Quotation Is a Serviceable Substitute for Wit

Oscar Wilde? Somerset Maugham? George Bernard Shaw? Voltaire? Apocryphal?

maugham02Dear Quote Investigator: I thought you might enjoy the following remark attributed to Oscar Wilde:

Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.

I saw this on the goodreads website, but the source of the saying was not listed. Further searching led to the following similar comment attributed to Somerset Maugham:

The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.

This situation is confusing. Is either of these quotations genuine?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde said or wrote either of these statements.

A version of the expression was included in the story “The Creative Impulse” by W. Somerset Maugham. This popular tale was reprinted several times and was even made into a television episode. Interestingly, the quote was not included in the first publication of the short story in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1926. 1

The story was revised, expanded, and published again in a 1931 collection called “Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular”. The expression was used when a character named Mrs. Albert Forrester was described. Boldface has been added: 2

She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit, and having for thirty years known more or less intimately a great many distinguished people, she had a great many interesting anecdotes to tell, which she placed with tact and which she did not repeat more than was pardonable.

Note that the phrasing of the sentence above was awkward if one desired a concise and witty stand-alone quotation. Over time multiple versions of the saying were advanced.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In May 1993 a message was posted to the Usenet discussion system that illustrated the evolution of the expression and its attribution. Two individuals were discussing two variants of the quotation. The first individual wondered if a variant of the quote should be credited to George Bernard Shaw or Oscar Wilde. The second replied with a variant that he indicated should be credited to Somerset Maugham: 3

> “The ability to quote is a poor substitute for wit”
> _Shaw or Wilde (?)
>

The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.
W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM

Other attributions were in circulation. For example, in August 1994 a message on the Usenet discussion system pointed to the French philosopher and polemicist Voltaire: 4

The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit – Voltaire

In January 1997 an altered version of the Maugham quote was printed in an Illinois newspaper in a column called “Web Watch”. The phrasing and ascription were acquired from a website: 5

Indeed, you only need one required comeback for any confrontation with a quote-happy conversationalist. Those are the type who, during a discussion on Bosnia, would be prone to quote Winston Churchill. Let them finish, then hit them with Somerset Maugham:

“The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.”

By February 1997 the ascription to Oscar Wilde was in circulation as shown by a message on the Usenet discussion system: 6

“The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit”
–Oscar Wilde

By 2007 another version of the saying had been posted on the goodreads website: 7

“Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.”
— Oscar Wilde

In conclusion, Somerset Maugham did craft an instance of this saying, and he included it in a short story in 1931. The precise phrasing is given above. Oscar Wilde was a witty man, but his ability to compose clever remarks was not unbounded.

Notes:

  1. 1926 August, Harper’s Bazar (Harper’s Bazaar), The Creative Impulse by W. Somerset Maugham, Start Page 41, Hearst Corp., New York. (In 1926 the magazine used the name “Harper’s Bazar”. Later it switched to the name “Harper’s Bazaar”) (Verified on microfilm)
  2. 1977 (Reprint of 1931 Doubleday, Doran & Company, Garden City, New York edition), Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular by W. Somerset Maugham, (This volume is part of a series: The Works of W. Somerset Maugham), Short story: The Creative Impulse, Start Page 249, Quote Page 255, Arno Press: A New York Times Company, New York. (Quote verified in 1977 reprint)
  3. 1993 May 12, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: alt.quotations, From: gascan@dc (Bill Gascoyne), Subject: Re: books/lexicons about quotations?????!, (Google Groups Search; accessed June 19, 2013) (The original message contained a typo. In the version above “substitue” has been replaced by “substitute”)
  4. 1994 August 30, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: misc.invest.stocks, misc.invest.funds, From: kau…@bianca (Kaushik Chhotani), Subject: Investment grp, IPOs – underwriters, etc. (Google Groups Search; accessed June 19, 2013)
  5. 1997 January 15, Oak Park Oak Leaves, Web Watch: For News About the Net and Other Cyber Stuff by Robert Nelander, Quote Page B22, Oak Park, Illinois. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1997 February 19, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: alt.music.deep-purple,alt.music.jethro-tull, From: Michael Collins <col…@oxmol>, Subject: Re: From the ICE web site…, (Google Groups Search; accessed June 19, 2013)
  7. Goodreads website, Oscar Wilde: Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit, Time and date stamp on earliest Like message: Dec 08, 2007 05:36pm, (Accessed goodreads.com on June 19, 2013)