Tag Archives: James Boswell

There Is Less in This Than Meets the Eye

Tallulah Bankhead? Dorothy Parker? Robert Benchley? James Boswell? Richard Burke? William Hazlitt?

Dear Quote investigator: The actress Tallulah Bankhead was watching an ostentatious play, and she whispered to her companion a hilarious line based on an inverted cliché:

There is less in this than meets the eye.

This quip has also been attributed to two other witty people: Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote investigator: QI has located no substantive support for ascribing the comment to Parker or Benchley.

In 1922 the theater critic Alexander Woollcott invited Tallulah Bankhead to join him at a performance of Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama “Aglavaine and Selysette”. The following day Woollcott’s hostile review of the production in “The New York Times” credited the remark to a “beautiful lady”: 1

The civility of the spectators was really extraordinary. There was not so much as a snicker, for instance, when William Raymond, as Meleander, cried out anxiously: “What shall I be doing next year?” Not a ripple when Clare Eames, gazing severely at the audience, said: “It is sometimes better not to rouse those who slumber.” It is, it is, indeed. But after all the matinee was best summed up by the beautiful lady in the back row, who said: “There is less in this than meets the eye.”

Later in 1922 Woollcott published the book “Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights”. He discussed Maeterlinck’s play in a chapter called “Capsule Criticism” and credited the statement to Bankhead: 2

Two gifted young actresses and a considerable bit of scenery were involved, and much pretentious rumbling of voice and wafting of gesture had gone into the enterprise. Miss Bankhead, fearful, apparently, lest she be struck dead for impiety, became desperate enough to whisper, “There is less in this than meets the eye.”

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Notes:

  1. 1922 January 4, New York Times, The Play by Alexander Woollcott, Quote Page 11, Column 1, New York, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1922, Shouts and Murmurs: Echoes of a Thousand and One First Nights by Alexander Woollcott, Chapter 4: Capsule Criticism, Start Page 77, Quote Page 86, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Don’t Wrestle with a Chimney Sweep or You Will Get Covered with Grime

William Adams? James Boswell? Walter Scott? Jonah Barrington? Viscount Bolingbroke? Henry Van Dyke? John Bright? John J. Keane? William Wedgwood Benn? Tony Benn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: When you are attacked with falsehoods and invective it is natural to respond with abusive language; however, viewers of the interaction may feel revulsion for both the attacker and the defender. This notion has been expressed using a vivid analogy. Here are three examples:

  1. You can’t wrestle with a chimney sweep and come out clean.
  2. He who wrestles with a sweep must expect to be begrimed with soot.
  3. Never wrestle with a chimney sweep.

The British politician Tony Benn employed this saying. Would you please examine its history?

Quote Investigator: The celebrated multi-volume biography “The Life of Samuel Johnson” by James Boswell included a pithy instance of the expression in a section recounting events in 1776. The saying was spoken to Samuel Johnson by William Adams who was Master of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. Interestingly, Johnson disagreed with the advice. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Johnson coincided with me and said, “When a man voluntarily engages in an important controversy, he is to do all he can to lessen his antagonist, because authority from personal respect has much weight with most people, and often more than reasoning. If my antagonist writes bad language, though that may not be essential to the question, I will attack him for his bad language.”

ADAMS. “You would not jostle a chimney-sweeper.”

JOHNSON. “Yes, Sir, if it were necessary to jostle him down.”

Adams employed a version of the metaphor without elaboration, and Johnson understood it readily; hence, both may have already heard similar phrases.

QI has an article on an entertaining variant adage that appeared later: Never wrestle with a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Time period specified: 1776, Quote Page 24 and 25, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Clear Your Mind of Cant / Clear Your Mind of Can’t

Samuel Johnson? James Boswell? Thomas Carlyle? Apocryphal?

mind08Dear Quote Investigator: Two statements that sound the same but have very different meanings have been attributed to the esteemed dictionary maker and man of letters Samuel Johnson:

1) Clear your mind of cant.
2) Clear your mind of can’t.

In the first statement the noun “cant” referred to insincere, trite, or sanctimonious speech. Johnson was telling a friend not to dwell on this form of verbal nonsense.

In the second statement the term “can’t” referred to negative thoughts that undermine one’s self-confidence. But I think that this phrasing was too modern for Johnson who died in 1784. It sounds like a maxim from a current motivational book or poster. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The first expression was spoken to James Boswell by Samuel Johnson on May 15, 1783 as recorded in the famous biographical work “Boswell’s Life of Johnson”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

JOHNSON. “My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do. You may say to a man, ‘Sir, I am your most humble servant.’ You are not his most humble servant. You may say, ‘These are sad times; it is a melancholy thing to be reserved to such times.’ You don’t mind the times. You tell a man, ‘I am sorry you had such bad weather the last day of your journey, and were so much wet.’ You don’t care six-pence whether he was wet or dry. You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society: but don’t think foolishly.”

The second phrase was attributed to Johnson by 1929, but that was a very late date; clearly, the attribution was a mistake caused by confusion of the homophones: cant and can’t.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 2 of 2, Time period specified: May 15, 1783, Quote Page 454 and 455, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link

When the End of the World Comes, I Want To Be in Cincinnati. It Is Always Ten Years Behind the Times

Mark Twain? Heinrich Heine? Otto von Bismarck? George Bernard Shaw? James Boswell? Will Rogers?

Dear Quote Investigator: As a one-time resident of Cincinnati I knew that Mark Twain once worked in the city, and I always enjoyed the comment he reportedly made about it:

When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.

But this quip is also attributed to the popular humorist Will Rogers. Can you determine who created this joke?

Quote Investigator: The early evidence located by QI points to a different part of the globe. In 1886 The Atlantic Monthly printed an article about King Ludwig II of Bavaria that contained a version of the jape; however, the length of the time lag and the location were distinct [BVAM]:

It is a common saying in Germany that Bavaria will be the best place to emigrate to at the approaching end of the world, since that event, like everything else, will be sure to come off there fifty years later than in any other country. The Bavarians will be behind the times even as to the point when time shall be no more, and will enter as laggards upon the eternal life.

This citation suggests that a version of this gag expressed in the German language probably predates 1886.  Over a period of many decades multiple variants appeared. The remark was modified to target other locales, e.g., Dresden, Netherlands, Mecklenburg, Cincinnati and Ireland. The humor was credited to a variety of people including: Heinrich Heine, Otto von Bismarck, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw.

The earliest Cincinnati-based citation found by QI was dated 1978, and the words were attributed to Mark Twain. Details are given further below. Note that Twain died in 1910, so this is a very late piece of evidence.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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