Category Archives: George Bernard Shaw

The Pleasure Is Momentary, the Position Is Ridiculous, the Expense Is Damnable

Lord Chesterfield? Hilaire Belloc? D. H. Lawrence? George Bernard Shaw? Alexander Duffield? Somerset Maugham? Elliot Paul? Samuel Hopkins Adams? Benjamin Franklin? P. D. James? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Lord Chesterfield reportedly crafted an outrageously humorous description of intimate relations. I’ve seen different versions that each comment on pleasure, position, and expense. Yet, I have never seen a proper citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield, is typically referred to as Lord Chesterfield. Researchers have been unable to find the statement about eros in his writings, and the words were ascribed to him many years after his death in 1773.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a letter sent to the editors of “The Western Daily Press” in Bristol, England in 1902. The subject was the standardization of equipment for golf, and the word “amusement” was employed to avoid terms such as “intercourse” or “sex”. “Attitude” is a synonym for “posture”. In addition, the taboos of the era dictated the replacement of “damnable” by dashes. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

If there is to be no limit to the fancy or ingenuity of club and ball makers, I am afraid the dictum of a certain American, speaking of another amusement, will be applicable to golf, viz., “that the pleasure is momentary, the attitudes ridiculous, and the expense —–“

So, the expression was circulating by 1902, but the printed evidence is limited. Interestingly, it was credited to an American instead of an Englishman.

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  1. 1902 November 20, The Western Daily Press, Correspondence To The Editors of The Western Daily Press, (Letter Title: Standardisation of the Golf Ball, Letter From: W.L.B. of Clifton; Letter Date: November 17, 1902), Quote Page 3, Column 7, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results

Albert Einstein? Narcotics Anonymous? Max Nordau? George Bernard Shaw? George A. Kelly? Rita Mae Brown? John Larroquette? Jessie Potter? Werner Erhard?

Dear Quote Investigator: It’s foolish to repeat ineffective actions. One popular formulation presents this point harshly:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

These words are usually credited to the acclaimed genius Albert Einstein. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke the statement above. It is listed within a section called “Misattributed to Einstein” in the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a pamphlet printed by the Narcotics Anonymous organization in 1981. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

The price may seem higher for the addict who prostitutes for a fix than it is for the addict who merely lies to a doctor, but ultimately both pay with their lives. Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.

QI acquired a PDF of the document with the quotation above on the website back in February 2011. The document stated that is was printed in November 1981, and it had a 1981 copyright notice. The website was subsequently reorganized, but the document remains available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine database.

Instances of the saying have been employed by other twelve-step organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

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  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Misattributed to Einstein, Quote Page 474, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1981, Narcotics Anonymous Pamphlet, (Basic Text Approval Form, Unpublished Literary Work), Chapter Four: How It Works, Step Two, Page 11, Printed November 1981, Copyright 1981, W.S.C.-Literature Sub-Committee of Narcotics Anonymous], World Service Conference of Narcotics Anonymous. (Accessed at on October 3, 2011; website has been restructured; text is available via Internet Archive Wayback Machine Snapshot January 1, 2013 link PDF of pamphlet link

The Three Most Famous Names in History Are Jesus Christ, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini

George Bernard Shaw? Otto Penzler? James Thurber? Harold Ross? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly, George Bernard Shaw once presented an idiosyncratic list of the three most famous individuals: Jesus Christ, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini. Did Shaw really put forward this triptych?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the 1976 biography “Houdini: His Life and Art” by James Randi and Bert Randolph Sugar. The pertinent passage occurred in the foreword written by Sugar alone: 1

At a time when national heroes have passed from the American landscape, it is difficult to fathom Houdini’s full impact. People who couldn’t care less about magic know his name. George Bernard Shaw once said that as one of the three most famous people in the history of the world, real or imagined, Houdini took his place beside Jesus Christ and Sherlock Holmes.

QI does not know were Sugar obtained support for his claim about Shaw, and 1976 is more than 25 years after the death of the famous intellectual; hence, this evidence is weak.

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  1. 1978 (1976 Copyright), Houdini: His Life and Art by The Amazing Randi (James Randi) and Bert Randolph Sugar, Section: Foreword by Sugar, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans)

If All the Economists Were Laid End to End, They Would Not Reach a Conclusion

George Bernard Shaw? Farmer Brown? Isaac Marcosson? Stephen Leacock? Anonymous?

shaw08Dear Quote Investigator: The advice offered by economists is often equivocal and hedged. The famous playwright and witty social critic George Bernard Shaw reportedly crafted the following lament:

If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.

