If Noah Had Been Truly Wise, He Would Have Swatted Those Two Flies

Helen Castle? Charley Prentice? Walt Mason? Kenneth Richards? Anonymous?

noah12Dear Quote Investigator: Noah collected and placed pairs of living creatures onto the ark he constructed according to the famous biblical tale. But not all creatures are looked upon favorably by humankind. The following comical couplet chides Noah for missing a rare opportunity:

If Noah had been truly wise,
He would have swatted those two flies.

Several websites credit these words to a person named Helen Castle. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: In June 1982 “The Reader’s Digest” printed a dozen miscellaneous sayings under the title “Quotable Quotes”. The couplet about Noah was attached to a name and a periodical. Emphasis added by QI: 1

If Noah had been truly wise, he would have swatted those two flies.
—Helen Castle in National Enquirer

Perhaps Castle was a writer for the “National Enquirer”, or she was simply mentioned in the magazine. In any case, she did not create this quip which has a very long history.

In 1879 the “Delphos Weekly Herald” of Delphos, Ohio published a filler item without attribution that presented a version of the joke although the proposed method of annihilation was flypaper instead of swatting: 2

What a pity that old man Noah did’nt set fly paper for the two flies that sailed with him in the ark.

The odd placement of the apostrophe in the word “didn’t” above reflects the original text. The advice offered in the gag will strike some modern readers as humorous but questionable. Many species are called flies, and there would be significant unintended ecological consequences upon their termination.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1982 June, The Reader’s Digest, Volume 120, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 51, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1879 September 11, Delphos Weekly Herald, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 1, Delphos, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)

You May Live To See Man-Made Horrors Beyond Your Comprehension

Nikola Tesla? Apocryphal?

tesla08Dear Quote Investigator: Nikola Tesla was as brilliant inventor and showman with a science fictional mystique. The following ominous quotation is attributed to him:

You may live to see man-made horrors beyond your comprehension.

Would you please help to find a solid citation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1947 “Esquire” magazine profile of Nikola Tesla titled “Ahead of His Time” by Dick Holdsworth. The quotation was spoken by the inventor during a demonstration held in New York: 1

At the first Electrical Exhibition held in the old Madison Square Garden in 1898 the inventor astonished spectators as he controlled by radio remote control an iron rowboat, which floated in a large tank of water in the center of the arena.

Tesla successfully operated a propeller attached to an electric motor, and he guided the small boat through intricate movements with a rudder. The observer’s reactions to the remarkable display were influenced by a mysterious event that occurred in February 1898. An explosion ripped through the warship USS Maine while it was docked in Havana Harbor and it quickly sank. Unsurprisingly, an unnamed military man observing Tesla’s demonstration envisioned the watercraft as a potential weapon, Emphasis added by QI: 2

“Why, with your radio boat—loaded with dynamite—we would have any enemy navy in the world at the bottom in no time,” exclaimed an admiral who saw the demonstration.

“With this principle,” replied Nikola Tesla more prophetically than he knew, “you may live to see man-made horrors beyond your comprehension.”

Tesla’s words were reportedly spoken forty-nine years before the “Esquire” article appeared in 1947, and Tesla himself died four years before publication in 1943. Thus, the credibility of this ascriptional evidence is reduced. Perhaps future researchers will be able to build on this lead.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1947 October, Esquire, Volume 28, Number 4, Ahead of His Time by Dick Holdsworth, Start Page 124, Quote Page 125, Column 1, Esquire Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1947 October, Esquire, Volume 28, Number 4, Ahead of His Time by Dick Holdsworth, Start Page 124, Quote Page 125, Column 1, Esquire Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)

We Are Taught To Fly in the Air Like Birds, and To Swim in the Water Like the Fishes; But How To Live on the Earth We Don’t Know

George Bernard Shaw? Martin Luther King? Maxim Gorky? Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan? C. E. M. Joad? Walter Winchell? Jack Paar? Anonymous?

flyswim08Quote Investigator: Technological progress today is shockingly vertiginous, but advancements toward human reconciliation and harmony are glacially slow. A saying from the previous century treats this topic with poignancy:

Now that we have learned to fly the air like birds, swim under water like fish, we lack one thing—to learn to live on earth as human beings.

