I’ll Give You a Definite Maybe

Samuel Goldwyn? Jerry Wald? Jed Harris? Louis Sobol? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?

maybe09Dear Quote Investigator: Making a weighty decision is difficult because one must be willing to forgo alternative choices and possibilities. The following equivocal statement comical illustrates this psychological tension:

I can give you a definite maybe.

The words above have been attributed to the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn who made a large number of multi-million dollar business decisions. Would you please explore this phrase?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI was printed in a column of the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York in November 1933. The quip was relayed to the columnist by Jerry Wald who was a screenwriter and producer; Wald ascribed the remark to another unnamed Hollywood producer: 1

From Jerry Wald, away out in Hollywood, comes the gag about the producer who was arguing with an actor about a contract. The actor insisted the producer come to a definite decision, one way or the other.

“What are you complaining about?” screamed the producer. “I have given you a definite decision…didn’t I give you a definite maybe?”

In December 1933 a very similar anecdote was printed in a newspaper in Amsterdam, New York with an acknowledgement to the periodical “Hollywood Times”: 2

To a movie actor who insisted on a definite decision the film producer roared: “What are you complaining about? I have given you a definite decision–didn’t I give you a definite ‘Maybe?'” — Hollywood Times.

By 1935 the expression was being attributed to the director and producer Jed Harris. Columnist Louis Sobol was credited in 1939; columnist Walter Winchell used the phrase in 1940; and Samuel Goldwyn was also credited in 1940.

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  1. 1933 November 14, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Reverting to Type by Art Arthur, A Definite Perhaps, Quote Page 19, Column 8, Brooklyn, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1933 December 30, Evening Recorder (Daily Democrat and Recorder),In Merrier Mood, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Amsterdam, New York. (Old Fulton)

You Can Discover More About a Person in an Hour of Play than in a Year of Conversation

Plato? Richard Lingard? Anonymous?

games11Dear Quote Investigator: Plato’s philosophical thoughts were explicated using the format of a dialogue in which the participants expressed clashing ideas. The following quotation attributed to Plato seems to be a comical twist on his true attitude:

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have found no substantive evidence that Plato wrote or spoke this remark.

The earliest significant match known to QI was contained in a short pamphlet published in 1670 titled “A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaveing the University Concerning His Behaviour and Conversation in the World” by Richard Lingard. The following passage referred to “game” instead of “play”; also “game” was used in the specialized sense of “gambling game”. In addition, the period mentioned was seven years instead of one. The spelling and grammatical irregularities were in the original text. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

Take heed of playing often or deep at Dice and games of chance, for that is more chargeable than the seven deadly sinns; yet you may allow your self a certaine easy sum to spend at play, to gratifie friends, and pass over the winters nights, and that will make you indifferent for the event. If you would read a mans disposition see him game, you will then learn more of him in one hour, than in seven years conversation, and little wagers will try him as soon as great stakes, for then he is off his Guard.

An individual might react with anger, agitation, surprise, or indifference when he or she has lost a small sum or a great sum of money. Each one of these variable responses would help to illuminate that person’s character suggested Lingard.

In 1857 a compilation titled “A Polyglot of Foreign Proverbs” was published and the following anonymous concise saying was presented in Portuguese and English: 2

Mais descobre huma hora de jogo, que hum anno de conversação.

An hour of play discovers more than a year of conversation.

The statement above strongly matched the modern version of the expression, and it may have evolved from the advice given in 1670, but this connection remains hypothetical.

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  1. 1670, Title: A Letter of Advice to a Young Gentleman Leaveing the University Concerning His Behaviour and Conversation in the World, Author: R. L. (Richard Lingard), Quote Page 50 and 51, Printed by Benjamin Tooke, Dublin, Ireland, Sold by Mary Crook. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 2)
  2. 1857, A Polyglot of Foreign Proverbs, comprising French, Italian, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, and Danish with English Translations by Henry G. Bohn, Section: Portuguese Proverbs, Quote Page 281, Section: Index, Quote Page 422, Published by Henry G. Bohn, London. (Google Books Full View) link

A False Enchantment Can All Too Easily Last a Lifetime

W. H. Auden? Apocryphal?

auden09Dear Quote Investigator: The following evocative statement has been attributed to the prominent poet W. H. Auden:

A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.

