A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished by the Wisest Men

Roald Dahl? Gene Wilder? Horace? Lord Byron? Horace Walpole? Hudibras? Samuel Butler? Anonymous?

dahl08Dear Quote Investigator: The 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was an extraordinary confection. The candy-maker Wonka played by Gene Wilder used numerous literary quotations while leading a tour of his factory. One scene took place in a room with geese that produced enormous golden eggs of chocolate. Each egg was analyzed by an “eggdicator” to determine whether it was a good egg or a bad egg. One parent on the tour considered the situation ridiculous, and Wonka replied to his skepticism with a quotation: 1

Grandpa Joe: It’s an educated eggdicator.
Henry Salt: It’s a lot of nonsense.
Willy Wonka: A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.

Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: The popular English author Roald Dahl published the children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in 1964. Dahl also wrote the screenplay for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” based on his book. The line spoken by Wonka in the movie is not in the 1964 book, but Dahl included it in the 1972 sequel called “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the newspaper “The New-York Mirror” in 1823. The reviewer of a new melodrama called “Undine, or the Spirit of the Waters” did not consider it a serious work, but he enjoyed it and recommended it. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

As a drama, it is not of the family of legitimates; but what then, who has not experienced the truth of that good old couplet, that

“A little nonsense, now and then,
Is relished by the wisest men!”

The reviewer disclaimed credit for the expression by labelling it an “old couplet”; hence, earlier citations probably exist. Nevertheless, quotation expert Nigel Rees deserves kudos for placing this valuable instance in his compilation “The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations”. 3

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  1. 1971, Movie: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Screenplay by Roald Dahl, Based on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, Released by Paramount Pictures, Quote Location: 1 hour 20 minutes of 1 hour 39 minutes. (Amazon Video)
  2. 1823 December 6, The New-York Mirror, and Ladies’ Literary Gazette, The Drama: Undine, Quote Page 151, Column 1, Published by George P. Morris, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 2011, The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations by Nigel Rees, (Updated, expanded, and revised version of “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”, 2003), Publication Date: September 6, 2011, Topic: Nonsense, Kindle Location: 14964, Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC. (Kindle Ebook)

Do All the Good You Can; In All the Ways You Can

John Wesley? Nicholas Murray? Laban Clark? Kirwan? Dwight L. Moody? Tombstone in Shrewsbury? Anonymous?

wesley08Dear Quote Investigator: John Wesley was a prominent English religious figure whose teachings inspired Methodism. The following elaborate injunction is sometimes called “John Wesley’s Rule of Life”:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can.

Would you please explore the provenance of this multipart expression?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find these precise words in the oeuvre of John Wesley who died in 1791; however, there is evidence that he delivered sermons containing passages providing a partial match.

The 1799 work “Sermons on Several Occasions” by Reverend John Wesley contained a homily on “The Law Established through Faith” with the following guidance. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Neither is love content with barely working no evil to our neighbour. It continually incites us to do good: as we have time, and opportunity, to do good in every possible kind, and in every possible degree to all men.

The collection also contained a sermon on “The Use of Money” by Wesley with the following instructions: 2

No more waste! Cut off every expence which fashion, caprice, or flesh and blood demand. No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has intrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree, to the household of faith, to all men.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the 1852 book “The Riches that Bring No Sorrow” by Erskine Neale who used a footnote to ascribe the words to someone named Dr. Murray: 3

And one—the most legitimate—inference from the Sacred Volume was systematically overlooked: “Do all the good you can; in all the ways you can; to all the people you can; and just as long as you can.”

†Dr. Murray.

An 1868 citation given further below indicated that an American Presbyterian clergyman Nicholas Murray employed a version of the statement above, and this person might be the Murray referenced; however, he credited an unnamed ninety-one year old man.

QI believes that the excerpt above may have evolved from Wesley’s words. Admittedly, the components of this excerpt have a parallel structure that makes it more interesting and memorable than Wesley’s version.