This saying has been attributed to the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw and the civil rights champion Martin Luther King. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw wrote or spoke this statement. Martin Luther King did employ this saying in his Nobel Prize speech, but it was already in circulation. The earliest citation known to QI attributed the saying to the prominent Russian author Maxim Gorky who credited an anonymous peasant. Here is the key passage from the 1925 book “Social Classes in Post-War Europe” by Lothrop Stoddard. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Not long ago Maxim Gorky stated that the Russian peasant profoundly hates the town and all its inhabitants. According to the Russian muzhik, the city is the source of all evil. Modern “progress” does not appeal to him, the intellectuals and their inventions being regarded with deep suspicion. Gorky relates how, after addressing a peasant audience on the subject of science and the marvels of technical inventions, he was criticized by a peasant spokesman in the following manner: “Yes, yes, we are taught to fly in the air like birds, and to swim in the water like the fishes; but how to live on the earth we don’t know.” In Gorky’s opinion Russia’s future lies in peasant hands.

This evidence was indirect because it was not written by Gorky, and QI has not yet located this statement in his oeuvre. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1925, Social Classes in Post-War Europe by Lothrop Stoddard, Quote Page 26, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)

It Is Not the Mountain We Conquer, But Ourselves

Edmund Hillary? George Mallory? Apocryphal?

everest09Dear Quote Investigator: Edmund Hillary and fellow mountaineer Tenzing Norgay were the first two people to reach the summit of the tallest peak on Earth, Mount Everest, in 1953. The grueling expedition required extensive planning and the climbers displayed remarkable self-control during the ascent. Hillary reportedly summarized the lesson of the adventure with this eloquent quotation:

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

Oddly, I have not been able to find a good citation would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1998 an interviewer in the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” asked Edmund Hillary about his motivations, and also asked if he had actually employed this quotation. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Q: Oh, OK. So why did you climb it?

A: What I generally say is that it’s the sense of challenge, the attempt to stretch yourself to the utmost and overcome considerable difficulties. If you can do that, you get a great sense of satisfaction.

Q: I have another quote from you — let’s see if you said this: “It is not the mountains we conquer but ourselves.” Did you say that?

A: I think I did say that over the years, and I believe it, too.

QI believes that the situation is more complex than suggested by Hillary’s response. Indeed, QI hypothesizes that the words were incorrectly assigned to Hillary before he embraced them in the 1998 interview.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order beginning with a precursor passage.

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  1. 1998 November 9, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Section: Magazine, Lofty Ideals: Story by Bill Steigerwald, (Continuation title: Sir Edmund Hillary has held onto his lofty ideals), Start Page D1, Quote Page D5, Column 2, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

Have We Vanquished an Enemy? None But Ourselves

George Mallory? Edmund Hillary? Apocryphal?

mallory10Dear Quote Investigator: Mountaineers have spoken about the physical endurance and self-mastery required to stand atop a mountain. Here are two similar statements expressing this idea:

1) Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves
2) It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

Two individuals have been linked to these quotations. One: George Mallory who climbed several lofty peaks but died in 1924 while attempting to ascend Mount Everest. Two: Edmund Hillary who made history by reaching the summit of Mount Everest with fellow mountaineer Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The first statement was written by George Mallory, and the second statement evolved from the first. QI has created a separate article about the second, and this article will center on the first.

After Mallory successfully climbed Mont Blanc with two companions he wrote about his experiences in the September 1918 issue of a London periodical called “The Alpine Journal: A Record of Mountain Adventure and Scientific Observation by Members of the Alpine Club”. The following passage describing Mallory’s feelings upon achieving the summit included the first quotation. Ellipsis was in the original; emphasis by QI: 1

One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end—to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared. . . . Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful; soberly astonished. . . . Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No . . . and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction . . . fulfilled a destiny.

