Abraham Lincoln? Artemus Ward? George Bernard Shaw? Max Beerbohm? Muriel Spark?
Dear Quote Investigator: A popular anecdote asserts that Abraham Lincoln was obliged to listen to a prolix lecture about spiritualism by an enthusiastic friend. After the discourse was complete, Lincoln’s opinion was sought, and he replied with a humorously redundant non-committal statement designed to be inoffensive. Here are three versions:
1) People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.
2) For people who like that kind of thing, that is the kind of thing they like
3) For those who like that sort of thing I should think it just the sort of thing they would like.
Other prominent figures have been credited with this line such as the wit Max Beerbohm and novelist Muriel Spark. I am suspicious of the attribution to Lincoln. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: QI hypothesizes that the seed of this family of expressions was sown by the popular humorist Charles Farrar Browne who was known to audiences by his pseudonym Artemus Ward. In 1863 he created advertising material for a set of lectures he was performing. He included parodic testimonials from fictional people, and one ersatz supporter was named “O. Abe”. The name “Artemus” was misspelled as “Artemas” in the following passage from a Maine newspaper in October 1863. Boldface was been added:
Artemas Ward among other puffs of his lectures has the following from “Old Abe:”,
Dear Sir–I have never heard any of your lectures, but from what I can learn I should say that for people who like the kind of lectures you deliver, they are just the kind of lectures such people like.
Yours, respectably, O. Abe.
The letter penned by Ward was printed in multiple newspapers. The words became linked to Abraham Lincoln because of the suggestive name “Abe”. Over time the phrasing evolved, and a variety of anecdotes were constructed to accompany the expression.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Josh Billings? Artemus Ward? Will Rogers? Abraham Lincoln? Mark Twain? Anonymous?
Dear 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:
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.
P.T. Barnum? Hungry Joe Lewis? Artemus Ward? Mike McDonald? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A famous saying about gullibility is usually attributed to the well-known showman P. T. Barnum. Here are two versions:
There’s a sucker born every minute.
There’s a fool born every minute.
Whether Barnum actually used either of these expressions is controversial. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: QI has located no persuasive evidence that Phineas Taylor Barnum who died in 1891 spoke or wrote this saying. Researcher Ralph Keyes presented a skeptical stance with his assertion in “The Quote Verifier” that “No modern historian takes seriously the routine attribution of this slogan to P. T. Barnum.”
There exists a family of closely related expressions with a long history. Here is a sampling together with years of occurrence. The first item listed employed dialectical spelling. The word “flat” was a synonym for “fool”. The abbreviation “attrib” means that the words were attributed to an individual, but the evidence was indirect:
1806: there vash von fool born every minute
1826: a new fool is born every day
1835: there is a flat born every minute
1877: there is a fool born every hour
1879: there’s a sucker born every minute (anonymous adage)
1882: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib anon con man)
1885: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib Hungry Joe)
1888: there is a sucker born every minute (attrib Artemus Ward)
1889: a sucker is born every minute (attrib Mike McDonald)
1890: a fool was born every minute (attrib P.T. Barnum)
1892: there was a sucker born every minute (attrib P.T. Barnum)
The above listing is a snapshot of current research results, and it will certainly change over time as more data is gathered. The earliest instances of these expressions were anonymous, and QI believes that later attributions had inadequate support.
Here are selected citations in chronological order.