Milli-Helen: The Quantity of Beauty Required To Launch Exactly One Ship

Isaac Asimov? W. A. H. Rushton? R. C. Winton? Edgar J. Westbury? Christopher Marlowe? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Standards of beauty are notoriously subjective and variable. Different qualities are prized over time and distinct cultures value divergent attributes.

In the domain of Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman in the world. English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy “Doctor Faustus” contains the following lines about her:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium

An aspiring humorist proposed the “Helen” as a measure of female pulchritude. Thus, the “milli-Helen” (one thousandth of a “Helen”) was the amount of beauty sufficient to launch one ship. The hyphen is sometimes omitted. This quip has been attributed to science fiction author Isaac Asimov and physiologist W. A. H. Rushton. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence known to QI appeared in the London humor magazine “Punch” in 1954. The quip was attributed to an unnamed “professor of natural philosophy”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Scientists and aesthetes alike have heard with interest that the “unit of absolute beauty” has been invented by a professor of natural philosophy, who calls it a Helen and explains that it is divisible into millihelens. It is hoped that the millihelen may in time be interpreted in terms of power, when it should prove handy for launching a single ship.

In 1993 science fiction luminary Isaac Asimov made the interesting claim that he invented the term “millihelen” during a discussion with a friend in the early 1940s. See the 1993 citation given further below. QI has not yet located substantive support for this claim.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Milli-Helen: The Quantity of Beauty Required To Launch Exactly One Ship

Notes:

  1. 1954 June 23, Punch or The London Charivari, Volume 226, Issue Number 5936, Page Title: Punch: Charivaria, Quote Page 737, Column 3, Published at the Office of Punch, London, England. (Gale Cengage “Punch” Historical Archive)

No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy

Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Carl von Clausewitz? Dwight D. Eisenhower? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Anybody who is attempting to accomplish a major project must be flexible. Planning is important, but adaptability is essential. Here are two versions of a pertinent adage from the domain of warfare and competition:

  • No plan survives contact with the enemy.
  • No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

This saying has been attributed to Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1871 Helmuth von Moltke wrote an essay about military strategy that included a lengthy statement that was essentially equivalent to the concise adage. Here is an excerpt in German followed by an English translation. Boldface added to by QI: 1

Kein Operationsplan reicht mit einiger Sicherheit über das erste Zusammentreffen mit der feindlichen Hauptmacht hinaus. Nur der Laie glaubt in dem Verlauf eines Feldzuges die konsequente Durchführung eines im voraus gefaßten in allen Einzelheiten überlegten und bis ans Ende festgehaltenen, ursprünglichen Gedankens zu erblicken.

No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first encounter with the main enemy forces. Only the layman believes that in the course of a campaign he sees the consistent implementation of an original thought that has been considered in advance in every detail and retained to the end.

Over time Moltke’s statement was condensed to yield the currently popular adages.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading No Plan Survives First Contact With the Enemy

Notes:

  1. 1900, Moltkes Militärische Werke: II. Die Thätigkeit als Chef des Generalstabes der Armee im Frieden. (Moltke’s Military Works: II. Activity as Chief of the Army General Staff in Peacetime) Zweiter Theil (Second Part), Aufsatz vom Jahre 1871 Ueber Strategie (Article from 1871 on strategy), Start Page 287, Quote Page 291, Publisher: Ernst Siegfried Mittler und Sohn, Berlin, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link

The Things of Nature Do Not Really Belong To Us. We Should Leave Them To Our Children As We Have Received Them

Oscar Wilde? Lloyd Lewis? Henry Justin Smith? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous wit Oscar Wilde apparently expressed some forward thinking ideas about the environment. He believed that the natural world should be preserved so that it can be conveyed to our children in the condition it was received. Would you please help me to find a citation.

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1936 book “Oscar Wilde Discovers America” by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith. The quotation appeared in a section of the book about Wilde’s visit to Canada in 1882. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At Ottawa, where he spoke next, Wilde realized how completely Canada had followed America into industrialism and business . . . And in that very April he had read complaints of the American Forestry Congress, which was organizing in Cincinnati against the rapid waste of forests.

As a Socialist, the poet opposed such exploitation of natural resources. “The things of nature do not really belong to us,” he said; “we should leave them to our children as we have received them.”

