Category Archives: Will Rogers

Using Money You Haven’t Earned To Buy Things You Don’t Need To Impress People You Don’t Like

Will Smith? Walter Winchell? Robert Quillen? Edgar Allan Moss? Tony Wons? Ken Murray? Emile Gauvreau? Will Rogers?

shop09Dear Quote Investigator: Have you ever purchased an item and wondered the next day what motivated your inexplicable action? Here are two versions of an entertaining saying about consumerism:

1) Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.

2) We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.

Statements like this have been credited to the famous comedian Will Rogers, the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, and the Hollywood star Will Smith. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a June 1928 column by the syndicated humorist Robert Quillen in which he labelled the expression “Americanism”: 1

Americanism: Using money you haven’t earned to buy things you don’t need to impress people you don’t like.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1928 June 4, The Detroit Free Press, Paragraphs by Robert Quillen, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)

You Have the Whole Government Working for You. All You Have To Do Is Report the Facts. I Don’t Even Have to Exaggerate

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?

rogers09Dear Quote Investigator: While searching for a quotation on the subject of government in a reference book I came across a quip from the famous cowboy and Native American humorist Will Rogers:

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.

But the supporting citation was dated 1962, and Rogers died in 1935. Would you please determine if better citations exist?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI was contained in an anecdote published in multiple newspapers in June and July 1925 from a columnist named Frederic J. Haskin. Calvin Coolidge was the U.S. President at that time. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

It seems that Rogers recently had an interview with President Coolidge, in the course of which the president is said to have remarked that he didn’t see how Rogers thought up all his funny stories. “I don’t, Mr. President,” Rogers replied. “I watch the government and report the facts.”

A reviewer named Jud Evans saw a performance by Rogers on November 30, 1925 and wrote about it the next day in the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Richmond, Virginia. Rogers spoke a version of the joke during his show: 3

Because the crowd wasn’t exactly bulging out the doors, Will called all those in the balcony and in the rear rows down into the closer seats with the remark “Of course, you paid more down here, but you’ll know better next time.”

Nobody but Will Rogers can pull his gags any more than they can whirl his lariats. He gave the usual explanations for his comedy saying “I just watch the government and report the facts.”

There are many variants of this line and some are more elaborate than others. Rogers used the joke repeatedly during his performances and in his writings, and he varied the phrasing.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations on this topic and shared them on his website here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1925 June 19, The Helena Daily Independent, The Haskin Letter: Watching the Government by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Helena, Montana. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1925 July 7, Los Angeles Times, Seeking Facts of Government: Civil Service League to Watch and Report, Will Rogers Anecdote Basis of New Slogan by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  3. 1925 December 1, Richmond Times Dispatch, Will Rogers Gives Ideas on Current Problems Here by Jud Evans, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank)

Why Not Go Out On a Limb? Isn’t That Where the Fruit Is?

Mark Twain? Will Rogers? Frank Scully? Arthur F. Lenehan? H. Jackson Brown? Mother of H. Jackson Brown? Shirley MacLaine?

apple09Dear Quote Investigator: To succeed one must be willing to take risks and to enter the precarious realm of punishments and accolades. Here are four versions of an expression that appears in many self-help books:

1) Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.
2) Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?
3) Go out on a limb, that’s where the fruit is.
4) Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.

This notion has confusingly been attributed to two famous humorists: Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence supporting the linkage to either Mark Twain or Will Rogers.

The earliest instance located by QI was printed in the show business periodical “Variety” in September 1950. The journalist Frank Scully coined the memorable phrase and included it in his column “Scully’s Scrapbook”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To people who urge you not to go out on a limb I have a new twist. I gave it to Ken Murray and before he can use it I’m giving it to my public. It’s this: Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?

