Category Archives: Josh Billings

It Is Better to Know Nothing than to Know What Ain’t So

Josh Billings? Artemus Ward? Will Rogers? Abraham Lincoln? Mark Twain? Anonymous?

billings11Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an expression I am trying to trace:

1) It’s better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.
2) It is better not to know so much, than to know so many things that ain’t so.

Should these words be credited to Mark Twain, Josh Billings, Artemus Ward, Will Rogers, or someone else?

Quote Investigator: In 1874 the following compendium was released: “Everybody’s Friend or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor”. The apostrophe in the name Billings was misplaced in the title. The work employed dialectical spelling which causes headaches for modern researchers who are attempting to find matches using standard spelling. One section was labeled “Affurisms” because it contained “Aphorisms”. The book included two thematically relevant statements: 1

A) I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.
B) Wisdum don’t konsist in knowing more that iz new, but in knowing less that iz false.

Here are the two sentences written with standard spelling:

A) I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.
B) Wisdom don’t consist in knowing more that is new, but in knowing less that is false

QI believes that Josh Billings can be credited with the sayings above. There exists a large family of semantically overlapping expressions that form an inclusive superset, and QI will eventually examine some of the other members of this extended group.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, Section: Affurisms: Sollum Thoughts, Quote Page 286 and 430, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link link

The Person Who Never Makes a Mistake Will Never Make Anything

Theodore Roosevelt? Albert Einstein? Benjamin Franklin? Samuel Smiles? Josh Billings? Mr. Phelps? G. K. Chesterton? Robert Smith Surtees? Joseph Conrad? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

samsmiles11Dear Quote Investigator: Mistakes are unavoidable in the life of an active and vital person. Several adages highlight this important theme:

1) A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything.
2) The person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
3) A fellow who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing.

Many famous names have been linked to sayings of this type including Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: This is a large and complex topic. Below is a summary that presents a list of expressions that fit into this family together with dates and attributions:

1832: He who never makes an effort, never risks a failure. (Anonymous)

1859: He who never made a mistake, never made a discovery. (Samuel Smiles)

1874: The man who never makes enny blunders seldum makes enny good hits. (Josh Billings)

1889: A man who never makes a mistake will never make anything. (Attributed: Mr. Phelps)

1896: It’s only those who do nothing that make no mistakes. (Joseph Conrad)

1900: The only man who never makes a mistake is the man who never does anything. (Solid Attribution: Theodore Roosevelt)

1901: Show me a man who has never made a mistake, and I will show you one who has never tried anything. (Anonymous)

1903: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Poor Richard Junior’s Philosophy)

1911: The fellow who never makes any failures, never makes any successes either. (Anonymous)

1927: Every man makes mistakes; they say a man who never makes mistakes never makes anything else. (G. K. Chesterton)

1936: The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all—doing nothing. (Flawed Attribution: Benjamin Franklin)

1969: The man who never makes a mistake must get plenty tired of doing nothing. (Anonymous)

1993: The man who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing. (Weak Attribution: Will Rogers)

1995: A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new. (Weak Attribution: Albert Einstein.)

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What You Can Do The Day After Tomorrow Just As Well

Mark Twain? Oscar Wilde? Josh Billings? Spanish Proverb? Anonymous?

twainwilde02Dear Quote Investigator: Everyone is guilty of some procrastination.  Even the industrious humorist Mark Twain was credited with a quotation sympathetic to the indolent:

Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow.

Puzzlingly, this same quip has been ascribed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Who said it first?

Quote Investigator: In July 1870 an article by Mark Twain was published in “The Galaxy” magazine. One section of the article expressed unhappiness with the aphorisms popularized by Benjamin Franklin. Twain stated the following desire: 1

… snub those pretentious maxims of his; which he worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel …

Twain constructed a comical adage that he farcically attributed to Franklin:

Never put off till to-morrow what you can do day after to-morrow just as well.—B. F.

This is the earliest evidence QI has found for this type of quip from Twain or Wilde. The word “the” was omitted before the phrase “day after to-morrow”. A similar adage was credited to Oscar Wilde in a biography published in 1946, and the details are given further below. However, this evidence was weak because Wilde died decades earlier in 1900.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1870 July, The Galaxy, Memoranda by Mark Twain, Subsection: The Late Benjamin Franklin, Start Page 133, Quote Page 138, W. C. and F. P. Church, New York. (Reprint edition published in 1965 by AMS Press Inc., New York) (HathiTrust) link  link

The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Josh Billings? Josh Weathersby? Cal Stewart? Ring Lardner? Anonymous?

wheelsoil03Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular saying about squeaky wheels that I think has been incorrectly attributed to the humorist Josh Billings who was a famous lecturer in the 1800s. (Billings was the pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw.) Here are three versions of the maxim:

The wheel that squeaks the loudest is the one that gets the grease.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

Some reference works credit Josh Billings, but none of these works present a solid citation. Would you please attempt to uncover the truth about the provenance of this adage?

Quote Investigator: Some texts have suggested that the maxim appeared in a poem called “The Kicker” that was supposedly composed by Josh Billings circa 1870. But the careful and scholarly reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” remarked that the existence of “The Kicker” by Billings has never been verified. 1 Indeed, QI believes that the attribution to Billings is unsupported.

The earliest appearance of this expression located by QI occurred in a collection of stories published in 1903. The author Cal Stewart constructed a colorful raconteur character that he called Uncle Josh Weathersby. The saying under investigation was contained in an epigraph that was ascribed to this character: 2

“I don’t believe in kickin’,
It aint apt to bring one peace;
But the wheel what squeaks the loudest
is the one what gets the grease.”
—Josh Weathersby.

The word “kickin” was a slang term that referred to complaining or causing a disturbance..

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Josh Billings, Quote Page 85, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1903, Uncle Josh Weathersby’s “Punkin Centre” stories by Cal Stewart, Page 6, Regan Printing House, Chicago. (Google Books full view; also HathiTrust) link