Change One Letter in That Phrase and You Have My Life Story

Dorothy Parker? Ben Hecht? Corey Ford? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Dorothy Parker apparently constructed a risqué quip when she observed people ducking for apples at a party. Would you please explore this topic?

Dear Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of Parker’s jest located by QI appeared in the 1957 book “Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur” by Ben Hecht. MacArthur and Hecht were successful writing partners who created popular plays such as “The Front Page” and “Ladies and Gentlemen”. Dorothy Parker was Hecht’s friend and MacArthur’s lover. The book recounted the following anecdote. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

At a subsequent Halloween party, Miss Parker spoke one of her wryest sentences. Asked to join a group of merrymakers who were “ducking for apples,” Dorothy said, “Change one letter in that phrase and you have my life story.”

The change probably referred to the transformation of “ducking” into a synonym for fornication.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1957, Charlie: The Improbable Life and Times of Charles MacArthur by Ben Hecht, Quote Page 99, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with hard copy)

Only One Man Ever Understood Me, and He Did Not Understand Me Either

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel? Heinrich Heine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had a major influence on later schools of thought including Marxism and existentialism. Yet, critics have complained of his unintelligibility. One colorful anecdote claims that Hegel made the following pronouncement on his deathbed:

Only one man ever understood me, and even he didn’t understand me.

Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: Hegel died in 1831, and in 1834 the prominent poet and essayist Heinrich Heine included the anecdote in “Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland” (“On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany”): 1

Als Hegel auf dem Todtbette lag, sagte er: „nur Einer hat mich verstanden,” aber gleich darauf fügte er verdrießlich hinzu: „und der hat mich auch nicht verstanden.”

Here is one possible rendering in English:

When Hegel lay on his death-bed he said: ‘only one man has understood me;’ but immediately afterwards he added with chagrin: ‘nor did he understand me neither.’

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Notes:

  1. 1834, Der Salon von H. Heine by Heinrich Heine, Volume: Zweiter Band (Volume 2), Section: Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland (On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany), Quote Page 221, Hoffmann und Campe, Hamburg, Germany. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Success Is Failure Turned Inside Out

John Greenleaf Whittier? Edgar Guest? Labor? Nellie Maxwell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular poem about perseverance includes these lines:

When all is pressing you down a bit—
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.

The poets John Greenleaf Whittier and Edgar A. Guest have both been credited. Would you please determine the actual author?

Quote Investigator: Edgar A. Guest was a very popular poet for several decades during the twentieth century, and his poems appeared in a syndicated newspaper column. On March 3, 1921 he published the following work: 1

Keep Going

When things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must—but don’t you quit.

Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As every one of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up, though the pace seems slow—
You may succeed with another blow.

Often the goal is nearer than
It seems to a faint and faltering man,
Often the struggler has given up
When he might have captured the victor’s cup,
And he learned too late, when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown.

Success is failure turned inside out—
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit—
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.

During the decades after publication the work was broadly disseminated, but the attribution was often changed. In addition, words, phrases, and stanzas were sometimes altered or deleted.

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Notes:

  1. 1921 March 3, The Indianapolis Star, Just Folks by Edgar A. Guest (Syndicated), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

Every Word Has Consequences. Every Silence, Too

Jean-Paul Sartre? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Did the famous existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre say the following:

Every word has consequences. Every silence, too.

I am trying to find a citation for the original French version. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Jean-Paul Sartre believed that writers should be politically engaged. He was a founder of the journal “Les Temps Modernes”, and he presented his viewpoint on activism in the first issue in 1945: 1

L’écrivain est en situation dans son époque: chaque parole a des retentissements. Chaque silence aussi. Je tiens Flaubert et Goncourt pour responsables de la répression qui suivit la Commune parce qu’ils n’ont pas écrit une ligne pour l’empêcher. Ce n’était, pas leur affaire, dira-t-on. Mais le procès de Calas, était-ce l’affaire de Voltaire? La condamnation de Dreyfus, était-ce l’affaire de Zola?

One possible translation into English appeared in the 1982 book “The French Left: A History & Overview” by Arthur Hirsh: 2

The writer is situated in his time. Every word has consequences. Every silence, too. I hold Flaubert and Goncourt responsible for the repression which followed the Commune because they did not write one line to prevent it. One might say that it was not their business. But was the Calas trial Voltaire’s business? Dreyfus’ condemnation Zola’s?

The questions were rhetorical. Voltaire and Zola both took strong political stances, and Sartre argued that other writers should follow a similar policy of advocacy. Intellectuals should not be silent he maintained.