I find it so frustrating that people post and repost this quote without pointing to its precise source. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1970 W. H. Auden published “A Certain World: A Commonplace Book”. The term “commonplace book” referred to a personal journal in which quotations, comments, observations, and other documents were gathered together for preservation. Auden’s volume was organized into an alphabetically ordered sequence of topics. The section titled “Enchantment” presented a quotation followed by a commentary: 1

Where is your Self to be found? Always in the deepest enchantment that you have experienced.

The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.

The quotation appeared in Auden’s discussion of the divergence between true and false enchantments. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

All true enchantments fade in time. Sooner or later we must walk alone in faith. When this happens, we are tempted, either to deny our vision, to say that it must have been an illusion and, in consequence, grow hardhearted and cynical, or to make futile attempts to recover our vision by force, i.e., by alcohol or drugs.

A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.

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  1. 1970, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book by W. H. Auden, Section: Enchantment, Start Page 149, Quote Page 150, A William Cole Book: Viking Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

Life Is Too Important To Be Taken Seriously

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterton? H. L. Mencken? Sebastian Melmoth?

serious07Dear Quote Investigator: The following cryptic paradox has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

Life is too important to be taken seriously.

Yet, I have not found this statement in Wilde’s plays or essays. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde did not write or say the precise quip listed above; however, he did write something that was similar. In 1883 Wilde’s first play titled “Vera; or, The Nihilists” was staged in New York; it was unsuccessful, and the production closed quickly.

In 1902 the text of the play was printed in a private limited edition. The work included a line that partially matched the jest, but it used the phrase “talk seriously” which shifted the semantics. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

COUNT R.: There seems to be nothing in life about which you would not jest.

PRINCE PAUL: Ah! my dear Count, life is much too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

Wilde apparently enjoyed this joke because he reused it in his successful comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which was staged in 1892 and published in 1893: 2

LADY WINDERMERE: Why do you talk so trivially about life, then?

LORD DARLINGTON: Because I think that life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.

DUCHESS OF BERWICK: What does he mean? Do, as a concession to my poor wits, Lord Darlington, just explain to me what you really mean.

LORD DARLINGTON: I think I had better not, Duchess. Now-a-days to be intelligible is to be found out. Good-bye!

The phrasing used by Wilde was remembered incorrectly by some playgoers. For example, in 1902 the influential writer and critic G. K. Chesterton penned a book which included a reference to Wilde’s comedy, but Chesterton simplified the humorous line by removing the reference to “talk”. Chesterton’s altered version was close to the popular modern expression: 3

Thus the brilliant author of “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” in the electric glare of modernity, finds that life is much too important to be taken seriously.

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  1. 1902, Vera; or, The Nihilists by Oscar Wilde, Act II, Quote Page 34, (Note in text: This Play was written in 1881, and is now published from the author’s own copy, showing his corrections of and additions to the original text), Privately Printed; Number 64 of 200 Copies. (Internet Archive) link
  2. 1893, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Sign of the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  3. 1902, Robert Louis Stevenson by G. K. Chesterton and W. Robertson Nicoll, Part II: The Characteristics of Robert Louis Stevenson, Start Page 9, Quote Page 20 and 21, Published by Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books Full View) link

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

Voltaire? Spider-Man? Winston Churchill? Theodore Roosevelt? Franklin D. Roosevelt? Lord Melbourne? John Cumming? Hercules G. R. Robinson? Henry W. Haynes? Anonymous?

scales08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular saying about the relationship between ascendancy and obligation:

With great power comes great responsibility.

This expression has been attributed to two very different sources: Voltaire and the Spider-Man comic book. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have been unable to locate this statement in the oeuvre of Voltaire who died in 1778, and currently that linkage is unsupported.

QI has found a strong match during the period of the French Revolution. The following passage appeared with a date of May 8, 1793 in a collection of the decrees made by the French National Convention. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Les Représentans du peuple se rendront à leur destination, investis de la plus haute confiance et de pouvoirs illimités. Ils vont déployer un grand caractère. Ils doivent envisager qu’une grande responsabilité est la suite inséparable d’un grand pouvoir. Ce sera à leur énergie, à leur courage, et sur-tout à leur prudence, qu’ils devront leur succès et leur gloire.

