Tag Archives: Samuel Johnson

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

“She Is Always Kind to Her Inferiors” “But Where Does She Find Them?”

Dorothy Parker? Mark Twain? Samuel Johnson? Sidney Skolsky? Margaret Case Harriman? Anonymous?

parker08Dear Quote Investigator: The scintillating wit Dorothy Parker once listened to an enumeration of the many positive attributes of a person she disliked. Below is the final statement of praise together with Parker’s acerbic response:

“She is always kind to her inferiors.”
“And where does she find them?”

The humor hinges on the possible non-existence of the inferiors. Is this tale accurate? Who was the person being discussed?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this anecdote located by QI was printed in the Hollywood gossip column of Sidney Skolsky in 1937. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

At lunch the other day, a group were discussing a prominent actress and a person said: “She’s only kind to her inferiors.” Whereupon Dorothy Parker remarked: “Where does she find them?”

In January 1941 “The New Yorker” magazine printed an article by Margaret Case Harriman that profiled the fashionable author and playwright Clare Boothe Luce, and it included an oft-repeated version of the tale in which Clare Boothe Luce was the target of the barb from Parker.

Interestingly, the playwright was not known for her evanescent pursuit of acting. Her initial fame was primarily based on the Broadway hit she wrote titled “The Women” which debuted in December 1936, and QI believes that the columnist Sidney Skolsky would not have referred to Clare Boothe Luce as a “prominent actress” in June 1937.

There was another woman named Claire Luce who was a well-known actress in the time period. Conceivably, the names were confused. It was also possible that the entire story was simply concocted by someone to provide entertainment. Precursor tales and jibes have been circulating since the 1700s. Mark Twain employed a fun variant.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1937 June 23, Milwaukee Sentinel, Section: Peach, Page 3, Column 6, Hollywood by Sidney Skolsky, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)

What Is Written Without Effort Is In General Read Without Pleasure

Samuel Johnson? Apocryphal?

johnson09Dear Quote Investigator: Whenever I experience difficulties while writing I recall a remark attributed to Samuel Johnson that is both cautionary and encouraging:

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.

I have not been able to find this statement in a book written by Johnson or by his biographer James Boswell. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: Samuel Johnson died in 1784, and the earliest known evidence linking him to this adage was published fifteen years after his demise. An industrious collector of anecdotes named William Seward released “Biographiana” in 1799. This two volume work of short biographical sketches contained an entry for a translator known as Abbé Marolles who was criticized by Seward for the poor quality of his translations and verses. A footnote within the entry attributed the saying under investigation to Johnson: 1

“What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.”—Dr. Johnson.

Interestingly, an important precursor of this adage was published many years earlier in 1764 when “The Scots Magazine” published a biographical profile of the poet and satirist Charles Churchill. The work “The Prophecy of Famine” was a great success for Churchill, and the author of the profile contended that his subsequent poems were of low quality. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

(The Prophecy of Famine) had accordingly a rapid and extensive sale; and it was often asserted by his admirers that Mr Churchill was a better poet than Mr Pope. This exaggerated adulation, as it had before corrupted his morals, now began to impair his mind: several succeeding pieces were published, which, being written without effort, are read without pleasure.

The above critical expression was applied to a specific set of poems, and syntactically it did not precisely fit the form of an adage. Nevertheless, the conversion of the phrase into an adage would have been effortless. The writer of the words above was not listed in the magazine.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1799, Biographiana, “By the Compiler of Anecdotes of Distinguished Person”, (William Seward), Footnote, Quote Page 260, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1764 December, The Scots Magazine, Volume 26, Memoirs of Mr Charles Churchill, Start Page 649, Quote Page 651, Printed for W. Sands, A Murray, and J Cochran, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Books Full View) link

He Who Would Pun Would Pick a Pocket

Alexander Pope? Samuel Johnson? Jonathan Swift? John Dennis? Anonymous?

popepocket06Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard several versions of a quotation that is beloved by people who dislike puns:

(1) He who would make a pun would pick a pocket.
(2) A man who will pun, will pick a pocket.
(3) A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket.
(4) Any man who would make such an execrable pun would not scruple to pick my pocket.