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  1. 1918 September, The Alpine Journal: A Record of Mountain Adventure and Scientific Observation by Members of the Alpine Club, Edited by George Yeld, Volume 32, Number 218, Article: Mont Blanc from the Col du Géant by the Eastern Buttress of Mont Maudit by G. L. Mallory (George Herbert Leigh Mallory), Start Page 148, Quote Page 162, Longmans, Green and Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link

I Attribute My Success to This:—I Never Gave or Took an Excuse

Florence Nightingale? Apocryphal?

nightingale09Dear Quote Investigator: Florence Nightingale was one of the great humanitarians of the nineteenth century. She was the founder of modern nursing, and her work as an educator, administrator, and activist saved many lives. Her calls for urgent action often elicited excuses, but she continued to move forward. She reportedly said the following:

I attribute my success to this: I never gave or took any excuse.

Nightingale died in 1910, and I have only been able to find citations in the 2000s. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1913 a two-volume biography by Sir Edward Cook titled “The Life of Florence Nightingale” was released. A very close match to the quotation appeared within a letter that was reprinted in the book. The word “any” was originally “an”. The 1861 missive was sent from Nightingale to Miss H. Bonham Carter. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

I have had a larger responsibility of human lives than ever man or woman had before. And I attribute my success to this:—I never gave or took an excuse. Yes, I do see the difference now between me and other men. When a disaster happens, I act and they make excuses.

Further below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1913, The Life of Florence Nightingale by Sir Edward Cook (Edward Tyas Cook), Volume 1 of 2, Letter from Florence Nightingale to Miss H. Bonham Carter, Date: 1861, Quote Page 506, Macmillan and Company, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

Don’t Cry Because It’s Over; Smile Because It Happened

Theodor Seuss Geisel? Ludwig Jacobowski? Christopher Roche? Gabriel García Márquez? Anonymous?

smile09Dear Quote Investigator: If you have ever been part of a group with camaraderie that accomplished some worthwhile goal then you know about the sadness experienced when the group finally dissolved. Here are two versions of a saying that offers consolation:

  1. Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.
  2. Don’t cry because it’s ending, smile because it happened.

These words have been attributed to Theodor Geisel who was better known as Dr. Seuss, the famous author of children’s literature; however, I have been unable to locate a good citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have been unable to locate any substantive evidence that Dr. Seuss employed this saying. He died in 1991, and it was assigned to him by 2002.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a work by the German poet Ludwig Jacobowski titled “Leuchtende Tage” published in the August 1899 issue of a literary journal. The title could be rendered as “Bright Days” or “Radiant Days”. One verse rhapsodized about the bright days of the past, and the next verse began with these two lines, Boldface has been added to excerpts:

Nicht weinen, weil sie vorüber!
Lächeln, weil sie gewesen!

English translation:
Do not cry because they are past!
Smile, because they once were!

The journal was called “Das Magazin für Litteratur”, 1 and the piece was also published in a 1901 analytical work about the poet titled “Ludwig Jacobowski: Ein modernes Dichterbild”. These were the two full verses: 2

Ach, unsre leuchtenden Tage
Glänzen wie ewige Sterne.
Als Trost für künftige Klage
Glüh’n sie aus goldener Ferne.

Nicht weinen, weil sie vorüber!
Lächeln, weil sie gewesen!
Und werden die Tage auch trüber,
Unsere Sterne erlösen!

Special thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who first identified German instances of the expression and performed pioneering research.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. August 1899, Das Magazin für Litteratur, Article: Ludwig Jacobowskis “Leuchtende Tage” by Rudolf Steiner, Start Column 745, Quote Column 747, Published by Siegfried Cronbach, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1901, Ludwig Jacobowski: Ein modernes Dichterbild by Professor Dr. Hermann Friedrich, Quote Page 65, Published by Siegfried Cronbach, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link

They Which Play with the Devils Rattles, Will Be Brought by Degrees to Wield His Sword

Buckminster Fuller? Thomas Fuller? Anonymous?

fuller09Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent inventor and author Buckminster Fuller has been linked to an uncharacteristic quotation:

Those who play with the devil’s toys will be brought by degrees to wield his sword.

Would you please determine whether he wrote and said this remark?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Buckminster Fuller employed the words above. Instead, QI believes that the expression evolved from a statement written by Thomas Fuller who was an influential English historian and religious figure of the seventeenth century.