Here’s one possible translation into English:

The people’s representatives will reach their destination, invested with the highest confidence and unlimited power. They will show great character. They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power. To their energy, to their courage, and above all to their prudence, they shall owe their success and their glory.

Prominent leaders such as Lord Melbourne, Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, and Franklin D. Roosevelt made similar statements in later years. Also, the appearance of an instance in a Spider-Man story in 1962 was influential in U.S. popular culture.

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  1. 1793 May, Title: Collection Générale des Décrets Rendus par la Convention Nationale, Date: May 8, 1793 (Du 8 Mai 1793), Quote Page 72, Publisher: Chez Baudouin, Imprimeur de la Convention Nationale. A, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link

I Want a Film that Begins with an Earthquake and Works Up to a Climax

Samuel Goldwyn? William Pine? William Thomas? Louis B. Mayer? Apocryphal?

goldwyn07Dear Quote Investigator: Some recent Hollywood action movies begin with an explosion and follow with a series of frenetic semi-coherent set pieces. The script writers seem to be channeling the late movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s funny advice for creating a blockbuster:

We need a story that starts with an earthquake and works up to a climax.

Is this suggestion an authentic Goldwynism, or is it apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a theatrical review by Rupert Hart-Davis printed in the London periodical “The Spectator” in 1938. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

There is a legend about a film magnate telling his scenario-writer that he wants a story beginning with an earthquake and working up to a climax.

The “film magnate” was unnamed and the word “legend” signaled that the story was probably exaggerated or fictional. Nevertheless, the comical phrase was widely disseminated, and by 1941 Goldwyn’s name was attached to an instance in the “Chicago Tribune”. Other movie producers such as William Pine, William Thomas, and Louis B. Mayer have also been linked to the statement.

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  1. 1938 March 4, The Spectator, Volume 160, Stage and Screen: The Theatre by Rupert Hart-Davis, (Review of a play based on the novel “Dodsworth”), Quote Page 359, Column 1, London, England. (Verified on paper)

A Gold Mine Is a Hole in the Ground with a Liar at the Top

Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Mr. Walkup? Eli Perkin? Anonymous?

gold10Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, a business website published an article about investing in gold and mining equities. The columnist began with a very funny and facetious remark attributed to Mark Twain: 1

A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing on top of it.

The ascription was “unverified” according to the writer, and I have not been able find a convincing citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: For more than 130 years numerous variants of this quip have been circulating which makes it difficult to trace. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Detroit Free Press” of Detroit, Michigan in 1881, and the text was rapidly disseminated via reprinting in several other newspapers such as the “New Haven Evening Register” of New Haven, Connecticut, “The Daily Inter Ocean” of Chicago, Illinois, and “The Wayne County Herald” of Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2 3 4

A mine is a hole in the ground. The discoverer of it is a natural liar. The hole in the ground and the liar combine and issue shares and trap fools.—Detroit Free Press.

The earliest instances of this family of jokes did not mention gold specifically; however, the cultural zeitgeist reflected a series of gold rushes that occurred during a multi-decade period.

Mark Twain’s name was not attached to the quip in its initial incarnations, but by 1896 he was being credited. As the phrasing evolved new versions were also ascribed to Twain. Since the famous humorist lived until 1910 it was conceivable that he employed the joke, but QI has found no direct evidence to support this linkage. For example, QI has been unable find an instance in important compilations like “Mark Twain Speaking” edited by Paul Fatout 5 and “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 6

Another prominent humorist named Bill Nye was linked to the quip in 1904, but that ascription was also poorly supported. In addition, a hodgepodge of little-known individuals has been connected to the jest over the years, but QI would label the originator anonymous.

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  1. Website: Bloomberg View, Article title: Are Shares of Gold Miners a ‘Buy’?, Author: Barry Ritholtz, Date on website: July 16, 2015, Website description: Articles by commentators about business from the Bloomberg organization, (Accessed bloombergview.com on July 19, 2015) link
  2. 1881 November 11, New Haven Evening Register, Don’t Care a Continental, Quote Page 2, Column 3, New Haven, Connecticut. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1881 November 30, The Daily Inter Ocean, Finance and Commerce, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Chicago, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1881 December 8, The Wayne County Herald, The Funny Men, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Honesdale, Pennsylvania. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

The Man Who Tries Methods, Ignoring Principles, Is Sure to Have Trouble

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Harrison Emmerson? Harrington Emerson? Anonymous?

emerson12Dear Quote Investigator: It is always possible to attempt to solve a problem by clumsily trying a variety of methods, but it is better to select an appropriate technique based on principled understanding. The following statement has been attributed to the famous philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

The man who grasps principles can successfully handle his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

Oddly, I have not found any instances of this expression in the 1800s. Yet, Emerson died in 1882. Would you please determine the origin of this statement?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. QI believes the passage evolved from statements made by Harrington Emerson who was a prominent management consultant and efficiency expert during the early decades of the 1900s.