This saying has been attributed to the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson and the eminent poet Alexander Pope. Could you tell me who said it and what circumstance provoked the remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this quotation known to QI was published in a 1722 epistle by Benjamin Victor which told of a meeting in a tavern. Daniel Purcell employed a pun that caused the dramatist and critic John Dennis to react with anger and deliver a reproach. The name Dennis was partially disguised as “D—-s”; four letters were replaced with four hyphens.

To understand the pun one must know that in 1720s England the waiter in a tavern was called a “drawer”. The 1722 document adhered to a style in which nouns were capitalized. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

“Mr. Purcell and Mr. Congreve going into a Tavern, by chance met D—-s, who went in with ’em. After a Glass or two had pass’d, Mr. Purcell, having some private Business with Mr. Congreve, wanted D—-s out of the Room, and not knowing a more certain Way than Punning, (for you are to understand, Sir, Mr. D—-s is as much surpriz’d at Pun as at a Bailiff) he proceeded after the following Manner:

He pull’d the Bell, and call’d two or three Times, but no One answering, he put his Hand under the Table, and looking full at D—-s, he said, I think this Table is like the Tavern; says D—-s, with his usual prophane Phrase) God’s death, Sir, How is this Table like the Tavern? Why, says Mr. Purcell, because here’s ne’er a Drawer in it.

Says D—-s, (starting up) God’s death, Sir, the Man that will make such an execrable Pun as that in my Company, will pick my Pocket, and so left the Room.

In this tale John Dennis sharply criticized one particular pun, and he did not attack all puns. Nevertheless, the popular modern instances of the saying are universal in condemnation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Year: 1722, Title: An epistle to Sir Richard Steele, on his play, call’d, The conscious lovers. By B. Victor, Author: Benjamin Victor (died 1778), Imprint: London: Printed for W. Chetwood at Cato’s-Head in Russel-Street, Covent-Garden; S. Chapman at the Angel in Pall-Mall; J. Stagg, Westminster-Hall; J. Brotherton at the Bible in Cornhill; M. Smith in Russel-Court, Red-Lyon-Square; Tho. Edlin, over-against Exeter Exchange in the Strand, Source Library: British Library. (Database: EECO: Eighteenth Century Collections Online; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake)

Improper Words: Have You Been Searching for Them?

Samuel Johnson? Apocryphal?

samjohnson01Dear Quote Investigator: After Samuel Johnson published his masterful dictionary of the English language he was reportedly approached by two prudish individuals:

“Mr. Johnson, we are glad that you have omitted the indelicate and objectionable words from your new dictionary.”

“What, my dears! Have you been searching for them?”

Recently, I heard a different version of this anecdote in which an interlocutor was unhappy to discover that improper words were present in the new opus:

“I am sorry to see, Dr. Johnson, that there are a few naughty words in your dictionary.”

“So, madam, you have been looking for them?”

Could you explore these contradictory tales?

Quote Investigator: Samuel Johnson released “A Dictionary of the English Language” in 1755, and the earliest printed evidence of this anecdote known to QI appeared in April 1785. An article titled “Dr. Johnson at Oxford, and Lichfield” in the London periodical “The Gentleman’s Magazine” recounted a meeting between the great linguist and an admirer: 1

A literary lady expressing to Dr. J. her approbation of his Dictionary and, in particular, her satisfaction at his not having admitted into it any improper words; “No, Madam,” replied he, “I hope I have not daubed my fingers. I find, however that you have been looking for them.”

In July 1785 the same story was disseminated further when it was reprinted in “The Scots Magazine”. 2

Different versions of this tale have been propagated for more than 230 years. In 1829 an instance was published in which two women were named as Johnson’s conversation partners: Mrs. Digby and Mrs. Brooke. They commended the dictionary-maker for omitting naughty words and received the same cleverly acerbic response.