How this philosophy, if put into action, would have delayed the settlement of the West, was a question he did not face.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Things of Nature Do Not Really Belong To Us. We Should Leave Them To Our Children As We Have Received Them

Notes:

  1. 1936, Oscar Wilde Discovers America [1882] by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, Book 4: Eastward, Southward, Northward, Chapter 2: Adds a New Horror To Death, Quote Page 350, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)

Co-Authoring a Book Is Like Three People Getting Together To Have a Baby

Evelyn Waugh? Agatha Christie? Hilary St. George Saunders? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Collaborating on a complex project like writing a novel is impossible for many people. English writer Evelyn Waugh said something like the following:

Coauthoring a book is like three people getting together to have a baby.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In April 1943 the prominent gossip columnist Leonard Lyons wrote about British novelist Evelyn Waugh and British historian Hilary St. George Saunders. Waugh was surprised to learn that Saunders was able to work together with another writer to successfully coauthor a book. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Of Saunders’ other writings, Waugh said: “But he collaborates. I never can understand how two men can write a book together. To me, that’s like three people getting together to have a baby.”

In the age of surrogate mothers and in vitro fertilization the notion of three (or more) people collaborating to produce a child is no longer outlandish.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Co-Authoring a Book Is Like Three People Getting Together To Have a Baby

Notes:

  1. 1943 April 7, The Washington Post, Times Square Tattle by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page B6, Column 4, Washington D.C. (ProQuest)

When First We Fall in Love, We Feel That We Know All There Is To Know About Life, and Perhaps We Are Right

Mignon McLaughlin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: First love is exhilarating. Infatuated lovers feel like they have acquired esoteric knowledge of the universe. This might even be true. The witty journalist Mignon McLaughlin made this point using a different phrasing. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1963 McLaughlin published “The Neurotic’s Notebook” which included the following item. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

When first we fall in love, we feel that we know all there is to know about life, and perhaps we are right.

McLaughlin shared other insights about love and desire in her book: 2

Love, like money, is offered most freely to those in least need of it.

When desire has been satisfied, we can begin to think seriously about love.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When First We Fall in Love, We Feel That We Know All There Is To Know About Life, and Perhaps We Are Right

Notes:

  1. 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook by Mignon McLaughlin, Chapter 1: Love and Marriage, Quote Page 13, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook by Mignon McLaughlin, Chapter 1: Love and Marriage, Quote Page 9 and 13, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)

You Have the Same Chance of Winning a Lottery Whether You Play Or Not

Fran Lebowitz? Herb Caen? Don Bleu? Rob Morse? Rebecca Blagrave? Liz Smith? William Deresiewicz?

Dear Quote Investigator: The probability that you will purchase a lottery ticket worth millions of dollars is miniscule. Here are two comically exaggerated quips based on this observation:

I figure your odds of winning the lottery are the same, whether you buy a ticket or whether you don’t.

I’ve done the calculation and your chances of winning the lottery are identical whether you play or not.

Commentator Fran Lebowitz has received credit for this saying. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI occurs in a video segment dated September 18, 1985 from the television show “Late Night with David Letterman” during which Fran Lebowitz spoke about gambling to the host Letterman. The segment is available via YouTube. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

We have a lottery here in New York. I feel you have the same chance of winning a lottery whether you play or not.

Currently, Lebowitz is the leading candidate for originator of this humorous observation. The statement’s phrasing is highly variable which makes it difficult to trace. QI has not independently verified the date of the video segment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Have the Same Chance of Winning a Lottery Whether You Play Or Not

Notes:

  1. YouTube video, Title: Fran Lebowitz Collection on Letterman, 1980-2010, Uploaded on January 11, 2021, Uploaded by: Don Giller, Airdate of television episode: September 18, 1985, (Date is shown at 1 hour, 45 minutes, 18 seconds), (Quotation starts at 1 hour, 51 minutes, 50 seconds of 2 hours, 30 minutes, 44 seconds) (Accessed on youtube.com on April 29, 2021) link

Politician: Straddling the Fence With Both Ears To the Ground

H. L. Mencken? Arthur Stanwood Pier? L. Curry Morton? Life Magazine? Sylvester K. Stevens? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A startling and funny depiction of a politician has been constructed by mixing two vivid metaphors:

A politician is an animal who can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.

This remark has been credited to the influential Baltimore curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: When faced with a significant decision some people refuse to make a commitment. These indecisive people inspired three eloquent figurative phrases: “sitting on the fence”, “standing on the fence”, and “straddling the fence”. Widespread use of these phrases occurred in the nineteenth century.

People who carefully monitor trends and listen to rumors inspired the descriptive phrase “keeping an ear to the ground” which also achieved widespread use in the nineteenth century. Eventually, a physically impossible version emerged: “keeping both ears to the ground”.

The comical remark under examination evolved over time as the metaphors were combined, enhanced, and applied to politicians.

In 1901 teacher and novelist Arthur Stanwood Pier published “The Sentimentalists”. During one scene the character Virginia criticized her brother Vernon. She comically combined five different figurative phrases. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“You’re always straddling a fence, with one ear to the ground to see which way the wind blows,” said Virginia. “It’s a picturesque attitude, but you don’t get much leverage. You’d do better if you came out into the open and showed your hand.”

