Category Archives: Ambrose Bierce

Wagner’s Music Is Really Much Better Than It Sounds

Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Ambrose Bierce? Punch Magazine?

orchestra09Dear Quote Investigator: Richard Wagner was prominent German composer who created the landmark four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). A comically incongruous remark about his efforts has been attributed to two famous American humorists Mark Twain and Bill Nye:

Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.

Do you know who crafted this jibe?

Quote Investigator: The earliest partial match known to QI appeared in August 1887. Several newspapers such as “The Wichita Daily Beacon” 1 of Wichita, Kansas and “The Jackson Citizen Patriot” 2 of Jackson, Michigan printed a column called “Bill Nye’s Information Bureau”. The Wichita paper acknowledged “The New York World” as the initial source. The column began with a letter from “Truth Seeker” who posed several questions for Nye including the following:

What is the peculiarity of classical music, and how can one distinguish it?

Nye responded with a version of the quip that targeted a class of music instead of an individual composer. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

The peculiar characteristic of classical music is that it is really so much better than it sounds.

In November 1889 “The Indianapolis News” of Indianapolis, Indiana pointed to an unnamed Philadelphia paper while crediting Nye with a version of the joke targeting Wagner: 3

Says a Philadelphia newspaper: “Bill Nye on his recent visit to this city to lecture called upon a well-known music lover, and while there was asked to write in an autograph album. He did so, and among other things wrote the following: ‘Wagner’s music, I have been informed, is really much better than it sounds.'”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1887 August 4, The Wichita Daily Beacon, His Information Bureau: Bill Nye Takes a Man into His Confidence and Educates Him (From the New York World), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Wichita, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1887 August 11, The Jackson Citizen Patriot, Bill Nye’s Bureau: He Takes a Stranger in and Educates Him, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Jackson, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1889 November 22, The Indianapolis News, “SCRAPS”, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

Every Election Is a Sort of Advance Auction Sale of Stolen Goods

Ambrose Bierce? H. L. Mencken? Anonymous?

vote07Dear Quote Investigator: There is a comically acerbic remark about elections that is often attributed to the famous cynic Ambrose Bierce:

An election is nothing more than the advanced auction of stolen goods.

Several of my friends have told me that these are actually the words of the influential journalist and pundit H. L. Mencken, but no one seems to have a precise citation. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ambrose Bierce said or wrote this comment.

In 1956 the press of Johns Hopkins University released an important compilation of essays by H. L. Mencken under the title “A Carnival of Buncombe” edited by Malcolm Moos. An essay called “Sham Battle” was published in the “Baltimore Evening Sun” on October 26, 1936, and it has been reprinted in this collection. Mencken presented an uncompromisingly harsh evaluation of the electoral process. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The state—or, to make the matter more concrete, the government—consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can’t get, and to promise to give it to them. Nine times out of ten that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time it is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.

Government, of course, has other functions, and some of them are useful and even valuable. It is supposed, in theory, to keep the peace, and also to protect the citizen against acts of God and the public enemy.

QI believes that the modern version of the saying was derived from the 1936 passage above.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1956, A Carnival of Buncombe by H. L. Mencken, Edited by Malcolm Moos, Sham Battle by H. L. Mencken Start Page 323, Quote Page 325, (“Baltimore Evening Sun” article dated October 26, 1936), Published by Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, Maryland. (Verified on paper in 1956 book)(At this time QI has not directly confirmed the presence of the essay in the “Baltimore Evening Sun” on the date specified. The quotation does not seem to be present in the ProQuest database of the “Baltimore Sun”. This is understandable because the content in the morning and evening editions of “The Sun” differed)

War Is God’s Way of Teaching Us Geography

Ambrose Bierce? Paul Rodriguez? Jon Stewart? Mark Twain? Anonymous?

world08Dear Quote Investigator: Many people are unable to find significant countries and cities on a map. A comical remark about this cartographical ignorance has been attributed to both Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain. Here are four versions:

War is God’s way of teaching us geography
War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.
God created war so that Americans would learn geography
Wars are a rather expensive way to teach geography.

I searched in Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary” and Twain’s novels and was unable to find the saying. No one seems to have concrete information about the source. Comic Jon Stewart is sometimes credited. Would you be willing to trace this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI and other researchers have located no substantive evidence that Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain spoke or wrote this quip. The expression is part of a family of remarks and jokes that has been evolving since the 1800s.

In 1879 the periodical “Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly” printed a table listing numerous ports in Central and South America. The article claimed that readers would learn new geographical facts while following stories about warfare. The tone of this precursor observation was not humorous. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The following list of ports of call between Panama and Valparaiso contains the name of every important point on the coast, and gives the relative positions of many places which, if the war continues, will become familiar, for whatever evil war brings in its train, it has value in teaching us geography.

Remarks of this type appeared in publications in Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States. By the 1920s instances with a clearly sardonic tone were in circulation. In 1987 the comedian Paul Rodriguez told a joke during a Comic Relief concert that closely matched the one given by the questioner. Detailed examples with cites are presented further below.