By 1884 a variant anecdote was circulating in which an individual “was sorry to find a few naughty words” in the two-volume lexicon. Johnson’s reply was largely unmodified. The details for these citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1785 April, The Gentleman’s Magazine, “Dr. Johnson at Oxford, and Lichfield”, Start Page 288, Quote Page 288, Column 2, Printed by John Nichols for D. Henry, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1785 July, The Scots Magazine, Volume 47, Anecdote, Quote Page 347, Column 1, Printed by Murray and Cochrane, Edinburgh, Scotland. (Google Book full view) link

Academic Politics Are So Vicious Because the Stakes Are So Small

Henry Kissinger? Wallace Sayre? Charles Frankel? Samuel Johnson? Jesse Unruh? Courtney Brown? Laurence J. Peter?

kissinger03Dear Quote Investigator: The following saying is often attributed to the prominent U.S. foreign policy figure and Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger:

Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.

But I have also seen it attributed to the political scientist Wallace Sayre. Could you examine this adage?

Quote Investigator:
There are many different ways to state this basic idea. Here are some additional forms to help depict the range of possible expressions:

Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.

Politics on the university campus are the worst of all kinds of politics because the stakes are so small.

Campus politics are so nasty because the stakes are so small.

The republic of learning and letters works by especially bitter squabbling because the stakes are so small.

This exploration begins with a fascinating precursor in 1765 from the pen of the lexicographer and celebrated man of letters Samuel Johnson. In the following excerpt a “scholiast” referred to an academic commentator: 1 2

It is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed. The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they involve neither property nor liberty; nor favour the interest of sect or party. The various readings of copies, and different interpretations of a passage, seem to be questions that might exercise the wit, without engaging the passions.

But whether it be, that small things make mean men proud, and vanity catches small occasions; or that all contrariety of opinion, even in those that can defend it no longer, makes proud men angry; there is often found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of invective and contempt, more eager and venomous than is vented by the most furious controvertist in politicks against those whom he is hired to defame.

Another precursor was delivered in 1964 by Robert M. Hutchins whose long career included service as Dean of Yale Law School and President of the University of Chicago. Hutchins called academic politics “the worst kind”, but he did not include the sardonic explanation given in the full version of the saying: 3

Though I do not know much about professional politics, I know a lot about academic politics — and that is the worst kind. Woodrow Wilson said that Washington was a snap after Princeton.

The earliest direct evidence known to QI of a full statement that fits in the grouping above was printed in the transcript of a speech given in February 1969 at the annual convention of the American Association of School Administrators. The speaker was Charles Frankel who was a Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, but his phrasing indicated that the adage was already in circulation, and he provided no attribution: 4 5

It used to be said of politics on the university campus that it was the worst of all kinds of politics because the stakes were so small. We should be able to take at least minor comfort, then, from the present situation in the educational world: The stakes today are not at all small.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1765, Mr. Johnson’s Preface to His Edition of Shakespear’s Plays by Samuel Johnson, Page lvii, Printed for J. and R. Tonson, H. Woodfall, J. Rivington, etc., London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1997, After the Death of Literature by Richard B. Schwartz, Quote Page 12 and 13, Published by Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, Illinois. (Questia: Gale, Cengage Learning)
  3. 1964 October, The Journal of General Education, Volume 16, Number 3, “Science, Scientists, and Politics” by Robert M. Hutchins, Start Page 197, Quote Page 197, Published by: Penn State University Press. (JSTOR) link
  4. 1969, Official Report of AASA (Your AASA), Report on the 1969 Annual Convention of American Association of School Administrators, (Convention held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, February 15 to 19, 1969), Speech: Education and the Barricades by Charles Frankel, (Speech by Charles Frankel, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University; delivered February 17, 1969 during the Sixth General Session), Start Page 75, Quote Page 75, Published by American Association of School Administrators, Washington D.C. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1971, In Defense of Academic Freedom, Edited by Sidney Hook, “Education in Fever” by Charles Frankel, (Reprinted from Official Report of AASA, Report on the 1969 Annual Convention of the American Association of School Administrators), Start Page 35, Quote Page 35, Pegasus (Division of Bobbs-Merrill Company), New York. (Verified on paper)

