunter-Trader-Trapper” based in Columbus, Ohio. Some of the statements in the article were identified as quotations from the 1700s; however, each of these remarks was carefully placed between quotation marks.

The term “Liberty teeth” occurred in the final paragraph of the article. Quotation marks were not used in this part of the text because Wheatley was presenting his own opinion. He was not presenting the words of George Washington.

Confusion emerged because the sentence immediately preceding the final paragraph mentioned an address delivered by Washington. However, the succeeding words in the article were not part of Washington’s address. Instead, the thoughts in the concluding paragraph were authored by Wheatley. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In George Washington’s address to the second session of the first Congress, he urged promoting the manufacture of arms.

Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. They are the American people’s Liberty teeth and keystone under Independence. The church, the plow, the prairie wagon, and citizens’ firearms are indelibly related. From the hour the Pilgrims landed, to the present day, events, occurrences and tendencies prove that to insure peace, security and happiness, the rifle and pistol are equally indispensable. Every corner of this Land knows firearms and more than 99 99/100 per cent of them by their silence indicate they are in safe and sane hands. The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil interference and they deserve a place of honor with all that’s good. When firearms go all goes, therefore we need them every hour.
C. S. Wheatley.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Date: 1926 September, Periodical: Hunter-Trader-Trapper, Volume 53, Number 3, Section: Guns and Ammunition, Article title: Older Ideas of Firearms, Article author: C. S. Wheatley, Start Page 34, Quote Page 34, Publisher: The Hunter-Trader-Trapper Company, Columbus, Ohio. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system)

Unless You Try To Do Something Beyond What You Have Already Mastered, You Will Never Grow

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Ronald E. Osborn? Anonymous?

beyond07Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about personal growth has appeared in many self-help and motivational texts:

Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.

Often the words are attributed to the well-known transcendental philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have been unable to determine the source, and I am skeptical. Would you please examine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Emerson died in 1882, and the statement has been attributed to him only in recent decades. No citation has been provided, and the linkage is not substantive.

The earliest evidence located by QI was published in “Forbes” magazine in March 1945. A long-standing feature of the periodical was a page titled “Thoughts on the Business of Life” which displayed miscellaneous quotations and aphorisms. A short passage of three sentences containing the maxim was credited to someone named Ronald E. Osborn. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

Undertake something that is difficult; it will do you good. Unless you try to do something beyond what you have already mastered, you will never grow.
—Ronald E. Osborn.

“Forbes” did not state where it had collected this quotation. News reports in the following years referred to speeches delivered by a professor of church history at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana named Ronald E. Osborn, and it was possible that this religious orator and teacher was the quotesmith. 2 However, this identification is conjectural because of the existence of several individuals named Ronald E. Osborn.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1945 March 15, Forbes, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 46, Column 1, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1951 June 27, The Oregon Statesman, Over 1,000 Delegates at Turner for Christian Church Conclave (Statesman News Service), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Salem, Oregon. (Newspapers_com)

Only One Who Attempts the Absurd Is Capable of Achieving the Impossible

Albert Einstein? M. C. Escher? Robin Morgan? Miguel de Unamuno? Miguel de Cervantes? Anonymous?

unamuno07Dear Quote Investigator: To fully succeed in life one must ultimately follow an audacious path that may seem nonsensical or reckless to ones colleagues. My favorite saying supports this idea. Here are three versions:

1) Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.
2) Only she who attempts the absurd can achieve the impossible
3) Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.

This adage has been attributed to the famous scientist Albert Einstein, the brilliant graphic artist M.C. Escher, and the prominent feminist Robin Morgan. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive support for the linkage to Einstein or Escher. Robin Morgan did employ an instance of the saying with the word “she” in 1984; however, Morgan disclaimed credit and remarked that the origin of the phrase was uncertain.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a 1905 book by Miguel de Unamuno who was a notable Spanish writer and philosopher. Unamuno’s work discussed the well-known characters Don Quixote and Sancho Panza who were constructed by the distinguished novelist Miguel de Cervantes. One theme of Cervantes’ opus was the intertwining of actions which were both absurd and noble. The explication and commentary by Unamuno embodied a personal and philosophical response to Cervantes. The following excerpt in Spanish is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

¿Que es ello absurdo? decís. ¿Y quién sabe qué es lo absurdo? ¡Y aunque lo fuera! Sólo el que ensaya lo absurdo es capaz de conquistar lo imposible.

But it was absurd, you say? And who knows what is absurd and what is not? And even if it were! Only he who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Year: 1905, Title: Vida de D. Quijote y Sancho: Según Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra: Explicada y Comentada por Miguel de Unamuno, Author: Miguel de Unamuno, Quote Page 175 and 176, Publisher: Libreria de Fernando Fe, Madrid, Spain. (Google Books Full View) link

The Philosopher, the Theologian, and the Elusive Black Cat

Julian Huxley? H. L. Mencken? Lewis Browne? Eric Temple Bell? William James? Anonymous?

huxley08

Dear Quote Investigator: The QI website has an article tracing a quip about a problematic absurdist quest:

A metaphysician is a man who goes into a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that is not there.

Interestingly, there is a more elaborate joke that contrasts the searching prowess of a philosopher and a theologian. Are you familiar with this jest which has been attributed to the prominent biologist Julian Huxley and the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken? Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Julian Huxley did present the double-pronged joke in an essay published in 1939, and H. L. Mencken included an instance in his monumental 1942 compilation “A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources”. Details for these citations are given further below.