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  1. 1799, Sermons on Several Occasions (A New Edition) by the Rev. John Wesley (Late Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford), Sermon 36: The Law Established through Faith: Discourse 2, Start Page 478, Quote Page 486, Printed by Edward Baines; Sold by T. Hannam, The Preachers in the New Itinerancy, and the Booksellers, Leeds, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1799, Sermons on Several Occasions (A New Edition) by the Rev. John Wesley (Late Fellow of Lincoln College, Oxford), Sermon 50: The Use of Money, Start Page 662, Quote Page 675, Printed by Edward Baines; Sold by T. Hannam, The Preachers in the New Itinerancy, and the Booksellers, Leeds, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1852, The Riches that Bring No Sorrow by The Rev. Erskine Neale, Chapter 6: Cavendish—The Philosopher, Quote Page 110, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Write Drunk, Revise Sober

Ernest Hemingway? Gowan McGland? Dylan Thomas? Peter De Vries? F. Scott Fitzgerald? James Joyce? Stephen Fry? Anonymous?

writing08Dear Quote Investigator: “Alcohol loosens the tongue” is an old saying that some authors treat with reverence. But the resultant lubricated poetry and prose may require a red pencil. The famous writer Ernest Hemingway reportedly made one of the following remarks:

  1. Write drunk, edit sober.
  2. Write drunk, revise sober.

I cannot find a solid citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find this saying in the output of Ernest Hemingway who died in 1961, and it is unlikely that he ever said it or wrote it.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben” by the humorist Peter De Vries which included a character named Gowan McGland whose behaviors and eccentricities were partially modeled on the prominent Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

At the beginning of chapter twenty-one McGland was reviewing a previously written draft of a poem. Now that he was sober he excised two lines that he considered dreadful. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

He remembered something he had told a New York journalist in an interview about his “working habits,” a dull subject about which people remained curiously interested in the case of writers and artists. “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober,” he had said, “and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

QI conjectures that the words of De Vries evolved and were reassigned to the more prominent Hemingway who was certainly known to take a drink.

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  1. 1964, Reuben, Reuben by Peter De Vries, Chapter 21, Quote Page 242, Chapter 30, Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)

Every Word She Writes Is a Lie, Including “And” and “The”

Mary McCarthy? Lillian Hellman? Apocryphal?

thegroup07Dear Quote Investigator: The funniest caustic condemnation of a prevaricator that I have ever heard was delivered by the novelist and critic Mary McCarthy. The result was a multi-million dollar defamation lawsuit filed by the famous playwright Lillian Hellman who was the target of the criticism. Would you please examine precisely what was spoken?

Quote Investigator: In 1978 a journalist named Joan Dupont interviewed Mary McCarthy for a short-lived English-language periodical called “Paris Metro”. Dupont explored the topic of rivalry between women intellectuals and asked McCarthy’s opinion of the political philosopher Hannah Arendt. McCarthy said she greatly admired Arendt and felt no competitiveness toward her. When Dupont asked McCarthy about the playwright Lillian Hellman the response given with a smile was savage and comically hyperbolic. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“I can’t stand her. I think every word she writes is false, including ‘and’ and ‘but.'” Her steady smile has grown into a full grin.

This version of McCarthy’s comment is not well-known because “Paris Metro” did not circulate widely. But McCarthy decided to reuse her bon mot in October 1979 during her appearance on a public television talk show hosted by Dick Cavett. When Cavett asked her to name overrated authors she referred to Hellman, and she attempted to recall her previous quip. She produced an altered remark that achieved wide distribution: 2


MCCARTHY: The only one I can think of is a holdover like Lillian Hellman, who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, and dishonest writer, “but she really belongs to the past, to the Steinbeck past, not that she is a writer like Steinbeck

CAVETT: What is dishonest about her?

MCCARTHY: Everything. But I said once in some interview that every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the.”