Below are two more citations and a conclusion. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1945 October, Les Temps Modernes: Revue Mensuelle, Volume 1, Number 1, Présentation by Jean-Paul Sartre, Start Page 1, Quote Page 5, Publisher: Temps Modernes, Paris, France. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana)
  2. 1982, The French Left: A History & Overview by Arthur Hirsh, Chapter 2: The Existentialist Challenge, Quote Page 41, Black Rose Books, Montréal, Quebéc, Canada. (Google Books Preview)

The Pleasure Is Momentary, the Position Is Ridiculous, the Expense Is Damnable

Lord Chesterfield? Hilaire Belloc? D. H. Lawrence? George Bernard Shaw? Alexander Duffield? Somerset Maugham? Elliot Paul? Samuel Hopkins Adams? Benjamin Franklin? P. D. James? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Lord Chesterfield reportedly crafted an outrageously humorous description of intimate relations. I’ve seen different versions that each comment on pleasure, position, and expense. Yet, I have never seen a proper citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, is typically referred to as Lord Chesterfield. Researchers have been unable to find the statement about eros in his writings, and the words were ascribed to him many years after his death in 1773.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a letter sent to the editors of “The Western Daily Press” in Bristol, England in 1902. The subject was the standardization of equipment for golf, and the word “amusement” was employed to avoid terms such as “intercourse” or “sex”. “Attitude” is a synonym for “posture”. In addition, the taboos of the era dictated the replacement of “damnable” by dashes. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

If there is to be no limit to the fancy or ingenuity of club and ball makers, I am afraid the dictum of a certain American, speaking of another amusement, will be applicable to golf, viz., “that the pleasure is momentary, the attitudes ridiculous, and the expense —–“

So, the expression was circulating by 1902, but the printed evidence is limited. Interestingly, it was credited to an American instead of an Englishman.

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Notes:

  1. 1902 November 20, The Western Daily Press, Correspondence To The Editors of The Western Daily Press, (Letter Title: Standardisation of the Golf Ball, Letter From: W.L.B. of Clifton; Letter Date: November 17, 1902), Quote Page 3, Column 7, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

Good Ideology; Wrong Species

Edward O. Wilson? Bert Hölldobler? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Social insects are famous for exhibiting a division of labor and a willingness to act for the overall good of the colony. The preeminent biologist Edward O. Wilson whose specialty is the study of ants was once asked about human politics, and he replied with a comment similar to the following regarding socialism:

Wonderful idea. Wrong species.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In October 1994 the “Los Angeles Times” published a profile of Edward O. Wilson which included an interview. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

On another morning, he compares human beings to ants. Consider man’s selfishness and ambition versus the insects’ drive to help their community. They’ll sacrifice their lives for the common good, if need be.

Biology doesn’t get more basic than this, and Wilson ends the lesson amid gales of laughter by raising the subject of Marxism. Why did it fail?

“Good ideology,” he says dryly. “Wrong species.”

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Notes:

  1. 1994 October 21, Los Angeles Times, Natural Wonder At heart, Edward Wilson’s an ant man. But it’s his theories on human behavior that stir up trouble by Josh Getlin, Quote Page 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

It’s Nice To Be Important, But More Important To Be Nice

Roger Federer? John Templeton? Walter Winchell? Kay Dangerfield? James H. Lane? Tony Curtis? Bob Olin? Sidney Blackmer? Joe Franklin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Antimetabole is a clever literary technique in which a phrase is repeated, but key words are reversed. For example:

It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice.

This line has been attributed to the tennis superstar Roger Federer and the renowned investor and philanthropist John Templeton. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI conjectures that this statement evolved from an adage composed by the powerful widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell. Yet, many years before Winchell’s brainstorm an interesting precursor appeared in the “Trenton Times” of Trenton, New Jersey in 1905. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“If it is important to be nice, it is nearly as important to look nice. You may be full of kindness and desire to make others happy, but if you cannot cross a room without knocking down a chair or two, or answer a question without turning crimson and glaring at the floor, people will never really believe in your good intentions.”

The statement above contained two very similar repeated phrases, but the key words were not reordered; hence, antimetabole was not employed. In addition, the overall meaning differed substantially from the expression under examination.

In April 1937 Walter Winchell concluded his column with a remark he had sent via telegram. Winchell used the slang word “swell” which corresponded to “nice” in that time period: 2

In reply to the wire of Jeff L. Kammen, of Chicago: The last line was: “Your New York Correspondent, who wishes to remind celebrities that it is swell to be important—but more important to be swell!”

QI hypothesizes that someone during the following decade exchanged “swell” and “nice” to produce the popular modern saying from Winchell’s adage.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1905 February 21, Trenton Times, For the Window Garden, Quote Page 6, Column 2 and 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1937 April 13, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, Walter Winchell On Broadway (Syndicated), Quote Page 11, Column 2, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

We Are Confronted by an Insurmountable Opportunity

Walt Kelly? Don Mitchell? Fred W. Bewley? Leon Shimkin? A. C. Monteith? W. Willard Wirtz? Hubert Humphrey? Howard J. Samuels? George H. W. Bush? W. C. Fields? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Walt Kelly authored the magnificent comic strip “Pogo” featuring hilarious wordplay. He has been credited with the following oxymoronic phrase:

Our problem is an insurmountable opportunity.