Within a week the powerful and widely-syndicated commentator Walter Winchell reprinted the saying in a section of his column called “Quotation Marksmanship”, and Winchell credited Scully: 2 3

Frank Scully: Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1950 September 20, Variety, Scully’s Scrapbook by Frank Scully, (Dateline: Dare’s Wharf, California, September 15), Quote Page 61, Column 4, Published by Variety Inc., New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1950 September 25, The High Point Enterprise, In New York: Winchell, Winchell, Plus Winchellisms by Walter Winchell (Syndicated), Quote Page 4, Column 7, High Point, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1950 September 25, Lincoln Evening Journal, Walter Winchell Your New York Correspondent (Syndicated), Quote Page 11, Column 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)

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

It’s the Guy You Give Something To That You Can’t Please

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?
rogers08Dear Quote Investigator: We live in an age of free apps, free ebooks, and free online services, but that does not restrain criticism. The popular humorist Will Rogers once spoke about the inability to please some individuals who receive material for free. I haven’t been able to precisely locate this quotation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1926 Will Rogers wrote in his syndicated newspaper column about his experiences while touring the United States. His reception had been wonderful during his 75 nights on the road, and he had recently performed in Massachusetts: 1

Can you imagine me appearing at Symphony hall in Boston? From the Stock yards at Claremore, Oklahoma to Symphony hall, Boston. Me, with my repertoire of 150 words (most of them wrong), trying to enlighten the descendants of the Cod. But they were fine.

However, in Boston a hostile music critic named Parker reviewed the comedian’s performance, and Rogers presented a summary of his negative analysis:

Just one old boy there that thought we were “desecrating” their temple of art by causing laughter in it.

Rogers addressed the critic and then employed the quotation under examination which he labelled an “old gag”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Your seat was about the only free one. It’s the old gag; people that pay for things never complain. It’s the guy you give something to that you can’t please.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1926 January 3, The Lincoln Sunday Star (The Lincoln Star), Will Rogers Is Prying Into Dictionaries Now by Will Rogers (McNaught Syndicate), Quote Page 4, Column 3 to 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1926 January 3, The Lincoln Sunday Star (The Lincoln Star), Will Rogers Is Prying Into Dictionaries Now by Will Rogers (McNaught Syndicate), Quote Page 4, Column 3 to 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)

My Ancestors Didn’t Come Over on the Mayflower. They Were Just Standing There When It Docked

Will Rogers? J. J. Swartz? Owen Davis? Anonymous?

mayflower01Dear Quote Investigator: The enormously popular American humorist Will Rogers had some ancestors who were Cherokee Indians, and apparently one of his jokes was about his forebears and the early European colonists who arrived on the Mayflower. Are you familiar with this quip? Was it really spoken by Rogers?

Quote Investigator: Yes. The first instance of the jest ascribed to Rogers located by QI was published in 1926 in “The Dallas Morning News” of Dallas, Texas. The comedian gave a performance in the city and stated that he had recently obtained a passport to permit travel to Europe which entailed providing proof of his U.S. birth. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“I never had my Americanism doubted before. My mother and my father both were part Cherokee Indian. Of course my people didn’t come over on the Mayflower but we were there to meet the folks when they landed,” he proclaimed.

Rogers employed the joke multiple times before his death in 1935 although the phrasing varied. Yet, the earliest evidence located by QI appeared several years before 1926 in 1914. A journal called “The Native American” reported on an exhibit from Nez Perce Indians of agricultural goods, baskets, bead-work, and other items that included a sign presenting an instance of the joke without attribution. The traveling display was shown in a larger exposition held in Portland, Washington. The slang term “chesty” in the following passage meant conceited: 2

Another card reads: “Some people are ‘chesty’ because their ancestors came over in the Mayflower. But remember, the ancestors of the Indians were on the reception committee when the Mayflower arrived.” The Indians’ exhibit attracts much attention from the thousands of visitors at the exposition. It is in charge of J.J. Swartz.

It was possible that Rogers created the quip before 1914, and the sign was derived from his line. Alternatively, the joke was already in circulation when Rogers adopted and popularized it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
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Notes:

  1. 1926 November 5, Dallas Morning News, Will Rogers in His Annual Dallas Appearance is Found More Comic than Philosophic by John Rosenfield Jr., Quote Page 9, Column 5, Dallas, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1914 December 5, The Native American: Devoted to Indian Education, Volume 15, Number 41, Article Title: Lapwai, Idaho, Article Author: Nez Perce Indian, Quote Page 553, Column 1, Published by United States Indian Training School, Phoenix, Arizona. (Google Books Full View) 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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It Is the Best Play I Ever Slept Through

Oscar Wilde? Myron W. Reed? Will Rogers? Charlie Carter?

pinero02Dear Quote Investigator: Several weeks ago I saw an article with the following humorous title:

Why Arianna’s Talk Was the Best I’ve Ever Slept Through

The piece was actually a very positive assessment and summary of a talk delivered by Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post. 1 I was reminded of a one-line critique of a drama attributed to Oscar Wilde:

It is the best play I ever slept through.