The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken

Warren Buffett? Samuel Johnson? Maria Edgeworth? Bertrand Russell? Anonymous?

edgeworth01Dear Quote Investigator: I recall seeing a lecture by the famed investor Warren Buffett during which he cautioned his audience to avoid falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. He used this eloquent analysis:

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

While searching for a source I found some other versions of the statement. Here are two that are credited to the brilliant dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson:

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken

The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

I was unable to find a precise citation to Dr. Johnson’s works. Could you examine this adage?

Quote Investigator: Investor Warren Buffett did use this phrase more than once during speeches, but he did not claim credit for originating the saying. Detailed citations are given further below.

The expression has a long history, and the famous lexicographer and man of letters Samuel Johnson did write a prolix passage that was transformed and simplified in an evolutionary process that ultimately produced the concise modern aphorism used by Buffett.

In 1748 Johnson published an allegorical fable about the path to the Temple of Happiness titled “The Vision of Theodore”. The story warned readers using a symbolic figure named Habit who would bind the unwary in chains. A bound individual would be taken to a grim destination called the caverns of Despair. The following excerpt displayed a conceptual match to the modern saying. In addition, Johnson used the phrase “too strong to be broken” which was retained in some modern instances. Boldface has been added below: 1

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.

In the early 1800s an influential Irish writer named Maria Edgeworth crafted a compact version of the sentiment expressed by Samuel Johnson. Her book “Moral Tales for Young People” (second edition 1806) included a story called “Forester”, and in one scene the title character picked up a pair of scissors and twirled them on his finger absentmindedly. The character believed that this habit was undesirable: 2

He was rather ashamed to perceive that he had not yet cured himself of such a silly habit. “I thought the lesson I got at the brewery,” said he, “would have cured me for ever of this foolish trick; but the diminutive chains of habit, as somebody says, are scarcely ever heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.

Maria Edgeworth placed a footnote asterisk after the phrase “chains of habit”, and in the footnote she referenced “Dr. Johnson’s Vision of Theodore.” Edgeworth’s concise summary statement was clearly derived from Johnson’s story, but her expression was distinctive and did not appear directly in the fable’s text. Her forthright acknowledgement of Johnson probably facilitated some later confusion.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1748 April, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 18, “The Vision of Theodore, The Hermit of Teneriffe, Found in His Cell” (by Samuel Johnson), Start Page 159, Quote Page 160, Printed by E. Cave, St John’s Gate, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1806, Moral Tales For Young People by Miss Edgeworth (Maria Edgeworth), Volume 1, Second Edition, Forester, Quote Page 86, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books full view) link

Your Manuscript Is Good and Original, But What is Original Is Not Good; What Is Good Is Not Original

Samuel Johnson? Martin Sherlock? Johann Heinrich Voss? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Daniel Webster? Samuel Wilberforce?

samvoss10Dear Quote Investigator: The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson is credited with a famously devastating remark about a book he was evaluating:

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

I have never found a source for this quotation in the writings of Johnson, and I have become skeptical about this attribution. Do you know if he wrote this?

Quote Investigator: No substantive evidence has emerged to support the ascription to Samuel Johnson. In this article QI will trace the evolution of this saying and closely related expressions which have been attributed to a variety of prominent individuals. The following four statements have distinct meanings, but they can be clustered together semantically and syntactically.

What is new is not good; and what is good is not new.
What is new is not true; and what is true is not new.
What is original is not good; what is good is not original.
What is new is not valuable; what is valuable is not new.

