Category Archives: Woodrow Wilson

There Are Really No Dull Subjects, Only Dull Writers

H. L. Mencken? Raymond Chandler? Woodrow Wilson? Richard Le Gallienne? George Horace Lorimer?

dulcimerDear Quote Investigator: Successful scribblers believe that all writing should be engaging. A popular adage places the onus squarely on the shoulders of the author:

There are no dull subjects, just dull writers.

This expression has been attributed to the curmudgeon essayist H. L. Mencken, the detective novelist Raymond Chandler, and others. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The New York Times” in April 1921. The English poet and author Richard Le Gallienne employed the saying within a book review. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The first duty of a book, however serious its theme, is to be entertaining. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is entertaining—otherwise it would long since have been forgotten. There are really no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.

Currently, Le Gallienne is the leading candidate for creator of this saying. The main rival candidate was George Horace Lorimer who was the editor of “The Saturday Evening Post”, a very popular long-lived periodical. Lorimer used an instance in December 1922, and he often receives credit. He did help popularize the expression, but evidence indicates Le Gallienne’s use occurred earlier.

Raymond Chandler did use the expression in 1944, but it was already in circulation. Also, the statement was attributed to H. L. Mencken by 1970, but he died in 1956. Thus, this linkage was probably spurious.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1921 April 24, New York Times, Section: Book Review & Magazine, A Transcendental Laborite: A Review by Richard Le Gallienne, (Book Review of “The Passion of Labour” by Robert Lynd, Scribner’s Sons), Start Page BRM4, Quote Page BRM4, New York. (ProQuest)

If I Am To Speak Ten Minutes, I Need a Week for Preparation; If an Hour, I Am Ready Now

Woodrow Wilson? Abraham Lincoln? Rufus Choate? Thomas B. Macaulay? William Howard Taft? Mark Twain? Anonymous?

woodrow04Dear Quote Investigator: A biography of President Woodrow Wilson included an entertaining quotation about the preparation time needed for speeches of varying lengths. Here is an excerpt from the book: 1

A member of the Cabinet congratulated Wilson on introducing the vogue of short speeches and asked him about the time it took him to prepare his speeches. He said:

“It depends. If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.”

This biography was published in 1946, i.e., many years after the death of Wilson in 1924. Could you search for earlier support of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: QI has located a match for a close variant quotation in 1918 that was attributed to Woodrow Wilson. The details are given further below.

There is a family of statements expressing this central idea, and it has been evolving for more than one hundred years. Tracing this family is difficult because of the high variability of the wording.

The first relevant instance found by QI was spoken in 1893 by the Governor of California. He ascribed the words to Abraham Lincoln, but this linkage was weak because Lincoln died decades earlier in 1865.This rudimentary version mentioned two different speech lengths instead of four: 2

Lincoln once made a most apt suggestion applicable to such cases. When asked to appear upon some important occasion and deliver a five-minute speech, he said that he had no time to prepare five-minute speeches, but that he could go and speak an hour at any time.

In 1895 a minister named J. N. Hall gave a speech at a meeting of the Men’s Sunday Evening Club as reported in a Rockford, Illinois newspaper. Hall ascribed an instance of the saying to Rufus Choate who was an orator and Senator from Massachusetts who died decades earlier in 1859. This version was tripartite; however, the third part referred to talking all day instead of speaking for an hour: 3

There is a great deal in condensation in these days of compressed yeast and potted ham, and I am reminded of an incident told of Rufus Choate, who being asked to make a speech on a certain occasion said, “If it is to be a minute speech I shall need four weeks in which to prepare, if a half hour speech, then two weeks, but if I am to talk all day I’m ready now.”

The QI website also has an entry for a popular related quotation: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter”. Here is a link.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1946, The Wilson Era: Years of War and After 1917-1923 by Josephus Daniels, Quote Page 624,The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1893, Appendix to the Journals of the Senate and Assembly of the Thirtieth Session of the Legislature of the State of California, Volume 1, First Biennial Message of Governor H. H. Markham to the Legislature of the State of California, Thirtieth Session, (Delivered on January 3, 1893 in Sacramento, California), Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, Published by A. J. Johnston, Superintendent of State Printing, Sacramento, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1895 December 3, Rockford Daily Register Gazette, It’s Second Birthday: Men’s Sunday Evening Club Properly Celebrates, Quote Page 5, Column 2, (GNB Page 3), Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)

If I Had More Time, I Would Have Written a Shorter Letter

Blaise Pascal? John Locke? Benjamin Franklin? Henry David Thoreau? Cicero? Woodrow Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was planning to end a letter with the following remark:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.

