This article was updated on February 13, 2017 to include more details about precursors and the evolution of the expression. The previous version of this article is available here.
Abraham Lincoln? Adlai Stevenson? Edward J. Stieglitz? Edward Barrett Warman? Anonymous?
And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
Abraham Lincoln is credited with this aphorism, but I cannot find it in his collected works. Can you determine who really said it?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Lincoln used this expression. Some quotation references attributed the remark to Adlai Stevenson II who was the Governor of Illinois and a Democratic Presidential nominee. Indeed, Stevenson did deploy a version of this adage in speeches as early as 1952.
But the earliest strong match located by QI was in an advertisement in 1947 for a book about aging by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D. The image at the top of this article shows the ad for “The Second Forty Years” which ran in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!
The rhetorical technique of reversing word order in successive clauses is called antimetabole. In this case, “years in your life” was transformed into “life in your years”, and the contrast between the two subphrases was highlighted.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1947 March 16, Chicago Tribune, “How Long Do You Plan to Live?”, [Advertisement for the book “The Second Forty Years” by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D.], Page C7, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