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  1. 1991, Conversations with Mary McCarthy, Edited by Carol Gelderman, (Collection of Mary McCarthy interviews from miscellaneous publications), Series: Literary Conversations Series, Chapter: Mary McCarthy: Portrait of a Lady, Author/Interviewer: Joan Dupont, (Reprinted from February 15, 1978 issue of The Paris Metro), Start Page 157, Quote Page 164, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2000, Seeing Mary Plain: A Life of Mary McCarthy by Frances Kiernan, Chapter 25: The Hellman Suit, Quote Page 673, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

In The Zone

Arthur Ashe? Anonymous?

twilight11Dear Quote Investigator: While engaging in a difficult physical or mental task one sometimes achieves a state of sublime concentration that enables remarkable performance. Athletes employ the following phrase to describe this ideal status:

In The Zone

Would you please explore the origin of this expression?

Quote Investigator: During 1973 and 1974 the top tennis player Arthur Ashe kept an audio diary, and in 1975 he published “Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion” primarily based on his daily recordings. The earliest evidence of the phrase located by QI appeared in a diary entry dated February 22, 1974 in which he discussed a match with another prominent player named Bjorn Borg. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I thought I was playing unconscious, but Borg beat me 6-4, 7-6 tonight, and he is in what we call the zone. (That comes originally from “twilight zone” and translates, more or less, into “another world.”) The kid has no concept of what he is doing out there—he is just swinging away and the balls are dropping in. He has no respect for anybody. Hell, he should win the whole tournament.

The award-winning original television series “The Twilight Zone” ran from 1959 to 1964 and featured supernatural and science-fictional plot elements. Thus, the figurative underpinnings of “in the zone” suggested magical or mystical superhuman powers acquired for a temporary period.

Ashe was the central locus for the popularization of the phrase. It was possible that the saying emerged from a group discussion in which Ashe participated; hence, he used the word “we” in the passage above. Alternatively, it was crafted by an unknown person, and Ashe quickly learned about its meaning and its connection to the television series.

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  1. 1976 (1975 Copyright), Arthur Ashe: Portrait in Motion by Arthur Ashe with Frank Deford, Chapter 16: Playing Europe and the Zone, Diary Entry for February 22, 1974, Quote Page 201, Ballantine Books, New York. (Originally published in 1975; verified with scans of 1976 paperback edition)

If All the Economists Were Laid End to End, They Would Not Reach a Conclusion

George Bernard Shaw? Farmer Brown? Isaac Marcosson? Stephen Leacock? Anonymous?

shaw08Dear Quote Investigator: The advice offered by economists is often equivocal and hedged. The famous playwright and witty social critic George Bernard Shaw reportedly crafted the following lament:

If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.

I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: “The Saturday Review of Literature” credited George Bernard Shaw with the expression above in May 1933, but the saying had entered circulation by July 1932 without an attribution. In addition, intriguing precursors appeared by the 1920s. Hence, the ascription to Shaw is currently uncertain.

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Dancing Is a Perpendicular Expression of a Horizontal Desire

George Bernard Shaw? George Melly? I. S. Johar? Ann Landers? Patrick Harte? Robert Frost? Winston Churchill? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

dancing07Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an adage highlighting the sensual aspects of popular gyrations:

  1. Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.
  2. Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal idea.

George Bernard Shaw, Ann Landers, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Frost have received credit for this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the London periodical “New Statesman” in 1962. The musician and critic George Melly attributed the saying to the notable playwright George Bernard Shaw. Emphasis added by QI: 1

I have spent a certain amount of time lately watching people in London dance in the various new ways. I report what went on in three very different places where my fellow countrymen and women had come together to give what Shaw called ‘a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire’.

Shaw’s death in 1950 preceded Melly’s article by more than a decade, and the text provided no citation; hence, the evidence supporting the ascription was rather weak. Nevertheless, the citations for competing ascriptions are even less persuasive.

