Tag Archives: Bill Nye

Wagner’s Music Is Really Much Better Than It Sounds

Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Ambrose Bierce? Punch Magazine?

orchestra09Dear Quote Investigator: Richard Wagner was prominent German composer who created the landmark four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). A comically incongruous remark about his efforts has been attributed to two famous American humorists Mark Twain and Bill Nye:

Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.

Do you know who crafted this jibe?

Quote Investigator: The earliest partial match known to QI appeared in August 1887. Several newspapers such as “The Wichita Daily Beacon” 1 of Wichita, Kansas and “The Jackson Citizen Patriot” 2 of Jackson, Michigan printed a column called “Bill Nye’s Information Bureau”. The Wichita paper acknowledged “The New York World” as the initial source. The column began with a letter from “Truth Seeker” who posed several questions for Nye including the following:

What is the peculiarity of classical music, and how can one distinguish it?

Nye responded with a version of the quip that targeted a class of music instead of an individual composer. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

The peculiar characteristic of classical music is that it is really so much better than it sounds.

In November 1889 “The Indianapolis News” of Indianapolis, Indiana pointed to an unnamed Philadelphia paper while crediting Nye with a version of the joke targeting Wagner: 3

Says a Philadelphia newspaper: “Bill Nye on his recent visit to this city to lecture called upon a well-known music lover, and while there was asked to write in an autograph album. He did so, and among other things wrote the following: ‘Wagner’s music, I have been informed, is really much better than it sounds.'”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1887 August 4, The Wichita Daily Beacon, His Information Bureau: Bill Nye Takes a Man into His Confidence and Educates Him (From the New York World), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Wichita, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1887 August 11, The Jackson Citizen Patriot, Bill Nye’s Bureau: He Takes a Stranger in and Educates Him, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Jackson, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1889 November 22, The Indianapolis News, “SCRAPS”, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

A Gold Mine Is a Hole in the Ground with a Liar at the Top

Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Mr. Walkup? Eli Perkin? Anonymous?

gold10Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, a business website published an article about investing in gold and mining equities. The columnist began with a very funny and facetious remark attributed to Mark Twain: 1

A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing on top of it.

The ascription was “unverified” according to the writer, and I have not been able find a convincing citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: For more than 130 years numerous variants of this quip have been circulating which makes it difficult to trace. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Detroit Free Press” of Detroit, Michigan in 1881, and the text was rapidly disseminated via reprinting in several other newspapers such as the “New Haven Evening Register” of New Haven, Connecticut, “The Daily Inter Ocean” of Chicago, Illinois, and “The Wayne County Herald” of Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2 3 4 5

A mine is a hole in the ground. The discoverer of it is a natural liar. The hole in the ground and the liar combine and issue shares and trap fools.—Detroit Free Press.

The earliest instances of this family of jokes did not mention gold specifically; however, the cultural zeitgeist reflected a series of gold rushes that occurred during a multi-decade period.

Mark Twain’s name was not attached to the quip in its initial incarnations, but by 1896 he was being credited. As the phrasing evolved new versions were also ascribed to Twain. Since the famous humorist lived until 1910 it was conceivable that he employed the joke, but QI has found no direct evidence to support this linkage. For example, QI has been unable find an instance in important compilations like “Mark Twain Speaking” edited by Paul Fatout 6 and “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 7

Another prominent humorist named Bill Nye was linked to the quip in 1904, but that ascription was also poorly supported. In addition, a hodgepodge of little-known individuals has been connected to the jest over the years, but QI would label the originator anonymous.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Website: Bloomberg View, Article title: Are Shares of Gold Miners a ‘Buy’?, Author: Barry Ritholtz, Date on website: July 16, 2015, Website description: Articles by commentators about business from the Bloomberg organization, (Accessed bloombergview.com on July 19, 2015) link
  2. 1881 November 9, Detroit Free Press, Currency, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1881 November 11, New Haven Evening Register, Don’t Care a Continental, Quote Page 2, Column 3, New Haven, Connecticut. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1881 November 30, The Daily Inter Ocean, Finance and Commerce, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Chicago, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1881 December 8, The Wayne County Herald, The Funny Men, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Honesdale, Pennsylvania. (Old Fulton)
  6. 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)

Only Monarchs, Editors, and People with Tapeworms Have the Right to Use the Editorial ‘We’

Mark Twain? Robert Ingersoll? Edgar Wilson Nye? John Phoenix? George H. Derby? Roscoe Conkling? John Fiske? Horace Porter? Henry David Thoreau? Hyman G. Rickover

derby08Dear Quote Investigator: Some writers use “we” as a form of self-reference. For example, an author might state: We base our opinion on the highest authority. A comically reproachful remark about this practice has been attributed to Mark Twain:

Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.

Similar comments have been ascribed to humorist Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye), transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and orator Robert Ingersoll. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent citation known to QI appeared in the November 1855 issue of “The Knickerbocker” which contained an evaluation of a forthcoming book titled “Phoenixiana: Or Sketches and Burlesques” by John Phoenix. The reviewer reprinted a passage from the prospective volume by Phoenix that included a simple instance of the joke. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It will be perceived that I have not availed myself of the editorial privilege of using the plural noun in speaking of myself. This is simply because I consider it a ridiculous affectation. I am a ‘lone, lorn man,’ unmarried, (the LORD be praised for His infinite mercy!) and though blessed with a consuming appetite, which causes the keepers of the house where I board to tremble, I do not think I have a tape-worm; therefore I have no claim to call myself ‘WE:’ and I shall by no means fall into that editorial absurdity.

John Phoenix was the pen name of the writer George H. Derby who was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army originally from California. When his book “Phoenixiana” was released in 1856 the printed text differed slightly from the passage above with the addition of the word “whatever” to yield the phrase “no claim whatever”. 2

Derby’s early version of the quip and other important citations were identified by linguist Ben Zimmer who currently writes a wonderful column about language for “The Wall Street Journal”. The jest has metamorphosed over the years, and a wide variety of risible rationales have been presented to justify the use of the pronoun “we” including these:

A person with a mouse in his or her pocket
A king, queen, emperor, or president
A pregnant woman
A newspaper or magazine editor
A person with a tapeworm
A schizophrenic individual

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1855 November, The Knickerbocker, Editor’s Table, Page 520, Volume XLVI, Number 5, Samuel Hueston, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1856 (Copyright 1855), Phoenixiana; or Sketches and Burlesques by John Phoenix (George Horatio Derby), Phoenix Installed Editor of the San Diego Herald, Quote Page 96, D. Appleton and Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link