Tag Archives: George Bernard Shaw

The Three Most Famous Names in History Are Jesus Christ, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini

George Bernard Shaw? Otto Penzler? James Thurber? Harold Ross? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly, George Bernard Shaw once presented an idiosyncratic list of the three most famous individuals: Jesus Christ, Sherlock Holmes, and Harry Houdini. Did Shaw really put forward this triptych?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the 1976 biography “Houdini: His Life and Art” by James Randi and Bert Randolph Sugar. The pertinent passage occurred in the foreword written by Sugar alone: 1

At a time when national heroes have passed from the American landscape, it is difficult to fathom Houdini’s full impact. People who couldn’t care less about magic know his name. George Bernard Shaw once said that as one of the three most famous people in the history of the world, real or imagined, Houdini took his place beside Jesus Christ and Sherlock Holmes.

QI does not know were Sugar obtained support for his claim about Shaw, and 1976 is more than 25 years after the death of the famous intellectual; hence, this evidence is weak.

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Notes:

  1. 1978 (1976 Copyright), Houdini: His Life and Art by The Amazing Randi (James Randi) and Bert Randolph Sugar, Section: Foreword by Sugar, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Verified with scans)

If All the Economists Were Laid End to End, They Would Not Reach a Conclusion

George Bernard Shaw? Farmer Brown? Isaac Marcosson? Stephen Leacock? Anonymous?

shaw08Dear Quote Investigator: The advice offered by economists is often equivocal and hedged. The famous playwright and witty social critic George Bernard Shaw reportedly crafted the following lament:

If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.

I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: “The Saturday Review of Literature” credited George Bernard Shaw with the expression above in May 1933, but the saying had entered circulation by July 1932 without an attribution. In addition, intriguing precursors appeared by the 1920s. Hence, the ascription to Shaw is currently uncertain.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

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Dancing Is a Perpendicular Expression of a Horizontal Desire

George Bernard Shaw? George Melly? I. S. Johar? Ann Landers? Patrick Harte? Robert Frost? Winston Churchill? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

dancing07Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an adage highlighting the sensual aspects of popular gyrations:

  1. Dancing is a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.
  2. Dancing is a vertical expression of a horizontal idea.

George Bernard Shaw, Ann Landers, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Frost have received credit for this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the London periodical “New Statesman” in 1962. The musician and critic George Melly attributed the saying to the notable playwright George Bernard Shaw. Emphasis added by QI: 1

I have spent a certain amount of time lately watching people in London dance in the various new ways. I report what went on in three very different places where my fellow countrymen and women had come together to give what Shaw called ‘a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire’.

Shaw’s death in 1950 preceded Melly’s article by more than a decade, and the text provided no citation; hence, the evidence supporting the ascription was rather weak. Nevertheless, the citations for competing ascriptions are even less persuasive.

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Notes:

  1. 1962 March 23, New Statesman, Late Perpendicular by George Melly, Start Page 426, Quote Page 426, Column 3, New Statesman Ltd., London. (ProQuest)

Britain and America Are Two Nations Divided by a Common Language

George Bernard Shaw? Mallory Browne? Raymond Gram Swing? Apocryphal?

shawlang08Dear Quote Investigator: The influential Irish playwright and commentator George Bernard Shaw has been credited with a humorous remark about language. Here are four versions:

1) Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language.
2) The English and Americans are two peoples divided by a common language.
3) England and America are two countries separated by one language.
4) The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by the same language.

Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1887 the Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde published a short story called “The Canterville Ghost”. 1 While describing one of the main characters, the narrator included a comical remark contrasting England and America that was similar to the saying under examination. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in “The Christian Science Monitor” of Boston, Massachusetts in September 1942. Mallory Browne who was the “Monitor” reporter based in London traveled to the countryside to conduct an interview with George Bernard Shaw: 3

“England and America are two countries separated by the same language!” On the way down to see him at a mutual friend’s house in the country, I reflected delightfully on this typical remark of Bernard Shaw. I had read it only a few days before, and been struck by its essentially Shavian character; completely false in fact, yet so much closer to the truth than merely factual statements ever are.

Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, who located the above citation and shared it with fellow researchers. Browne commented that he had read the remark a short time earlier; hence, it was already in circulation. Yet, an earlier source has not yet been located. Also, QI and other researchers have been unable to find the saying in Shaw’s oeuvre.

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Notes:

  1. 1891, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime & Other Stories by Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost, Start Page 90, Quote Page 94, James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1908, Miscellanies by Oscar Wilde, Section: Miscellaneous Contributions to Magazines Periodicals, etc., Bibliography, Quote Page 336, Methuen and Company, London. (This book specifies the dates of first appearances of the two parts of “The Canterville Ghost”) (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1942 September 5, The Christian Science Monitor, Section: Weekly Magazine Section, How Now, Mr. Shaw? by Mallory Browne, Start Page WM1, Quote Page WM7, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)

If You Want To Tell People the Truth, You’d Better Make Them Laugh or They’ll Kill You

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Cecile Starr? Billy Wilder? Richard Pryor? James L. Brooks? Dustin Hoffman? Charles Ludlam?

masks09Dear Quote Investigator: Dramatists have discovered that challenging material often elicits hostility or boredom. This is dangerous for creators because jobs in the entertainment industry are precarious. Yet, a provocative production leavened with humor is often embraced by audiences. The following adage now circulates on Broadway and in Hollywood:

1) If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny or they’ll kill you.
2) If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.

The playwrights George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Ludlam have all been credited with this saying. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1951 article in “The Saturday Review” by critic and film historian Cecile Starr discussing a documentary film festival. When Starr commented on the works of one filmmaker she mentioned the adage and ascribed it to George Bernard Shaw who had died a year earlier. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . Shaw’s lively aphorism, “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you” . . .

QI has found no substantive support for crediting Oscar Wilde with the saying. He died in 1900 and the expression appeared decades afterwards. There is some good evidence that the well-known director Billy Wilder employed the saying, but the linkage occurred after it was attributed to Shaw. There was also some indirect evidence Charles Ludlam used the expression. The comedian Richard Pryor, actor Dustin Hoffman, and screenwriter James L. Brooks all delivered the line during interviews, but they spoke when it was already in circulation.

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Notes:

  1. 1951 October 13, The Saturday Review, Ideas on Film: Edinburgh’s Documentary Festival by Cecile Starr, Start Page 60, Quote Page 60, Column 1, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)

I Am the Civilization You Are Fighting For

George Bernard Shaw? William Butler Yeats? Anonymous? H. W. Garrod? Lord Dunsany? Lytton Strachey?

britmuseum08Dear Quote Investigator: While the First World War was raging an unhappy woman approached a famous British scholar and poet and rebuked him for not enlisting. She stated emphatically that young men were fighting and dying to defend civilization. Here are two versions of sage’s response:

1) But Madam, I am the civilization for which they are fighting.
2) Are you aware, Madam, that I am the civilization for which they are dying?

In the version of the tale I was told the riposte was delivered by the Oxford classical scholar H. W. Garrod. But other possibilities have been mentioned, e.g., Lytton Strachey and Bernard Shaw. Would you please explore this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this story located by QI was published in August 1914 in a London periodical called “The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art”. The disparager was a soldier, and the respondent was an unnamed artist. The passage below employed the British variant spelling for “civilisation” with an “s” instead of a “z”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I heard another good retort of an artist upon a volunteer who reproached him for not enlisting. I, he said, am the civilisation you are fighting for.

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Notes:

  1. 1914 August 20, “The New Age: A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature and Art”, Volume 15, Observations and Reflections by A.B.C., (short filler-type item), Quote Page 379, Column 1, Published by New Age Press, Limited, London. (Verified with page images from brown.edu)

People Who Like This Sort of Thing Will Find This the Sort of Thing They Like

Abraham Lincoln? Artemus Ward? George Bernard Shaw? Max Beerbohm? Muriel Spark?

ward08Dear 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: 1

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.

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Notes:

  1. 1863 October 23, Daily Eastern Argus, (Short untitled item), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Portland, Maine. (GenealogyBank)

Youth Is Wasted on the Young

George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Irvin Cobb? Michel de Montaigne? Anonymous?

fountain07Dear Quote Investigator: A very popular acerbic adage combines wisdom and wistfulness together with a modicum of jealousy:

Youth is wasted on the young.