But the number of different people credited with this comment is so numerous that an explanatory appendix would have been required, and the letter was already too long. Here is a partial list of attributions I have seen: Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Voltaire, Blaise Pascal, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Winston Churchill, Pliny the Younger, Cato, Cicero, Bill Clinton, and Benjamin Franklin. Did anybody in this group really say it?

Quote Investigator: Some of the attributions you have listed are spurious, but several are supported by solid evidence. The first known instance in the English language was a sentence translated from a text written by the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. The French statement appeared in a letter in a collection called “Lettres Provinciales” in the year 1657: 1 2 3

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

Here is one possible modern day translation of Pascal’s statement. Note that the term “this” refers to the letter itself.

I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.

An English translation was created in 1658 and published in London. Here is an excerpt from that early rendition of the letter: 4

My Letters were not wont to come so close one in the neck of another, nor yet to be so large. The short time I have had hath been the cause of both. I had not made this longer than the rest, but that I had not the leisure to make it shorter then it is.

Pascal’s notion was quite memorable, and it was discussed in a French book about language. That work was translated and published in London in 1676 as “The Art of Speaking”: 5

These Inventions require much wit, and application; and therefore it was, that Mons. Pascal (an Author very famous for his felicity in comprising much in few words) excused himself wittily for the extravagant length of one of his Letters, by saying, he had not time to make it shorter.

In 1688 a religious controversialist named George Tullie included a version of the witticism in an essay he wrote about the celibacy of the clergy: 6

The Reader will I doubt too soon discover that so large an interval of time was not spent in writing this discourse; the very length of it will convince him, that the writer had not time enough to make a shorter.

Below are listed several variations of the expression as used by well known, lesser known, and unknown individuals. The philosopher John Locke, the statesman Benjamin Franklin, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and the President Woodrow Wilson all presented statements matching this theme and the details are provided.

Mark Twain who is often connected to this saying did not use it according to the best available research, but one of his tangentially related quotations is given later for your entertainment.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Blaise Pascal, Page 583, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 119-120, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Section: Blaise Pascal, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed March 27, 2012)
  4. 1658, Les Provinciales, or, The Mystery of Jesuitisme by Blaise Pascal, [Translated into English], Second Edition Corrected, Page 292, Letter 16: Postscript, [Letter addressed to Reverend Fathers from Blaise Pascal], Printed for Richard Royston, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1676, The Art of Speaking, Written in French by Messieurs Du Port Royal: In Pursuance of a former Treatise, Intitled, The Art of Thinking, Rendred into English, Page 8, Printed by W. Godbid, London. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1688, An Answer to a Discourse Concerning the Celibacy of the Clergy by George Tullie, Preface, [Page 2 of Preface; unnumbered], Oxford, Printed at the Theater for Richard Chiswell, London. (Google Books full view) link

Golf: Hit a Very Small Ball into an Even Smaller Hole, with Weapons Singularly Ill-Designed for the Purpose

Winston Churchill? Woodrow Wilson? George Curzon? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Friends know I am an avid golfer and recently a book of quotations about the sport was given to me as a present. This quote from Winston Churchill captures the exasperation I feel when attempting to chip my ball near to the pin [GBGQ]:

Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.

When I tried to determine when Churchill uttered this assessment I discovered that some people think former President Woodrow Wilson was really responsible for the saying. Maybe you can resolve this question?

Quote Investigator: Variants of this saying have been attributed to both Churchill and Wilson for decades, but the earliest example located by QI occurred in 1892 in the famed London humor magazine Punch. The article “Confessions of a Duffer” by an unnamed contributor included a version of the quotation that used somewhat different phrasing [PLDG]:

Almost everybody now knows that Golf is not Hockey. Nobody runs after the ball except young ladies at W-m-n! The object is to put a very small ball into a very tiny and remotely distant hole, with engines singularly ill adapted for the purpose.

The term with deleted letters: “W-m-n” may have referred to Wimbledon, London. In May 1891 a membership group of 145 women opened their own nine-hole golf course on Wimbledon Common land [RWGC]. The term “engines” referred to the golf clubs used to propel the ball around the course as shown in the following:

There are many engines. First there is the Driver, a long club, wherewith the ball is supposed to be propelled from the tee, a little patch of sand.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Never Interfere With an Enemy While He’s in the Process of Destroying Himself

Napoleon Bonaparte? Haley Barbour? Woodrow Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi on television recently and he recited a quotation that he attributed to Napoleon [HBCNN] [HBFOX]:

You know, Napoleon said ‘Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.’

Is this an accurate quote? Could you investigate whether Napoleon actually presented this as military advice?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI can attempt to trace this quote for you. QI was unable to find an exact match for this advice in the 1800s, but QI did find words attributed to Napoleon in an 1836 history book during a discussion of an 1805 battle. These words may have been transformed into the modern maxim. QI also found similar statements made during the past one-hundred and seventy-four years.

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