The earliest evidence known to QI of a member of this cluster appeared in 1781 and was written by Reverend Martin Sherlock who was reviewing a popular collection of didactic letters published in book form. Lord Chesterfield composed the letters and sent them to his son with the goal of teaching him to become a man of the world and a gentleman. Sherlock was highly critical: 1

His principles of politeness are unexceptionable; and ought to be adopted by all young men of fashion; but they are known to every child in France; and are almost all translated from French books. In general, throughout the work, what is new is not good; and what is good is not new.

This expression was similar to the one attributed to Samuel Johnson. The word “new” was used instead of “original”. Yet, this passage did not include the humorous prefatory phrase which would have labeled the work “both new and good” before deflating it.

In the 1790s a German version of the saying using “new” and “true” was published in a collection by the translator and poet Johann Heinrich Voss. This instance did include a prefatory phrase stating that the “book teaches many things new and true”: 2 3

Dein redseliges Buch lehrt mancherlei Neues und Wahres,
Wäre das Wahre nur neu, wäre das Neue nur wahr!

Here is an English translation:

Your garrulous book teaches many things new and true,
If only the true were new, if only the new were true!

In 1800 a reviewer in “The British Critic” lambasted a book using a version of the brickbat with “new” and “good”: 4

In this part there are some good and some new things; but the good are not new, and the new are not good. Much time is employed in considering the opinion of the poet du Belloy, at present forgotten and of little consequence, who professed to prefer the French to the ancient languages.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1781, Letters on Several Subjects by The Rev. Martin Sherlock [Chaplain to the Right Honourable The Earl of Bristol], Volume 2, Letter XIV, Start Page 123, Quote Page 128 and 129, Printed for J. Nichols, T. Cadell, P. Elmsly, H. Payne and N. Conant, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1796, Gedichte, Johann Heinrich Voss, Volume 2, Section: Epigramme [Epigrams], (Standalone short saying titled “XVI: An mehrere Bücher” [16: Of several Books]), Quote Page 281, Frankfurt und Leipzig. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Harold MacMillan, Quote Page 305 and 306, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) (This reference gives the following citation for the J. H. Voss quotation: Vossischer Musenalmanach (1792; some references give a date of 1772 which appears to be inaccurate)
  4. 1800 June, The British Critic, Foreign Catalogue: France, Article 56: (Review of Book: Lycée, ou, Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, Book Author: J. F. Laharpe [Jean-Francois de La Harp]), Start Page 695, Quote Page 696, Printed for F. and C. Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link

You Are Astonished. I Am Surprised

Noah Webster? Samuel Johnson? Chauncey Depew? Apocryphal?

websterkiss01Dear Quote Investigator: There is a ribald anecdote about one of the world’s greatest dictionary makers that I would like you to explore. The tale claims that the lexicographer Noah Webster had a secret libertine inclination. One day his wife returned home and was shocked to discover him caressing and osculating the chambermaid.

The wife cried out, “Noah! I am surprised!” The stunned man’s reflexive thought patterns were immediately engaged, and he replied, “My dear, you must study our beautiful language more closely. It is I who am surprised. You are astonished.”

There is a rival version of this story featuring another famous dictionary creator Samuel Johnson as the philanderer. Johnson lived between 1709 and 1784; Webster lived between 1758 and 1843. I would like to know which man was the true Lothario.

Quote Investigator: Tracing an anecdote is a difficult task, but QI will make an attempt and present a snapshot of the results. The earliest discovered instance was printed in a newspaper in 1896. The raconteur was Chauncey Depew, a famous after-dinner speaker: 1

At a recent dinner in New York a new story was sprung by Chauncey M. Depew. Speaking of the importance of humor, Mr. Depew declared that Noah Webster, though a lexicographer, was humorist. “His wife,” Chauncey went on to say, “caught him one day kissing the cook.

“‘Noah,’ she exclaimed, ‘I’m surprised!’