Top researchers Ralph Keyes and Barry Popik have also examined this saying and some of their findings have been incorporated in this article. 2 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1879 August, Rose-Belford’s Canadian Monthly and National Review, Volume 3, The Seat of the War in South America by J. Douglas Jr. (late of Quebec), Start Page 113, Quote Page 119, Rose-Belford Publishing Company. Toronto, Canada. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 240 and 338, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography”, Date on website: December 05, 2012, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik.com on May 19, 2014)

Speak When You’re Angry and You’ll Make the Best Speech You’ll Ever Regret

Ambrose Bierce? Henry Ward Beecher? Laurence J. Peter? Groucho Marx? Harry H. Jones? Anonymous?

bierce06Dear Quote Investigator: The rant of an enraged person often contains statements that necessitate contrite apologies later. Here is an adage reflecting this insight:

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

These words have been attributed to the preacher Henry Ward Beecher, the humorist Ambrose Bierce, and the quotation compiler Laurence J. Peter. Do you know who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI points to a famous comedian who is rarely mentioned in conjunction with this saying. In June 1954 a column titled “Inside TV” by Eve Starr was published in a North Carolina newspaper, and Starr reported on two jokes told by Groucho Marx during his show. Boldface has been added: 1

Groucho quips: “It takes a heap of spending to make a house a home.” His best advice to contestants is: “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

Ambrose Bierce did write a parody fable that was tangentially related to this theme, and a detailed citation for this short tale is given below. However, QI has found no substantive evidence that Bierce wrote or spoke this quotation. Oddly, a major reference work stated that the expression appeared in Bierce’s “The Cynic’s Word Book” of 1906 which is better known under its later title “The Devil’s Dictionary”. However, QI has examined multiple editions of this book and the quotation was absent.

The misattribution to Henry Ward Beecher was based on an incorrect reading of an entry in a 1977 quotation collection created by Laurence J. Peter. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1954 November 3, Greensboro Record, Inside TV by Eve Starr, Quote Page B3, Column 4, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)

The Covers of This Book Are Too Far Apart

Ambrose Bierce? Alan Le May? Jack Benny? Mark Twain? Anonymous?

ambrose03Dear Quote Investigator: The increasing popularity of ebooks is threatening to make one of my favorite quotations obsolete. The wonderful humorist Ambrose Bierce was asked to evaluate a lengthy soporific tome and according to legend he handed in a devastating and hilarious one-line review:

The covers of this book are too far apart.

Did Bierce really write this, and what was the name of the book being evaluated?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of a version of this quip was printed in 1899. The first citation connecting the joke to Ambrose Bierce was published more than two decades later in 1923. Details for this cite are presented further below. Bierce disappeared in 1913 and his final fate is still mysterious. The linkage of the saying to Bierce is weak because the 1923 claim appeared so late.

In September 1899 the “Logansport Pharos” of Indiana printed a short humor item in which two stock figures named “Author” and “Friend” exchanged remarks. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

An Honest Criticism.

Author—Now I want your honest opinion. Tell me what faults you see in my book.
Friend—Well, for one thing, I think the covers are too far apart.—New York Journal.

The paper listed an acknowledgement to a New York periodical, but it did not provide an attribution. The same comical dialog was published in other newspapers in 1899 such as the “North Adams Transcript” of Massachusetts, 2 the “Ann Arbor Daily Argus” of Michigan, 3 the “Biloxi Daily Herald” of Mississippi, 4 and the “Duluth Evening Herald” of Minnesota which acknowledged the “San Francisco Examiner” of California. 5

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1899 September 28, Logansport Pharos (Logansport Pharos Tribune), An Honest Criticism, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Logansport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1899 September 29, North Adams Transcript, An Honest Criticism, Quote Page 6, Column 5, North Adams, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1899 October 11, Ann Arbor Daily Argus, An Honest Criticism, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1899 November 14, Biloxi Daily Herald (Daily Herald), An Honest Criticism, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Biloxi, Mississippi. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1899 November 9, Duluth Evening Herald, Autumn Zephyrs, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Duluth, Minnesota. (Old Fulton)

A Banker Lends You His Umbrella When It’s Sunny and Wants It Back When It Rains

Mark Twain? Robert Frost? Ambrose Bierce? Ben Bernanke? Philippe Girardet? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: It has been remarkably difficult to obtain a loan in the current financial climate. When I finally succeeded I was reminded of this quote:

A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining, but wants it back the minute it begins to rain.

Mark Twain is sometimes credited with this remark, but I know that means little. It seems every clever remark is eventually attributed to Twain. Could you figure out who really said it?

Quote Investigator: You are correct to doubt the ascription of the saying to Mark Twain. The invaluable TwainQuotes website of Barbara Schmidt has a webpage dedicated to this adage with the following warning notice [TQBA]:

This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.

1905 is the date of the earliest citation found by QI expressing the kernel of the idea in the maxim. The following words were published in a London-based weekly for chartered accountants [ACBU]:

A customer who was not getting what he wanted, once said to me: “You bankers only lend a man an umbrella when it is a fine day,” and I thought he expressed it exactly.

A version very similar to the questioner’s expression appeared in January 1930. The first cite found by QI attributing the remark to Mark Twain is dated 1944. In 1949 the adage was credited to the famous poet Robert Frost.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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