I have been unable to find a solid citation, and now I am unsure about this ascription. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has not found this saying in Walt Kelly’s oeuvre, and based on current evidence QI would not credit Kelly. However, the comic strip text has not been fully digitized, and this judgment is not definitive.

The earliest match for this joke located by QI appeared in the proceedings of a conference on advertising in 1956. Don Mitchell of the Creative Education Foundation in Buffalo, New York delivered the line while conversing with a staff member of the General Electric Company. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Mr. Mitchell: Thank you, Ed, very much. You talked about GE having opportunities. I think we ought to tell the folks that GE call their problems opportunities, but there are quite a few people who feel there are some insurmountable opportunities around.

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Notes:

  1. 1956, Proceedings of the Thirteenth Annual Advertising and Sales Promotion Executive Conference, Held at The Ohio Union, The Ohio State University Campus on October 26, 1956, Brainstorming–It’s Application to Creative Advertising by Don Mitchell (Associate Director, Creative Education Foundation, Buffalo, New York), Start Page 4, Quote Page 19, Ohio State University, College of Commerce and Administration, Columbus, Ohio. (Verified with scans; thanks to the library system of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

If a Book Is Well Written, I Always Find It Too Short

Jane Austen? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous novelist Jane Austen wrote that when she was reading an enjoyable book she always found that it was too short. Would you please help me to locate this quotation?

Quote Investigator: Jane Austen was born in 1775, and she began to work on a novel called “Catharine or the Bower” when she was still in her teens in 1792. The incomplete work is part of her juvenilia.

The main character Catharine (Kitty) Percival has a friend named Camilla Stanley. The omniscient narrator states that Kitty is a “great reader, tho’ perhaps not a very deep one”. The judgment of Stanley is considerably harsher:

She professed a love of books without reading, was lively without wit, and generally good humoured without merit.

The pair discusses two novels: “Emmeline” and “Ethelinde” by a popular contemporary author. The following dialog begins with a question from Kitty and has a satirical edge. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

‘And which do you prefer of them?’ ‘Oh! dear, I think there is no comparison between them—Emmeline is so much better than any of the others—’ ‘Many people think so, I know; but there does not appear so great a disproportion in their merits to me; do you think it is better written?’

‘Oh! I do not know anything about that—but it is better in every thing—Besides, Ethelinde is so long—’That is a very common objection I believe,’ said Kitty, ‘but for my own part, if a book is well written, I always find it too short.‘ ‘So do I, only I get tired of it before it is finished.’ ‘But did not you find the story of Ethelinde very interesting? And the descriptions of Grasmere, are not they Beautiful?’ ‘Oh! I missed them all, because I was in such a hurry to know the end of it’—.

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Notes:

  1. 1998, Catharine and Other Writings by Jane Austen, Editors: Margaret Anne Doody and Douglas Murray, Series: Oxford World’s Classics, Story: Catharine, or the Bower, Unnumbered Page, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. (Google Books Preview)

He Got His Good Looks from His Mother. She’s a Plastic Surgeon

Groucho Marx? Frank Parker? Marty Allen? Steve Rossi? Dorothy Shay? Ed Reed? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The comedian Groucho Marx apparently crafted a witty twist on beauty and inheritance. Here are two versions:

  • He got his good looks from his mother. She’s a plastic surgeon.
  • She got her good looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.

Would you please explore the provenance of this quip?

Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx who died in 1977 received credit for this joke by 1968, but it has a very long evolutionary history. A precursor in 1898 implied aesthetic enhancement via makeup instead of plastic surgery: 1

Ella—Where does Belle get her good looks from—her father or her mother?
Stella—From her father; he keeps a drug store.—New York Journal.

The above item from “The Times-Visitor” of Raleigh, North Carolina appeared in multiple newspapers with occasional small modifications. For example, “The McPherson Daily Republican” of McPherson, Kansas referred to “Bella” instead of “Belle” and acknowledged “Stray Stories” instead of “New York Journal”. 2

In 1904 a newspaper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina printed a variant that referred to an uncle: 3

Gossip No. 1.—Did Miss Hanson get her good looks from her father or her mother?
Gossip No. 2.—From her uncle; he keeps a drug store.—Princeton Tiger.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1898 August 5, The Times-Visitor (The Raleigh Times), (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 2, Raleigh, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1898 August 19, The McPherson Daily Republican, Artificial Beauty (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, McPherson, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1904 November 3, The Western Sentinel, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 5, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. (Newspapers_com)