Tag Archives: Andrew Carnegie

It Rolls Off My Back Like a Duck

Samuel Goldwyn? George Oppenheimer? Ellenor Stoothoff? Andrew Carnegie? Apocryphal?

duck08Dear Quote Investigator: The phrase “like water off a duck’s back” is a well-known idiom that refers to an incident or a comment having little or no effect on a person. 1 Here is a comically garbled version of the expression:

It rolls off my back like a duck.

This odd-duck version has been attributed to the famous movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, but I have also heard that he never said it; instead, the phrase was deliberately crafted and pinned to Goldwyn by an unhappy employee of the producer. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest connection of this remark to Samuel Goldwyn located by QI was published in a Hollywood gossip column in 1935. Interestingly, the columnist stated that Goldwyn had attributed the scrambled statement to another movie producer.

In 1937 the short biography “The Great Goldwyn” by Alva Johnston reported that the expression had been ascribed to Goldwyn by some witnesses but claimed that the truth was more convoluted; the humorous remark had been purposefully constructed by jokesters in the Goldwyn studio restaurant. Details for this citation and the one above are given further below.

Finally, in 1966 a Hollywood writer named George Oppenheimer stepped forward and asserted that he created the phrase while he was working for Goldwyn in the 1930s. In Oppenheimer’s memoir “The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life” he described his boss as follows: 2

I found him unreasonable, tyrannical, infuriating, and I admired him greatly. He made good pictures and had high ideals and standards of taste, divorced from the usual Hollywood one-track, narrow-gauge commercialism.

Oppenheimer stated that he engaged in a competition with other employees of the studio chief to manufacture a Goldwynism and to successfully place it into a newspaper. Oppenheimer achieved his victory with the mangled idiom. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

I can attest to the spuriousness of “It rolls off my back like a duck,” since I coined it. One day three or four of his employees, including myself, were lunching at the studio commissary. Word had gone round that Goldwyn was becoming increasingly sensitive about his reputation as a Mr. Malaprop. At the same time he had, of late, been particularly truculent and we had all suffered. So we decided that each of us would dream up a Goldwynism, attribute it to him, and the first one to appear in print would win a pot into which we put ten dollars apiece. I collected with the duck’s back.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms, Third Edition, Edited by John Ayto, Oxford Reference Online, Entry: like water off a duck’s back, Print Publication Date: 2009, Published Online: 2010, Oxford University Press. (Accessed October 5, 2015)
  2. 1966, The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life by George Oppenheimer, Quote Page 96, Published by David McKay Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1966, The View from the Sixties: Memories of a Spent Life by George Oppenheimer, Quote Page 97, Published by David McKay Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

War Does Not Determine Who Is Right — Only Who Is Left

Bertrand Russell? Frank P. Hobgood? Jessie Woodrow Wilson Sayre? Reader’s Digest? Montreal Star? Andrew Carnegie? Winston Churchill? Anonymous?

war08Dear Quote Investigator: A piquant slogan has been used by pacifists and peace activists for decades. Here are two variants:

War does not determine who is right — only who is left.
The atom bomb will never determine who is right — only who is left.

The first saying is often attributed to the philosopher and social thinker Bertrand Russell, but I have never seen a precise reference to support this connection. Would you please examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Bertrand Russell wrote or spoke this adage.

The earliest citation located by QI was printed in “The Reader’s Digest” issue of February 1932. However, magazines such as “The Reader’s Digest” were released one or two weeks before their cover date. Hence, the February issue was actually released in January 1932. The saying was accompanied with an acknowledgement to a Canadian newspaper: 1

War does not determine who is right — only who is left. — Montreal Star.

QI has been unable to access the archives of “The Montreal Star” which shut down in 1979. It is possible that the old newspaper pages have not yet been digitized. Some future researcher may find the phrase in the paper and determine who employed it.

On February 24, 1932 a military man named Col. Frank P. Hobgood delivered a speech at a meeting of a popular service organization, and he employed an instance of the saying. This occurred about a month after the appearance in “The Reader’s Digest”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

“The next war will not decide who is right but who is left,” Col. Frank P. Hobgood declared in a stirring appeal for disarmament before approximately 250 Rotarians and Rotary Anns assembled in a combined Rotary inter-city meeting and birthday party at the ballroom of the King Cotton hotel last night.

Currently, Hobgood is the first named individual who has been linked to the adage. But the expression was already in circulation before he delivered his talk. Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who identified the citation immediately above and other valuable citations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1932 February, Reader’s Digest, Volume 20, Patter, Start Page 107, Quote Page 108, Column 2, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1932 February 24, Greensboro Daily News, Horrors of Next War Pictured By Hobgood In Talks to Rotarians, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)