These words have been attributed to two famous Irish wits: George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Oddly, I have not seen any precise citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a syndicated newspaper column called “Cook-Coos” by Ted Cook in February 1931. 1 The expression was ascribed to George Bernard Shaw, and the central meaning was congruent to modern instances; however, the phrasing was quite different Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Someone asked Bernard Shaw what, in his opinion, is the most beautiful thing in this world.

“Youth,” he replied, “is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”

QI has not yet identified an interview with Shaw containing the above remark; hence, the attribution was indirect. In the following months and years there was an efflorescence of similar statements linked to Shaw employing highly-variable phrasing. No closely matching written remark has been found in the corpus of Shaw; thus, residual uncertainty remains.

Attributions to Oscar Wilde were in circulation by 1963, but QI has found no substantive support for the linkage.

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Notes:

  1. 1931 February 14, Rockford Register-Republic, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1931 February 14, Nevada State Journal, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 5, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com)

Though Music Be a Universal Language, It Is Spoken with All Sorts of Accents

George Bernard Shaw? Alan Lomax? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Henry David Thoreau?

music14Dear Quote Investigator: I believe that the famous playwright and music critic George Bernard Shaw said something like the following:

Music may be a universal language, but it’s spoken with all sorts of peculiar accents.

I checked some quotation references and was unable to find this statement. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In December 1890 George Bernard Shaw wrote a music review that contrasted the divergent sounds produced by orchestras in Manchester and Lancashire. The drummer in Manchester employed “mighty drum-sticks” which could perform well on the “final crescendo roll” of the “Trold King’s dance” in the Peer Gynt suite. But the drummer in Lancashire excelled in pieces that required greater delicacy. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Thus, though music be a universal language, it is spoken with all sorts of accents; and the Lancashire accent differs sufficiently from the Cockney accent to make the Manchester band a welcome variety, without counting the change from Cowen or Cusins to Hallé.

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Notes:

  1. 1949 (Reprint of 1932 edition), Music in London: 1890-94 by Bernard Shaw, Volume 1 of 3, (Music review dated December 10, 1890), Start Page 90, Quote Page 91 and 92, Constable and Company Limited, London. (Verified on paper)

People Who Say It Cannot Be Done Should Not Interrupt Those Who Are Doing It

George Bernard Shaw? Puck? Saxby’s Magazine? Elbert Hubbard? Confucius? Anonymous?

wright07Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage is the perfect antidote to excessive negativity and obstructionism:

People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.

These words are often attributed to the acclaimed playwright and essayist George Bernard Shaw; unfortunately, I have not been able to locate any solid data to back up this claim. Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for the Shaw ascription.

QI hypothesizes that the modern expression evolved from a comment about the rapidity of change and innovation at the turn of the century that was printed in multiple newspapers and journals in 1903. One instance appeared on March 7, 1903 in a periodical called “The Public” based in Chicago, Illinois. An acknowledgment to the humor magazine “Puck” was appended. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Puck.

On March 13, 1903 an instance was published in “The Evansville Courier” of Evansville, Indiana with an acknowledgement to “Saxby’s Magazine”. The statements above and below were both printed as filler items without additional contextual information: 2

Some philosopher takes time to remark that things move along so rapidly nowadays that people who say “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Saxby’s Magazine.

In April 1903 a journal for educators and parents called “Kindergarten Magazine” printed an instance that exactly matched the statement in “The Public”. The “Puck” acknowledgement was included: 3

During the ensuing decades the expression was reshaped. In 1914 a charismatic aphorism constructor named Elbert Hubbard printed a variant in his journal “The Philistine”, but he disclaimed authorship. By 1962 a pseudo Confucian version had been fabricated, and by 2004 a version attributed to George Bernard Shaw was circulating. Detailed citations are given further below.

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Notes:

  1. 1903 March 7, The Public, Number 257, Editor Louis F. Post, (Filler item), Quote Page 766, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1903 March 16, The Evansville Courier (Evansville Courier and Press), (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1903 April, Kindergarten Magazine, Volume 15, Number 8, (Filler item), Quote Page 488, Kindergarten Magazine Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link