The misattribution occurred because of the shared last name of “Emerson”. A version of the quotation was labeled with the single name “Emerson”, and some readers assumed that the creator was Ralph Waldo Emerson instead of Harrington Emerson. Indeed, the fame of the transcendentalist thinker has long eclipsed that of the efficiency engineer, and the error has been propagated via numerous periodicals and books over the decades.

The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in the July 1911 issue of a trade journal called “The Clothier and Furnisher” which reported on the Annual Convention of the National Association of Clothiers. A speaker at the gathering was described as “one of the most celebrated efficiency engineers in the world”, and his words were recounted as follows. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

Curiously, the name given for the speaker was “Harrison Emmerson”. However, QI believes that the trade journal made a small mistake, and the speaker was actually named Harrington Emerson. The identity was made clear by the content of the speech which presented a set of principles that precisely corresponded to the ones recorded in the book “The Twelve Principles of Efficiency” by Harrington Emerson. 2

The passage above did not exactly match the statement given by the questioner; however, QI believes that the modern phrasing was derived from the 1911 text via the commonplace process of imperfect transmission over time.

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  1. 1911 July, The Clothier and Furnisher, Volume 78, Number 6, The Convention: Fifteenth Annual Convention of the National Association of Clothiers, Held June 5 and 6, 1911, Start Page 67, Quote Page 86, Published by George N. Lowrey Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1912 (Copyright 1911), The Twelve Principles of Efficiency by Harrington Emerson, Published by The Engineering Magazine, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Truth Is Stranger than Fiction, But It Is Because Fiction Is Obliged to Stick to Possibilities; Truth Isn’t

Mark Twain? Lord Byron? G. K. Chesterton? Humphrey Bogart? Leo Rosten? Tom Clancy?

faucet11Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful quotation by Mark Twain about the implausibility of truth versus fiction. Here are four versions:

1) Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.
2) It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction must be credible.
3) Truth is stranger than fiction. It has to be! Fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t!
4) The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.

Would you please explore this topic and determine what Twain actually said? Some versions have been credited to humorist Leo Rosten and top-selling author Tom Clancy.

Quote Investigator: In 1897 Mark Twain released a travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, and the fifteenth chapter presented the following epigraph. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book. Thus, Twain was the actual crafter of the remark given above. Over the years many variant phrasings have evolved.

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  1. 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Chapter 15 Epigraph), Quote Page 156, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

Better To Fail in Originality than To Succeed in Imitation

Herman Melville? Apocryphal?

moby14Dear Quote Investigator: The major literary figure Herman Melville was famous for envisioning an archetypal beast and a fateful battle in “Moby-Dick; or, The Whale” published in 1851. Reportedly, Melville wrote an article that extolled creativity with the following assertion:

It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.

I would like to use this statement in an essay, but I have been unable to locate its source. Are these really the words of Melville? Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In August 1850 a New York journal called “The Literary World” published an article of literary criticism titled “Hawthorne and His Mosses”, and the critic was described as “A Virginian Spending July in Vermont”. Eventually, Herman Melville was identified as the essayist, and in one section of the article he chided a “graceful writer” who was imitating works from other countries. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

But that graceful writer, who perhaps of all Americans has received the most plaudits from his own country for his productions,—that very popular and amiable writer, however good and self-reliant in many things, perhaps owes his chief reputation to the self-acknowledged imitation of a foreign model, and to the studied avoidance of all topics but smooth ones. But it is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation. He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great. Failure is the true test of greatness.

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  1. 1850 August 24, The Literary World, Hawthorne and His Mosses by A Virginian Spending July in Vermont (Herman Melville), Start Page 145, Quote Page 146, E. A. & G. L. Duyckinck, New York. (Google Books Full View) link