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  1. 1962 March 23, New Statesman, Late Perpendicular by George Melly, Start Page 426, Quote Page 426, Column 3, New Statesman Ltd., London. (ProQuest)

Language Serves Not Only to Express Thoughts, but to Make Possible Thoughts Which Could Not Exist Without It

Bertrand Russell? Neil Postman? Apocryphal?

language09Dear Quote Investigator: The relationship between language and thought is complex. The famous philosopher Bertrand Russell held the provocative belief that some thoughts could not exist without language. I believe I read this assertion in a book Russell wrote, but I have not been able to relocate the apposite passage. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1948 Bertrand Russell published “Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits” which included such a claim. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Language serves not only to express thoughts, but to make possible thoughts which could not exist without it. It is sometimes maintained that there can be no thought without language, but to this view I cannot assent: I hold that there can be thought, and even true and false belief, without language. But however that may be, it cannot be denied that all fairly elaborate thoughts require words.

Russell illustrated his point with examples of mathematically infused knowledge:

I can know, in a sense, that I have five fingers, without knowing the word “five”, but I cannot know that the population of London is about eight millions unless I have acquired the language of arithmetic, nor can I have any thought at all closely corresponding to what is asserted in the sentence: “The ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter is approximately 3.14159.”

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  1. 1948, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits by Bertrand Russell, Section: Part II: Language, Chapter I: The Uses of Language Quote Page 60, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)

I Am Only a Public Entertainer Who Has Understood His Times

Pablo Picasso? Giovanni Papini? Apocryphal?

picasso07Dear Quote Investigator: Pablo Picasso reportedly admitted in a “Confession” that he did not consider himself a great artist; instead, he was an entertainer who shocked and amused the rich and indolent to gain fame and wealth. Did Picasso really say this?

Quote Investigator: No. The well-known “Confession” was invented by an Italian journalist and literary critic named Giovanni Papini who wrote two novels filled with fictional encounters between the main character, a businessman named Gog, and famous figures such as Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, and Pablo Picasso.

The first satirical work titled “Gog” was published in 1931, and the sequel “Il Libro Nero: Nuovo Diario di Gog” (The Black Book: New Gog Diary) was released in 1951. 1 Papini’s writings were not intended to mislead readers. Yet, the fascinating statements he crafted for the luminaries were compelling enough to be remembered and misremembered. Reprinted passages in periodicals and books sometimes incorrectly indicated that the words were genuine. For example, in 1993 the scholar Frederick Crews wrote a powerful essay titled “The Unknown Freud” in “The New York Review of Books”. Unfortunately, one segment of the essay presented a statement ascribed to Freud by Papini as authentic. During the subsequent discussion Crews apologized and stated that his error stemmed from other scholarly works that improperly ascribed the words to Freud. 2 3

A comparable misunderstanding occurred regarding Panini’s mock interview with Picasso. A columnist writing for “The Washington Post” in 1952 noticed that Paris newspapers were printing the interview. He accepted the Picasso attribution and shared fragments of the text with his readers: 4

Paris newspapers are agog. The story has been picked up by several American publications including Quick.

Admitting himself to be “a public entertainer” exploiting as best he could “the foolishness, the vanity and the greed” of his contemporaries, Picasso recently confessed that he merely sought to please master and critic with the “new, the strange, the original, the extravagant, the scandalous … the less they understood them the more they admired me.”

Over the years, multiple translations have been created, and sometimes the translations have been indirect, e.g., English text has been derived from French text created from Italian text.

A 1954 book lambasting modern art titled “Peril on Parnassus” by William F. Alder included a version of the fictive remarks. However, a reviewer in the “Los Angeles Times” responded skeptically: 5

Giovanni Papini’s alleged interview with Picasso, in which that painter was quoted as calling himself “a public clown, a mountebank,” is printed early in the book. But no mention is made of Picasso’s denial.

In January 1964 a journal of arts and literature called “Origin” published “A Confession” with a Pablo Picasso byline. The editor was unaware that the piece was based on “Il Libro Nero”. It began as follows: 6

When I was young, like all the young, art, great art, was my religion; but, with the years, I came to see that art, as it was understood until 1800, was henceforth finished, on its last legs, doomed, and that so-called artistic activity with all its abundance is only the many-formed manifestation of its agony. Men are detached from and more and more disinterested in painting, sculpture and poetry.