I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: “The Saturday Review of Literature” credited George Bernard Shaw with the expression above in May 1933, but the saying had entered circulation by July 1932 without an attribution. In addition, intriguing precursors appeared by the 1920s. Hence, the ascription to Shaw is currently uncertain.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

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Dancing Is a Perpendicular Expression of a Horizontal Desire

George Bernard Shaw? George Melly? I. S. Johar? Ann Landers? Patrick Harte? Robert Frost? Winston Churchill? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

dancing07Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an adage highlighting the sensual aspects of popular gyrations:

  1. Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.
  2. Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal idea.

George Bernard Shaw, Ann Landers, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Frost have received credit for this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the London periodical “New Statesman” in 1962. The musician and critic George Melly attributed the saying to the notable playwright George Bernard Shaw. Emphasis added by QI: 1

I have spent a certain amount of time lately watching people in London dance in the various new ways. I report what went on in three very different places where my fellow countrymen and women had come together to give what Shaw called ‘a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire’.

Shaw’s death in 1950 preceded Melly’s article by more than a decade, and the text provided no citation; hence, the evidence supporting the ascription was rather weak. Nevertheless, the citations for competing ascriptions are even less persuasive.

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  1. 1962 March 23, New Statesman, Late Perpendicular by George Melly, Start Page 426, Quote Page 426, Column 3, New Statesman Ltd., London. (ProQuest)

We Are Taught To Fly in the Air Like Birds, and To Swim in the Water Like the Fishes; But How To Live on the Earth We Don’t Know

George Bernard Shaw? Martin Luther King? Maxim Gorky? Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan? C. E. M. Joad? Walter Winchell? Jack Paar? Anonymous?

flyswim08Quote Investigator: Technological progress today is shockingly vertiginous, but advancements toward human reconciliation and harmony are glacially slow. A saying from the previous century treats this topic with poignancy:

Now that we have learned to fly the air like birds, swim under water like fish, we lack one thing—to learn to live on earth as human beings.

This saying has been attributed to the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw and the civil rights champion Martin Luther King. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that George Bernard Shaw wrote or spoke this statement. Martin Luther King did employ this saying in his Nobel Prize speech, but it was already in circulation. The earliest citation known to QI attributed the saying to the prominent Russian author Maxim Gorky who credited an anonymous peasant. Here is the key passage from the 1925 book “Social Classes in Post-War Europe” by Lothrop Stoddard. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Not long ago Maxim Gorky stated that the Russian peasant profoundly hates the town and all its inhabitants. According to the Russian muzhik, the city is the source of all evil. Modern “progress” does not appeal to him, the intellectuals and their inventions being regarded with deep suspicion. Gorky relates how, after addressing a peasant audience on the subject of science and the marvels of technical inventions, he was criticized by a peasant spokesman in the following manner: “Yes, yes, we are taught to fly in the air like birds, and to swim in the water like the fishes; but how to live on the earth we don’t know.” In Gorky’s opinion Russia’s future lies in peasant hands.

This evidence was indirect because it was not written by Gorky, and QI has not yet located this statement in his oeuvre. Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1925, Social Classes in Post-War Europe by Lothrop Stoddard, Quote Page 26, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)

Britain and America Are Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

George Bernard Shaw? Mallory Browne? Raymond Gram Swing? Apocryphal?

shawlang08Dear Quote Investigator: The influential Irish playwright and commentator George Bernard Shaw has been credited with a humorous remark about language. Here are four versions:

1) Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.
2) The English and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language.
3) England and America are two countries separated by one language.
4) The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by the same language.

Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1887 the Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde published a short story called “The Canterville Ghost”. 1 While describing one of the main characters, the narrator included a comical remark contrasting England and America that was similar to the saying under examination. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in “The Christian Science Monitor” of Boston, Massachusetts in September 1942. Mallory Browne who was the “Monitor” reporter based in London traveled to the countryside to conduct an interview with George Bernard Shaw: 3

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language!” On the way down to see him at a mutual friend’s house in the country, I reflected delightfully on this typical remark of Bernard Shaw. I had read it only a few days before, and been struck by its essentially Shavian character; completely false in fact, yet so much closer to the truth than merely factual statements ever are.

Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, who located the above citation and shared it with fellow researchers. Browne commented that he had read the remark a short time earlier; hence, it was already in circulation. Yet, an earlier source has not yet been located. Also, QI and other researchers have been unable to find the saying in Shaw’s oeuvre.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1891, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime & Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost, Start Page 90, Quote Page 94, James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1908, Miscellanies by Oscar Wilde, Section: Miscellaneous Contributions to Magazines Periodicals, etc., Bibliography, Quote Page 336, Methuen and Company, London. (This book specifies the dates of first appearances of the two parts of “The Canterville Ghost”) (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1942 September 5, The Christian Science Monitor, Section: Weekly Magazine Section, How Now, Mr. Shaw? by Mallory Browne, Start Page WM1, Quote Page WM7, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

If You Want To Tell People the Truth, You’d Better Make Them Laugh or They’ll Kill You

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Cecile Starr? Billy Wilder? Richard Pryor? James L. Brooks? Dustin Hoffman? Charles Ludlam?

masks09Dear Quote Investigator: Dramatists have discovered that challenging material often elicits hostility or boredom. This is dangerous for creators because jobs in the entertainment industry are precarious. Yet, a provocative production leavened with humor is often embraced by audiences. The following adage now circulates on Broadway and in Hollywood:

1) If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.
2) If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

The playwrights George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Ludlam have all been credited with this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1951 article in “The Saturday Review” by critic and film historian Cecile Starr discussing a documentary film festival. When Starr commented on the works of one filmmaker she mentioned the adage and ascribed it to George Bernard Shaw who had died a year earlier. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . Shaw’s lively aphorism, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” . . .

QI has found no substantive support for crediting Oscar Wilde with the saying. He died in 1900 and the expression appeared decades afterwards. There is some good evidence that the well-known director Billy Wilder employed the saying, but the linkage occurred after it was attributed to Shaw. There was also some indirect evidence Charles Ludlam used the expression. The comedian Richard Pryor, actor Dustin Hoffman, and screenwriter James L. Brooks all delivered the line during interviews, but they spoke when it was already in circulation.

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  1. 1951 October 13, The Saturday Review, Ideas on Film: Edinburgh’s Documentary Festival by Cecile Starr, Start Page 60, Quote Page 60, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)

I Am the Civilization You Are Fighting For

George Bernard Shaw? William Butler Yeats? Anonymous? H. W. Garrod? Lord Dunsany? Lytton Strachey?

britmuseum08Dear Quote Investigator: While the First World War was raging an unhappy woman approached a famous British scholar and poet and rebuked him for not enlisting. She stated emphatically that young men were fighting and dying to defend civilization. Here are two versions of sage’s response:

1) But Madam, I am the civilization for which they are fighting.
2) Are you aware, Madam, that I am the civilization for which they are dying?

In the version of the tale I was told the riposte was delivered by the Oxford classical scholar H. W. Garrod. But other possibilities have been mentioned, e.g., Lytton Strachey and Bernard Shaw. Would you please explore this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this story located by QI was published in August 1914 in a London periodical called “The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art”. The disparager was a soldier, and the respondent was an unnamed artist. The passage below employed the British variant spelling for “civilisation” with an “s” instead of a “z”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I heard another good retort of an artist upon a volunteer who reproached him for not enlisting. I, he said, am the civilisation you are fighting for.

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  1. 1914 August 20, “The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art”, Volume 15, Observations and Reflections by A.B.C., (short filler-type item), Quote Page 379, Column 1, Published by New Age Press, Limited, London. (Verified with page images from

People Who Like This Sort of Thing Will Find This the Sort of Thing They Like

Abraham Lincoln? Artemus Ward? George Bernard Shaw? Max Beerbohm? Muriel Spark?

ward08Dear Quote Investigator: A popular anecdote asserts that Abraham Lincoln was obliged to listen to a prolix lecture about spiritualism by an enthusiastic friend. After the discourse was complete, Lincoln’s opinion was sought, and he replied with a humorously redundant non-committal statement designed to be inoffensive. Here are three versions:

1) People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.
2) For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like
3) For those who like that sort of thing I should think it just the sort of thing they would like.

Other prominent figures have been credited with this line such as the wit Max Beerbohm and novelist Muriel Spark. I am suspicious of the attribution to Lincoln. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that the seed of this family of expressions was sown by the popular humorist Charles Farrar Browne who was known to audiences by his pseudonym Artemus Ward. In 1863 he created advertising material for a set of lectures he was performing. He included parodic testimonials from fictional people, and one ersatz supporter was named “O. Abe”. The name “Artemus” was misspelled as “Artemas” in the following passage from a Maine newspaper in October 1863. Boldface was been added: 1

Artemas Ward among other puffs of his lectures has the following from “Old Abe:”,

Dear Sir–I have never heard any of your lectures, but from what I can learn I should say that for people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like.
Yours, respectably, O. Abe.

The letter penned by Ward was printed in multiple newspapers. The words became linked to Abraham Lincoln because of the suggestive name “Abe”. Over time the phrasing evolved, and a variety of anecdotes were constructed to accompany the expression.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1863 October 23, Daily Eastern Argus, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Portland, Maine. (GenealogyBank)