“‘Madam,’ he replied, ‘you have not studied carefully our glorious language. It is I who am surprised. You are astounded.'”

In 1903 “Everybody’s Magazine” published a curious version of the story in which Webster’s transgression was not carnal. Instead, his wife was unhappy with the informality of his attire. This bowdlerized version was fit for everybody as suggested by the magazine name: 2

A story is told of Noah Webster, the dictionary maker, who one day was found by his wife at dinner without coat or collar while entertaining two guests. His wife’s sudden and unexpected return and entrance to the room brought those present to their feet. “I am surprised,” said Mrs. Webster. And Mr. Webster rejoined, “My dear, I am surprised—you are astonished.”

The originator of this joke was not a linguist, and its construction was based on an artifice. The rationale of the humorous rejoinder hinged on a sharp delineation between the meanings of words such as: surprised, astounded, and astonished. Yet the definitions given in the 1830 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary revealed overlapping denotations: 3

SURPRISE v. t. 1. To come or fall upon suddenly and unexpectedly; to take unawares. 2. To strike with wonder or astonishment. 3. To confuse; to throw the mind into disorder by something suddenly presented to the view or to the mind.

SURPRISED pp. Come upon or taken unawares; struck with something novel or unexpected.

ASTONISH v. t. To stun or strike dumb with sudden fear, terror, surprise, or wonder; to amaze; to confound with some sudden passion.

ASTONISHED pp. Amazed; confounded with fear, surprise, or admiration

ASTOUND, v. t. To astonish; to strike dumb with amazement.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1896 April 21, Daily Iowa Capital, A New One by Chauncey, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1903 September, Everybody’s Magazine, With “Everybody’s” Publishers, A Surprising Letter, Quote Page 419, Column 2, Volume 9, The Ridgway-Thayer Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1830, An American Dictionary of the English Language: Exhibiting the Origin, Orthography, Pronunciation, and Definitions of Words by Noah Webster, (Abridged from the Quarto edition by the author), Entry SURPRISE: Page 813, Entry ASTONISH and ASTOUND: Page 58, Published by S. Converse, New York. (Google Books full view) link

You Don’t Have to Know Everything. You Just Have to Know Where to Find It

Albert Einstein? Samuel Johnson? Sophonisba Breckinridge? John Brunner? Anonymous?

soph09Dear Quote Investigator: The depth and breadth of information available on the internet is wondrous. Here are three examples from a family of pertinent sayings I came across recently:

1) I don’t need to know everything; I just need to know where to find it, when I need it.
2) Never keep anything in your mind that you can look up.
3) Never memorize what you can look up in books.

These sayings express a fundamental insight into this age of vast knowledge bases and high-speed networks. The words were credited to Albert Einstein, but I cannot find any precise reference. There so much junk and misinformation about quotations. The prevalence of inaccurate data makes it harder to find correct information. Can you trace this general saying?

Quote Investigator: These quotations were not listed in the key reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1 Also, QI has not located any evidence of an exact match in the words written by the illustrious scientist.

Einstein did make a remark in 1921 that was conceptually related to the quotation. While visiting Boston he was asked whether he knew the value of the speed of sound, and he demurred: 2

He was asked through his secretary, “What is the speed of sound?” He could not say off-hand, he replied. He did not carry such information in his mind but it was readily available in text books.

Einstein’s remark was about a single fact; hence, it differed from the statement under investigation. Nevertheless, it was possible to generalize and reformulate his comment to apply to the wider set of knowledge available in books. Indeed, another version of Einstein’s response that was published in 1947 was closer to the sayings being examined. (Details are given further below.) Hence, the modern expressions may have evolved from Einstein’s comment in 1921.

The idea presented in the quotation does have a long history before the computer age. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1921 May 18, New York Times, Einstein Sees Boston; Fails on Edison Test: Asked to Tell Speed of Sound He Refers Questioner to Text Books (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 15, New York. (ProQuest)