“My sister talks like a monologue artist in a vaudeville show,” complained Vernon.

The above instance cleverly combined metaphors, but it referred to one ear and not two. Also, the remark was not applied to politicians in general.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Politician: Straddling the Fence With Both Ears To the Ground

Notes:

  1. 1901, The Sentimentalists: A Novel by Arthur Stanwood Pier, Chapter 11: The Hero Gains in Knowledge and Loses in Wisdom Quote Page 125 and 126, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Die, My Dear Doctor! That’s the Last Thing I Shall Do

Groucho Marx? Lord Palmerston? Old Bishop? Söndags-Nisse? Robert Lee Bullard? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A famous person lying on their deathbed overheard distraught visitors discussing mortality. The stricken but still lively individual sat bolt upright and declared:

Die? That’s the last thing I’ll do.

This humorously redundant statement has been attributed to U.S. comedian Groucho Marx and U.K. statesman Lord Palmerston. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The phrasing of this quip has evolved over time. Here is a sampling with dates:

1866 Jun 28: Dying was the last thing a man should think about.
1867 Mar 01: As for my dying, that is the last thing I shall do.
1883 May 17: Die, my dear doctor? That’s the last thing I think of doing.
1886 May 22: Die, my dear doctor! That’s the last thing I shall do.
1901 Mar 25: Die? That’s the last thing I’ll do.
1925 Jan 18: Die . . . That is the last thing I intend to do.
1933 Oct 12: The last thing that I intend to do, brethren, is to die.

Lord Palmerston (Henry John Temple) died on October 18, 1865. The quip was attributed to him by March 1, 1867. The context was his retirement and not his deathbed. Lord Palmerston is the leading candidate for crafter of this quip based on current data.

There is one complication. A variant joke was ascribed to an “old Bishop” by June 28, 1866. This date was after Palmerston’s death but before he received credit. Hence, it is possible that an existing anonymous joke was simple reassigned to Palmerston posthumously.

Groucho Marx was born in 1890 and died in 1977. The joke was ascribed to him by 2008. This is very weak evidence, and QI believes the attribution to Groucho is spurious.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Die, My Dear Doctor! That’s the Last Thing I Shall Do

That Person Is the Richest Whose Pleasures Are the Cheapest

Henry David Thoreau? Robert Chambers? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A centimillionaire who is fixated on the wealth and extravagances of a billionaire may feel comparatively poor. Yet, a different mindset would allow almost anyone to feel wealthy. The transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau suggested that one could feel rich if one’s pleasures were inexpensive. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: On March 11, 1856 Henry David Thoreau wrote in his personal journal that friends were encouraging him to travel around the world, but he was not enthusiastic: 1

When it is proposed to me to go abroad, rub off some rust, and better my condition in a worldly sense, I fear lest my life would lose some of its homeliness. If these fields, and streams, and woods, the phenomena of nature here, and the simple occupations of the inhabitants should cease to interest and inspire me, no culture or wealth would atone for the loss.

Thoreau did not want his simple quotidian pleasures to be reduced. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:

I do not wish my native soil to become exhausted and run out through neglect. Only that traveling is good which reveals to me the value of home and enables me to enjoy it better. That man is the richest whose pleasures are the cheapest.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading That Person Is the Richest Whose Pleasures Are the Cheapest

Notes:

  1. 1881, Early Spring in Massachusetts: From the Journal of Henry D. Thoreau, Date: March 11, 1856, Start Page 114, Quote Page 115, Houghton Mifflin and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Pay Enough for Anything and It Passes for Taste

Sue Grafton? Kinsey Millhone? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A handbag with the logo of a top fashion company is quite expensive. The high cost functions as a marker of desirability. Here is a germane adage:

Pay enough for anything and it passes for taste.

This statement has been attributed to popular detective novelist Sue Grafton. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1992 Sue Grafton published “‘I’ is for Innocent”, a book in her top-selling alphabet series. The adage appeared within an internal monologue of the main character, private investigator Kinsey Millhone, while she was approaching an expensive house. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

My guess was that inside the floors would be aggregate concrete, with the plumbing and furnace ducts plainly visible and raw. Add some corrugated plastic panels and an atrium done up in wall-to-wall Astroturf and you’d have the kind of house Metropolitan Home might refer to as “assured,” “unsparing,” or “brilliantly iconoclastic.” “Unremittingly tacky” would also cover it. Pay enough for anything and it passes for taste.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Pay Enough for Anything and It Passes for Taste

Notes:

  1. 1992, “I” is for Innocent by Sue Grafton, Chapter 5, Quote Page 61, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)