The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese

Stephen Wright? Ernst Berg? Anonymous?

mousetrap03Dear Quote Investigator: I am trying to discover where the following maxim comes from:

The second mouse gets the cheese.

Sometimes this phrase appears as part of a longer saying:

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

Your help would be greatly appreciated.

Quote Investigator: The earliest dated instance of this type of joke located by QI appeared in December 1994 in a message posted to the Usenet distributed discussion system in a newsgroup called alt.buddha.short.fat.guy. The saying was freestanding without attribution, and it was surrounded by ornamental text. The phrasing employed alluded to ethical precepts. The handle “Ernst Berg” was listed as the sender of the message: 1

-*- Blessed is the Second mouse for he shall inherit the Cheese. -*-

In the common mousetrap design shown above the first mouse attempting to take the cheese out of the trap would probably be injured or killed. The second mouse attempting to retrieve the cheese after the trap has been triggered would probably be successful.

In February 1995 the twisted proverb or anti-proverb version appeared in the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.video.arcade in a message posted by “David Jakovac”. The saying was freestanding and no attribution was given: 2

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese!

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

This saying was also explored by top researcher Barry Popik who provided several valuable citations here.

The important reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press included an entry for the phrase “The second mouse gets the cheese.” A September 1997 citation in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper was presented: 3 4

THOUGHT for the weekend, culled by Greg Cocks, of Brooklyn, from the Internet: The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

In November 1997 the twisted proverb version was credited to the popular cerebral comedian Stephen Wright in a message posted to the newsgroup alt.fan.tom-robbins. Cautionary note: many one-liners are incorrectly ascribed to Wright: 5

>Stephen Wright one-liners ……
>Early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese
>I almost had a psychic girlfriend but she left me before we met
>I drive way too fast to worry about cholesterol

In February 1998 a newspaper in Plainview, Texas printed a collection of quips acquired via the internet. Here were three: 6

Here are some “Pearls of Wisdom” that fell down out of the sky (or off the Internet, as the case may be).
. . .
*Early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese
*When everything’s coming your way, you’re in the wrong lane.
*Many people quit looking for work when they find a job

In conclusion, one version of the quip was in circulation by December 1994. The person posting the joke used the handle Ernst Berg, but it is not clear if he originated the adage or simply forwarded it. By 1997 a version was attached to the comedian Stephen Wright, but this is a late date, and hence the evidence is weak.

(Thanks to Karl Ding whose inquiry about this adage provided the impetus for QI to construct this question and perform this investigation.)

Update History: On November 17 2016 the February 1998 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1994 December 14, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.buddha.short.fat.guy, From: Ernst Berg at moamiex.com, Subject: Thinking Out Loud. (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 24, 2013) link
  2. 1995 February 2, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.games.video.arcade, From: David Jakovac at freenet.vancouver.bc.ca, Subject: Fright of an arcader’s lifetime!, (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 24, 2013) link
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 173, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1997 September 13, Sydney Morning Herald, Section: News and Features “COLUMN 8”, Quote Page 1, Sydney, Australia. (NewsBank Access World News)
  5. 1997 November 14, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.fan.tom-robbins, Sender: Tom Robbins Discussion Group at @AMERICAN.EDU, From: Ruth N. Priester at COMP.UARK.EDU, Subject: funnies (fwd), (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 25, 2013) link
  6. 1998 February 18, Plainview Daily Herald, Article: Thinking outloud: OK, so what’s the speed of dark?, Page number not specified, Plainview, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)