Abraham Lincoln? Adlai Stevenson? Edward J. Stieglitz? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There are posters, shirts, mugs, and other commercial products displaying the following inspirational quote:
And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
Abraham Lincoln is credited with this aphorism, but I cannot find it in his collected works. Can you determine who really said it?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Lincoln used this expression. Some quotation references attributed the remark to Adlai Stevenson II who was the Governor of Illinois and a Democratic Presidential nominee. Indeed, Stevenson did deploy a version of this adage in speeches as early as 1952.
But the earliest appearance of this notion located by QI was in an advertisement in 1947 for a book about aging by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D. The image at the top of this article shows the ad for “The Second Forty Years” which ran in the Chicago Tribune newspaper [ESCT]:
The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!
The rhetorical technique of reversing word order in successive clauses is called chiasmus or antimetabole. In this case, “years in your life” is transformed into “life in your years”, and the contrast between the two subphrases is highlighted.
In February 1949 a columnist in the Hartford Courant newspaper of Connecticut credited the adage to Stieglitz [ESHC]:
Dr. Edward Stieglitz says “the important thing is not how many years in your life but how much life in your years.” He’s got something there.
In April 1949 a different advertisement for “The Second Forty Years” was published in the New York Times. This ad featured the two subphrases, but they were not presented in contrast. The text suggested that it was possible to have more years and more life [ESNY]:
The new science of Geriatrics shows you how to put more years in your life, and more life in your years.
In 1952 an article in the Oregonian newspaper mentioned a version that was similar to the statement in the New York Times without an attribution [ORLY]:
The exhibit, based on the theme, “Put more years in your life and more life in your years,” was a stopper!
In 1952 Governor Adlai Stevenson delivered a speech to students at the Boston Globe High School Press Forum. He used a version of the adage that closely matched the statement provided by the questioner [ASBG]:
Fight for a better future with confidence, he urged the students. “However else you live your life, live it freely. It is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.