Category Archives: Stephen Leacock

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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If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again. Then Quit. There’s No Use Being a Damn Fool About It

W. C. Fields? Stephen Leacock? Justin J. Burns? Henry Morgan? George Burns? Anonymous?

leacockquit01Dear Quote Investigator: A well-known saying about persistence has become an energyless cliché:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

The following parody version is usually attributed to the famous comedian W. C. Fields:

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.

Did Fields create this twisted proverb?

Quote Investigator: Based on current evidence QI believes that it is unlikely W. C. Fields wrote or said the statement above. He died in 1946, and the earliest known instance of the quotation attributed to him was published in September 1949. An anonymous version of the saying was already in circulation by 1946. Details are given further below.

A very similar joke was crafted by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock and published in 1917. QI hypothesizes that the 1940s quip evolved from Leacock’s words. Here is an excerpt from his comical essay “Simple Stories of Success or How to Succeed in Life”: 1

According to all the legends and story books the principal factor in success is perseverance. Personally, I think there is nothing in it. If anything, the truth lies the other way.

There is an old motto that runs, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” This is nonsense. It ought to read—”If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit at once.”

If you can’t do a thing, more or less, the first time you try, you will never do it. Try something else while there is yet time.

In September 1917 a Flint, Michigan newspaper printed a short filler item with a parody saying: 2

Motto of the Russian army: If at first you don’t succeed, quit, quit again.

In 1925 the Buffalo Evening News of Buffalo, New York reprinted Stephen Leacock’s essay which included the excerpt given previously. The following title was bannered across the top of the page: 3

“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Quit, Quit at Once”

In April 1946 a version of the saying under investigation was printed in a trade magazine called Commercial Car Journal. A page titled “Laugh It Off” presented a collection of jokes compiled by Skag Shannon. This instance used the word “silly” instead of “damn fool” and the words were attributed to an anonymous “Fireman”: 4

Our Fireman says, “If you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then stop. No use being silly about it.”

The day after the death of W. C. Fields in December 1946 the Associated Press news service released an obituary that included a discussion of lawsuits that were filed by Fields and his physician over compensation. Fields lost the lawsuit, and he appealed the decision. Interestingly, Fields was quoted using a simple instance of the cliché maxim. He did not employ the derisive quotation that has been attributed to him in modern times: 5

“I struck out this time,” Fields told reporters, “but next time I’ll hit a home run. Onward and upward’s my motto. Try, try again.” He appealed and the judgment was pared to $2000.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1917 Copyright, Frenzied Fiction by Stephen Leacock, Simple Stories of Success or How to Succeed in Life, Start Page 243, Quote Page 245, John Lane Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1917 September 13, Flint Journal, (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Flint, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1925 December 5, Buffalo Evening News, “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Quit, Quit at Once” by Stephen Leacock, Quote Page 6, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1946 April, Commercial Car Journal, Volume 71, “Laugh It Off” with Skag Shannon, Start Page 102, Quote Page 102, Column 2, Chilton Class Journal Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans from the University of Denver library system; great thanks to the helpful librarian)
  5. 1946 December 26, Boston Daily Globe (Boston Globe), “W. C. Fields Dies at 66; Famous for Nose, Quips”, (Associated Press), Start Page 1, Quote Page 10, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

I’m a Great Believer in Luck. The Harder I Work, the More Luck I Have

Thomas Jefferson? Coleman Cox? Stephen Leacock? Samuel Goldwyn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a humorously insightful quotation about luck that is often credited to the American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson:

I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it.

The class notes of a course taught by the renowned entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel featured this quote. Here is a more concise version of the saying:

The harder I work, the more luck I have.

Is this remark really connected to Jefferson?

Quote Investigator: The saying has been ascribed to Jefferson for a few decades. However, the valuable Thomas Jefferson Monticello website states that there is no evidence to support the attribution [TJGB]:

Neither this statement nor any variations thereof have ever been found in Thomas Jefferson’s writings.

The earliest close match for this aphorism known to QI is in a 1922 collection titled “Listen to This” by Coleman Cox who composed a large number of sayings [CCGB]:

I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.

This theme has been reflected in adages for quite a long time. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations lists the following proverb which it dates to the late 16th century [OXDL]:

Diligence is the mother of good luck.

A novel in 1857 “The Laird of Restalrig’s Daughter” presented a maxim about luck in a comical context. The following passage used alternate spellings to reflect dialect [JHGL]:

Good luck mainly depends on the thrying to get it, as Darby O’Reilly said when he made Thady O’Rhu’s will afther the creathur was dead, and left the whole dollop iv his fortune to himself, sure.

In 1870 the periodical “Contemporary Review” reprinted a small collection of “Notices to Correspondents” from the London Journal. These items were similar to the classified advertisements or Craigslist ads of today. A notice from a woman named Maggie May commented about luck [CRNC]:

People make their own luck in this world.

In 1879 the American Bee Journal printed the same basic adage about luck [BJML]:

I think that many of you will say, “You make your own luck.”

In 1890 an agricultural magazine “Western Garden and Poultry Journal” linked hard work with making your own luck [WGML]:

Poor luck is often given as an excuse for lack of energy. You make your own luck and must work hard and plan carefully if you would succeed.

This post continues with additional selected citations in chronological order.

Note that information from the website of top etymologist and quote-tracer Barry Popik helped QI to construct this short essay. A commenter using the name “Anna Berkes” at the website provided an important lead to the saying which was credited to Coleman Cox in 1923 in a magazine [ANBP] [CMCC].

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