A Collision at Sea Can Ruin Your Entire Day

Thucydides? W. B. ‘Bill’ Hayler? Horowitz’ First Law?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once served on a ship that had a brass plaque on the bridge engraved with the following:

A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.

This comes across as a modern sardonic saying, and I was surprised to read the name of Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian, on the plate beneath the saying. Is this attribution accurate? Perhaps it is a very loose translation? Could you examine this maxim and determine if it embodies ancient or modern wisdom?

Quote Investigator: The story behind this quotation is fascinating because it illustrates the malleability of sayings and attributions. Evidence indicates that this maxim which is dubiously linked with Thucydides was created and disseminated as a prank in the 1960s.

Commander W. B. ‘Bill’ Hayler was the prankster, and he confessed that he initiated the deed while he was a student at the Naval War College in 1960. The tale of Hayler’s hijinks was reported by the prominent newspaper columnist Herb Caen in 1971 [BHJ]. Top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro recently located Caen’s column while investigating the quote [QUC].

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