In 1642 Thomas Fuller released “The Profane State”, and it included a section about witches. Fuller stated that some individuals initially engaged in witchcraft defensively; they cast spells and charms to shield themselves against the plots and intrigues of adversaries. However, over time they began to wield power offensively and actively assaulted others. The following excerpt contained “floures” which was an alternative spelling of “flowers”. Boldface has been added: 1

She begins at first with doing tricks rather strange then hurtfull: yea some of them are pretty and pleasing. But it is dangerous to gather floures that grow on the banks of the pit of hell, for fear of falling in; yea they which play with the devils rattles, will be brought by degrees to wield his sword, and from making of sport they come to doing of mischief.

The apostrophe in the possessive phrase “devil’s rattles” was missing in the original text. Also, in the modern quotation the phrase was changed to “devil’s toys”.

During the ensuing years the words above were sometimes reprinted with the short ambiguous ascription: “Fuller”. Someone probably misunderstood this ascription and reassigned the words from Thomas Fuller to Buckminster Fuller.

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  1. 1642, The Profane State by Thomas Fuller, The Fifth Book, Chapter 3: The Witch, Start Page 365, Quote Page 367, Printed by Roger Daniel for John Williams, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Full View) link

The Greatest Obstacle to Discovery Is Not Ignorance—It Is the Illusion of Knowledge

Daniel J. Boorstin? Stephen Hawking? Henry Thomas Buckle? Anonymous?

boostin11Dear Quote Investigator: Widely accepted false beliefs can hinder progress and new discoveries. For example, the mistaken belief that heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible or impractical deterred requisite financing and investigation. This thought has been expressed as follows:

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge.

The famous physicist Stephen Hawking and the Librarian of the U.S. Congress Daniel J. Boorstin have both been credited with this statement, but I am having trouble finding good citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: This saying was attributed to Stephen Hawking by 2001, but QI has been unable to find substantive evidence that he actually employed it.

The best-selling author, educator, and librarian Daniel J. Boorstin was interviewed in “The Washington Post” in January 1984. He modestly referred to himself as an amateur historian because his primary background was the legal profession. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

What an amateur is, is a lover of a subject. I’m a lover of facts. The fact is the savior, as long as you don’t jam it into some preconceived pattern. The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.

Boorstin employed different versions of the saying over the years, but he did not assert that the underlying idea was his own. Indeed, he once ascribed a similar notion to the well-known historian Edward Gibbon, and on another occasion, he called it an aphorism. Detailed citations are given further below.

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  1. 1984 January 29, The Washington Post, The 6 O’Clock Scholar: Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin And His Love Affair With Books by Carol Krucoff, Start Page K1, Quote Page K8, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

There Is Always a Well-Known Solution to Every Human Problem—Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

Mark Twain? H. L. Mencken? Peter Drucker? Anonymous?

wrong09Dear Quote Investigator: A popular saying presents a vivid warning about apparent solutions which are too good to be true. Here are four versions:

  1. There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.
  2. For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.
  3. Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible—and wrong.
  4. There’s always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.

These expressions have been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, the witty curmudgeon H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), and the insightful management guru Peter Drucker. Which version is correct and who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: The third version above was a close match to a remark written by H. L. Mencken in a 1920 collection of essays called “Prejudices: Second Series”. The third chapter titled “The Divine Afflatus” discussed the mysterious spark of inspiration and creativity in the arts and letters. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil.

Mencken’s original statement used the phrase “well-known solution”, but modern instances sometimes substitute “easy solution”. Latter-day expressions have been constructed with a variable set of adjectives including: “simple”, “direct”, “clear”, “obvious”, “neat”, “quick”, “plausible”, and “straight-forward”. The stinging final word “wrong” has usually been preserved.

Mencken published an earlier version of the essay “The Divine Afflatus” in “The New York Evening Mail” on November 16, 1917, but quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro of “The Yale Book of Quotations” stated that the quotation was absent from this initial work. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1920, Prejudices: Second Series by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Chapter 4: The Divine Afflatus, Start Page 155, Borzoi: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 511, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)