Is this really one of Wilde’s witticisms?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest ascription to Wilde located by QI was published in 1911. The prominent actor and producer Seymour Hicks knew Wilde and socialized with him. The memoir he published reported several remarks credited to Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 2

Innumerable are the witticisms laid at his door. What could be more delightful than his remark to the gushing female admirer who, shaking him warmly by the hand, said: “Oh, but Mr. Wilde, you don’t remember me. My name is Smith.” “Oh yes,” said Wilde, “I remember your name perfectly—but I can’t think of your face.”

It was Wilde who, on being asked on returning from a fashionable premiere how he liked the piece, replied: “My dear friend, it is the best play I ever slept through.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Website: Huffington Post, Article title: Why Arianna’s Talk Was The Best I’ve Ever Slept Through, Article author: Dharmesh Shah, Author description: Co-founder and CTO of HubSpot, Date on website: August 27, 2013, Website section: The Third Metric. (Accessed huffingtonpost.com on October 15, 2013) link
  2. 1911, Seymour Hicks: Twenty-Four Years of an Actor’s Life by Seymour Hicks, Quote Page 132, John Lane Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

When the End of the World Comes, I Want To Be in Cincinnati. It Is Always Ten Years Behind the Times

Mark Twain? Heinrich Heine? Otto von Bismarck? George Bernard Shaw? James Boswell? Will Rogers?

Dear Quote Investigator: As a one-time resident of Cincinnati I knew that Mark Twain once worked in the city, and I always enjoyed the comment he reportedly made about it:

When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.

But this quip is also attributed to the popular humorist Will Rogers. Can you determine who created this joke?

Quote Investigator: The early evidence located by QI points to a different part of the globe. In 1886 The Atlantic Monthly printed an article about King Ludwig II of Bavaria that contained a version of the jape; however, the length of the time lag and the location were distinct [BVAM]:

It is a common saying in Germany that Bavaria will be the best place to emigrate to at the approaching end of the world, since that event, like everything else, will be sure to come off there fifty years later than in any other country. The Bavarians will be behind the times even as to the point when time shall be no more, and will enter as laggards upon the eternal life.

This citation suggests that a version of this gag expressed in the German language probably predates 1886.  Over a period of many decades multiple variants appeared. The remark was modified to target other locales, e.g., Dresden, Netherlands, Mecklenburg, Cincinnati and Ireland. The humor was credited to a variety of people including: Heinrich Heine, Otto von Bismarck, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw.

The earliest Cincinnati-based citation found by QI was dated 1978, and the words were attributed to Mark Twain. Details are given further below. Note that Twain died in 1910, so this is a very late piece of evidence.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Epitaph: At Last She Sleeps Alone

Robert Benchley? Irvin Cobb? Will Rogers? Anonymous?
willrogersatlast04Dear Quote Investigator: A variety of quips have been credited to the great wit and stylish film actor Robert Benchley, but I don’t see his name very often on this website. Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes contains a story that illustrates his sharp humor. Benchley was attending a Hollywood bash and sitting next to a beautiful actress who married often and engaged in love affairs even more frequently. A popular party game called for each guest to write his or her own epitaph [BRB]:

She complained that she could not think what to write about herself. The humorist suggested: “At last she sleeps alone.”

Would you please explore this tale to see if Benchley concocted this zinger?

Quote Investigator: In addition to Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes this popular witticism appears as a punch line in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations [ORB] and the Yale Book of Quotations [YRB].  All three references credit Benchley and the earliest citation of 1943 is given by the YBQ.

QI has found an instance of this yarn with Benchley composing the jocular epitaph that was published at the slightly earlier date of 1942. But another famed humorist was a participant in a very similar story, and he produced the same punch line several years before this date. Since the joke is somewhat risqué and also a bit unkind QI was surprised to find it ascribed to the folksy entertainer Will Rogers in 1935.

Yet the quip without the supplementary anecdote may have been in circulation for an even longer period. One well-known historian states that the joke was told by the columnist Irvin Cobb about a high-profile socialite named Sally Ward who died in 1896. Here are selected instances in chronological order.

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