Category Archives: Abba Eban

Some People Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity

George Bernard Shaw? Abba Eban? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular phrase used to criticize individuals and groups. Here are three examples:

Some politicians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
He never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity.
This group loses no chance to miss an opportunity.

Can you determine who originated this turn of phrase?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1922 when the diary of Sir Algernon West was published. The critical words were attributed to the prominent playwright and social commentator George Bernard Shaw, and they were aimed at Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery who was for a short time the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

Bernard Shaw, in later years, described him as a man who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity, and W. Johnson, afterwards Cory the Eton master, said in a classical allusion that he wanted the palm without the dust.

The phrase “wanted the palm without the dust” referred to the desire to obtain victory without a major expenditure of effort. The excerpt above assessing Rosebery’s character was part of a section recounting events in 1892 but the date of the remark by Shaw was not precisely specified. Algernon West died in 1921.

When the volume containing the “Private Diaries of the Right Hon. Algernon West” was examined in the New York Times in October 1922 the reviewer found the shrewdly humorous remark about Rosebery distinctive enough to reprint: 2

Bernard Shaw, in later years, described him as a man who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1922, Private Diaries of the Rt. Hon. Sir Algernon West, G.C.B. by Sir Algernon West, Edited by Horace G. Hutchinson, Chapter III: 1892: The General Election, Quote Page 35, E.P. Dutton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1922 October 1, New York Times, In Gladstone’s Cabinet, (Book Review of “Private Diaries of the Right Hon. Algernon West”), Start Page 50, Quote Page 50, New York. (ProQuest)

Americans Will Always Do the Right Thing — After Exhausting All the Alternatives

Winston Churchill? Abba Eban? An Irishman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: While watching a cable news channel I heard a commentator present a quotation that he credited to Winston Churchill. When I searched the web I found many different versions:

(1) Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing…after they have exhausted all other possibilities.
(2) The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.
(3) You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.
(4) The Americans will always do the right thing… after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.

No citations were given. The quotation books I consulted did not list this saying under Churchill. Is this statement really from Churchill?

Quote Investigator: Probably not. The earliest evidence located by QI of a variant of this saying was employed by Abba Eban who was an Israeli politician and diplomat. In March 1967 Eban visited Japan, and the New York Times reported on a remark that he made: 1

Commenting that the passage of time offered the best hope of an end to the problems of Israel and her neighbors, he said: “Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.”

Note that the above version of the saying did not highlight a specific nation and used the word “resources”. In June 1967 Eban revisited this theme with a comment that was closer to the modern version of the saying. Once again he used the generic referent “nations”: 2

… he said he was hopeful a new system of interstate relationships might come to pass because “nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.”

Also in June 1967 Eban delivered a speech at the United Nations which included an instance of the expression as recorded in a Canadian periodical: 3

The question is whether there is any reason to believe that such a new era may yet come to pass. If I am sanguine on this point, it is because of a conviction that men and nations do behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives. Surely the other alternatives of war and belligerency have now been exhausted.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1967 March 19, New York Times, “Japan Welcomes Eban Warmly; Her Industry Impresses Israeli” by Robert Trumbull, Page 14, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1967 June 07, The Evening Times [Trenton Evening Times], U.N. Waits Formal Answers, [Associated Press], Start Page 1, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1967 June 16, Canadian Jewish Chronicle Review, Abba Eban at the United Nations: Not Backward to Belligerence But Forward to Peace, [UN address by Abba Eban on June 6, 1967], Page 9, Montreal, Canada. (Google News Archive)