The earliest evidence located by QI appeared several years before this in a 1931 book titled “Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History” by the comparative religion specialist Lewis Browne. The sharpest barb was aimed at a set of religious individuals called Gnostics: 1

Someone has said that a philosopher looking for the ultimate truth is like a blind man on a dark night searching in a subterranean cave for a black cat that is not there. Those Gnostics, however, were theologians rather than philosophers, and so—they found the cat!

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1931, Since Calvary: An Interpretation of Christian History by Lewis Browne, Quote Page 81 and 82, The Macmillan Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

She Is Too Fond of Books, and It Has Turned Her Brain

Louisa May Alcott? Liz Smith? Apocryphal?

alcott12

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation is popular with book lovers, and it has appeared on posters, mugs, tote bags, plaques, bookmarks, and jewelry:

She is too fond of books, and it has addled her brain.

The statement is attributed to the famous novelist Louisa May Alcott who wrote “Little Women”, but I have not been able to find it in any of her works. Would you please determine the accuracy of this expression and ascription?

Quote Investigator: In 1873 Louisa May Alcott published the novel “Work: A Story of Experience”, and it included a quotation that was nearly identical to the sentence above. Alcott actually used the word “turned” instead of “addled”: 1

She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.

The relevant definition of “addled” in the misquotation is more familiar to modern readers than the definition of “turned” in the correct quotation: 2 3

turn: to disturb or upset the mental balance of: derange, distract, unsettle

QI conjectures that the expression under investigation was derived from the 1873 statement. The “addled” version entered circulation by 2007. This slightly inaccurate saying was more comprehensible and more humorous in QI’s opinion. Quotations compete for distribution in the cultural realm of catchphrases, jingles, and verses. The modified statement had superior properties which facilitated its propagation although the original quotation also continued to circulate.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1873, Work: A Story of Experience by Louisa May Alcott, Chapter 2 – Servant, Quote Page 32 and 33, Published by Roberts Brothers, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Website: Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Entry title: turn (verb), Website description: Words and definitions from Merriam-Webster; leading provider of language information. (Accessed merriam-webster.com on February 17, 2015) link
  3. Website: Dictionary Reference, Entry title: turn (verb), Website description: Words and definitions from Dictionary.com, (Accessed dictionary.reference.com on February 17, 2015) link

A Blind Man in a Dark Room Looking for a Black Cat That Is Not There

Charles Darwin? Lord Bowen? Confucius? E. R. Pearce? William James? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?

blackcat09

Dear Quote Investigator: A vivid and comical metaphor has been applied to professions that require abstract and recondite reasoning abilities:

A mathematician is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black hat which isn’t there.

A metaphysician is a man who goes into a dark cellar at midnight without a light looking for a black cat that is not there.

The philosopher is likened to a ‘blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat that is not there.’

The first statement has been attributed to the famous scientist Charles Darwin while the second has been linked to the notable English judge Lord Bowen, and the third has been credited to the renowned philosopher William James. I have been unable to find solid citations. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This metaphorical framework evolved during a multi-decade period. Please note this exploration contains some offensive racial language.

The earliest evidence located by QI in a Missouri newspaper in 1846 did not mention any professions; instead, the figurative language was used to illustrate the notion of darkness. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

A DARK SUBJECT—A blind negro, with an extinguished candle looking for a black cat in a dark cellar.

In August 1849 a London journal called “Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement” printed a short item with an acknowledgement to another magazine called “Penny Punch”. The item presented a definition of darkness ascribed to a precocious child: 2

A DEFINITION OF DARKNESS

Dr. Twiggem—”Indeed, for his age, sir, he’s a wonderful child. Come now, Fred., my dear, give your papa a nice lucid definition of—of—darkness.”

Fred. (after a little thought, and with much sagacity)—”Please, sir, ‘a blind Ethiopian—in a dark cellar—at midnight—looking for a black cat.'”
—Penny Punch.

In 1894 a version of the metaphor using a black hat was attributed to Lord Bowen, and in 1911 a posthumous book by William James employed a simile with a black cat while discussing philosophy. The figurative language was implausibly linked to Charles Darwin in 1940. Full details are given further below.

In addition, by 1931 the quip had been extended to construct a joke comparing the endeavors of philosophers and theologians. A separate entry on this topic is available on the website here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1846 November 9, Democratic Banner (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Louisiana, Pike County, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1849 August 25, Family Herald: A Domestic Magazine of Useful Information and Amusement, Volume 7, Number 329, Random Readings: A Definition of Darkness, Quote Page 272, Column 1, Published by George Biggs, Strand, London; Printed at the Steam press of J. Gadsby, Fleet Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

You Can’t Depend On Your Eyes When Your Imagination Is Out of Focus

Mark Twain? Richard Branson? Apocryphal?

leaves09

Dear Quote Investigator: The billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson has argued that imagination provides hope, drive, and inspiration. He believes it should be “intertwined in daily life”; to support this thought he referred to a quotation attributed to Mark Twain:

You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.

Oddly, I have seen another very similar expression ascribed to the famed humorist:

You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.

There are so many fake Twainisms that I do not know what to think. Would you please determine if either of these statements is from the pen of the master?

Quote Investigator: Both quotations were written by Mark Twain.

In 1889 Twain published the time-travel fantasy “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. In the following passage a character in the novel was attempting to determine if a large armed group was planning an attack. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

This sound thickened and approached—from toward the north. Presently I heard it at my own level—the ridge-top of the opposite embankment, a hundred feet or more away. Then I seemed to see a row of black dots appear along that ridge—human heads?

I couldn’t tell; it mightn’t be anything at all; you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. However, the question was soon settled. I heard that metallic noise descending into the great ditch. It augmented fast, it spread all along, and it unmistakably furnished me this fact: an armed host was taking up its quarters in the ditch.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1889, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain, Quote Page 421 and 422, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link