The imaginary Picasso suggested that modern artists resorted to “expedients of intellectual charlatanism”. Picasso’s own works, he felt, consisted of whims, tom-fooleries, brain-busters, and arabesques. He concluded his essay:

Today, as you know, I am famous and very rich. But when completely alone with myself, I haven’t the nerve to consider myself an artist in the great and ancient sense of the word. There have been great painters like Giotto, Titian, Rembrandt and Goya. I am only a public entertainer who has understood his time.

This is a bitter confession, mine, more painful indeed than it may seem, but it has the merit of being sincere.

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  1. WorldCat Entry, Year: 1951, Title: Il Libro Nero: Nuovo Diario di Gog, Author: Giovanni Papini, Publisher: [Firenze]: Vallecchi, Language: Italian, (English Title Translation: The Black Book: New Gog Diary)
  2. 1993 December 16, The New York Review of Books, Footnote to Freud by Frederick C. Crews, Publisher: Rea S. Hederman, New York. (Online archive at nybooks.com) link
  3. 1994 February 3, The New York Review of Books, The Unknown Freud: An Exchange, (Letters responding to “The Unknown Freud” by Frederick Crews from J. Schimek, James Hopkins, Herbert S. Peyser, David D. Olds, and Marian Tolpin, et al. Also several replies from Frederick Crews), Publisher: Rea S. Hederman, New York. (Online archive at nybooks.com) link
  4. 1952 August 3, The Washington Post, Four Books About Art: Picasso Gave His ‘Silly’ Era in Painting a Blow, (Several books reviewed by Sterling North), Quote Page B7, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1954 September 19, Los Angeles Times, New Art Books by A.M., Quote Page D7, Column 5, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  6. 1964 January, Origin, Second Series, Issue 12, Pablo Picasso: A Confession, (Note: The article presents an incorrect ascription to Picasso), Start Page 1, End Page 2, Editor: Cid Corman, Yamaha Art Gallery, Kyoto, Japan. (Verified with scans; thanks to the librarians of Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Even a Stopped Clock Is Right Twice a Day

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach? Lewis Carroll? Charles L. Dodgson? Joseph Addison? Richard Steele? Diedrich Knickerbocker? Washington Irving? Albany de Grenier Fonblanque? Paulo Coelho? Anonymous?

clockface07Dear Quote Investigator: An obtuse, unreliable, or incompetent person occasionally performs properly. Here are three versions of a proverb reflecting this observation:

  1. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  2. A broken watch is certain to be right twice a day.
  3. A clock that stands still is sure to point right once in twelve hours.

This saying has been attributed to the prominent Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach and to the famous children’s author Lewis Carroll, a.k.a., Charles L. Dodgson the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. Even in the 1700s dress fashions were ever changing. If one maintained a single clothing style it would become passé, but eventually it would return to “the mode”, i.e., become fashionable again. “The Spectator” employed the clock-based simile when discussing this topic. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

Did they keep to one constant dress, they would sometimes be in the fashion, which they never are as matters are managed at present. If instead of running after the mode, they would continue fixed in one certain habit, the mode would some time or other overtake them, as a clock that stands still is sure to point right once in twelve hours: in this case therefore I would advise them, as a Gentleman did his friend who was hunting about the whole town after a rambling fellow, If you follow him you will never find him, but if you plant your self at the corner of any one street, I’ll engage it will not be long before you see him.

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele founded and operated “The Spectator”. Both were significant literary and political figures. Scholarly reprints in later years identified Joseph Addison as the author of the excerpt above. 2

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  1. 1721, The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq; Volume 3 of 4, The Spectator, Number 129, Issue Year: 1711, Issue Date: “Saturday, July 28”, Start Page 83, Quote Page 83, Printed for Jacob Tonson at Shakespear’s-Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1886, Addison: Selections from Addison’s Papers Contributed to the Spectator, Main Author: Joseph Addison, Edited with Introduction and Notes by Thomas Arnold, No. 129: The same subject; letter describing the fashions in the West of England, Start Page 265, Quote Page 266, Oxford, Clarendon Press. (HathiTrust Full View) link link