John Lennon? Bertrand Russell? Laurence J. Peter? Marthe Troly-Curtin?
Dear Quote Investigator: I like to enjoy life and sometimes I am criticized for spending too much time on amusements and diversions. My favorite response is attributed to the legendary free-spirit John Lennon:
Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.
An acquaintance told me recently that the saying is actually from the brilliant philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell. It is clear that you enjoy tracing quotations, so could you please look into this one? I am certain you will not be wasting your time.
Quote Investigator: In addition to John Lennon and Bertrand Russell, the saying has been attributed to T. S. Elliot, Soren Kierkegaard, Laurence J. Peter, and others. The attribution to Russell was a mistake that was caused by the misreading of an entry in a quotation book compiled by Peter. The details of this error are given further below in this post.
The first instance of the phrase located by QI was published in 1912, a year that occurred before Laurence J. Peter and John Lennon were born. The expression appeared in the book “Phrynette Married” by Marthe Troly-Curtin. This novel was part of a series by Troly-Curtin that began with “Phrynette” in 1911. The image to the left is the frontispiece of this earlier novel. 1 An advertisement in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine grandly proclaimed that “Phrynette” was “The Most Talked-About Book in London Today” in July 1911. 2
“… Your father, for instance, don’t you think he would have done three times as much work if it had not been for your—what shall I say—‘bringing up’?”
“He liked it—time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
“Oh, but it was in his case—wasted for him and for many lovers of art.”
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In December 1912 the saying was printed together with a small set of unrelated aphorisms in a newspaper in Ashburton, New Zealand. The wording exactly matched the phrase in “Phrynette Married”, and the phrase may have been copied from that volume. Alternatively, the statement may already have been in circulation. No attribution was given: 5
THOUGHTS FOR THE DAY.
Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.
In 1920 a close variant of the saying was published widely, e.g., in newspapers in Trenton, New Jersey, 6 San Antonio, Texas, 7 Seattle, Washington, 8 and Salt Lake City, Utah. In each case the phrase appeared without attribution. The Salt Lake Telegram newspaper published the variant together with several other phrases that the editors deemed humorous. Here are three sample sayings: 9
When ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to confess.
Time you enjoy wasting isn’t always wasted time.
Man may have his will, but woman will have her way.
In 1924 a newspaper in Kingston, Jamaica printed a column about love affairs, “a subject which never grows old”, written by Rilette who offered makeup tips and encouragement along with her love advice: 10
Be sure you enjoy yourself wherever you are, even if others consider you are wasting your time; remember that time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time!—‘Bye,’ bye.
Your friend, “RILETTE”
In 1927 a theosophical magazine credited an individual named Meredith with employing a curious version of the maxim. This name might be a reference to the noted Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith but QI has not found definitive evidence to disambiguate the moniker: 11
Which brings to mind Meredith’s words: “Time enjoyed wasted, is not wasted time.”
In 1932 Bertrand Russell wrote an essay titled “In Praise of Idleness” in which he said that the work-hours per week should be dramatically reduced. This essay does not contain the adage. The following excerpt is included simply to suggest why Russell was a plausible candidate for coiner of the saying: 12
The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organisation of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of work had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed.
Being idle would give one plenty of time to “waste”. But QI has located no direct evidence that Russell ever used the maxim. Indeed, the words were attributed to him primarily because of a mistake that involved Laurence J. Peter.
Peter is best known for his 1969 book, “The Peter Principle“, about management and hierarchies. Several sardonic phrases emerged from his treatise, e.g., “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Peter also compiled a collection of quotations called “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time”. Unfortunately, the format used for some of the entries in the book was prone to misreading. Here is the confusing entry for a Bertrand Russell quotation: 13
The thing that I should wish to obtain from money would be leisure with security. —Bertrand Russell (The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.)
The parenthetical comment after the name Bertrand Russell was not written by Russell. It was written by Laurence J. Peter. This helps to explain why the saying under investigation is sometimes attributed to Russell and sometimes to Peter. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations uncovered this problem and mentioned it in a valuable section about misquotations. 14
By 2000 the adage was being credited to the famous musician John Lennon who died in 1980. An ascription was printed in an astrology column in an Australian magazine: 15
As Libran John Lennon noted, “Time you enjoy wasting, was not wasted.”
In conclusion, QI suggests crediting Marthe Troly-Curtin with this adage, provisionally. She is the author of the earliest currently known instance of the phrase. It is possible that someone used it before her and future research may uncover earlier examples. Laurence J. Peter also used the expression but he did so many years after its initial dissemination.
Thanks to Peter Gordon who helpfully pointed out some small errors in character selection.
Update History: On February 7, 2012 this article was reordered to improve readability and emphasize the 1912 citation. On November 3, 2012 the citation for December 18, 1912 was added. Also, the footnote style was changed to numerical. On December 3, 2013 a link and bibliographic entry were added for the copy of “Phrynette Married” that is available through the Internet Archive. On August 13, 2016 “Word of Wise Men” was changed to “Words of Wise Men” thanks to copyeditor Rebecca. Fixed some small errors in character selection on January 27, 2021.
- 1911, Phrynette by Marthe Troly-Curtin, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- July 1911, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Section: Lippincott’s Magazine Advertiser: [Advertisement for Phrynette by Marthe Troly-Curtin], Page not numbered, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Published by The Macmillan Company of Canada, Toronto, Canada. (Note that a flaw is present in the digital image of the microfilm image of page 256; some words are repeated)(Internet Archive archive.org; digitized from University of Alberta Libraries Microfilm; accessed December 3, 2013) link ↩
- 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Grant Richards Ltd, London; Riverside Press, Edinburgh. (Google Books snippet view) (Thanks to Eric at the Stanford University Information Center for verification of the text on paper) link ↩
- 1912 December 18, Ashburton Guardian, Thoughts for the Day, Page 6, Column 1, Region: Canterbury, Ashburton, New Zealand. (Google News Archive; Papers Past) ↩
- 1920 October 27, Trenton Evening Times, Daily Magazine Page for Everybody, Words of Wise Men, Page 21 (NA Page 6), Column 1, Trenton, New Jersey. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1920 October 27, San Antonio Evening News, Words of Wise Men, Page 4, Column 2, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1920 November 12, Seattle Daily Times, Page 11, Column 8, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1920 June 29, Salt Lake Telegram, Just Joking: This Week’s Wisdom, Page 4, Column 6, Salt Lake City, Utah. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1924 February 26, The (Daily) Gleaner, Rilette Writes Again to Her Dear Friend Eve, Page 11 (NA Page 29), Column 1, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1927 July, The Theosophical Path magazine, Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, On Looking Up Words in the Dictionary, Emmett Small, Jr., An Address delivered at the William Quan Judge Theosophical Club Meeting, May 27, 1927. (Text based on a reprint: 2003 Kessinger Publishing) (Verified in Google Books preview that is no longer visible) ↩
- 2004, In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays by Bertrand Russell, Page 6, Routledge Classics, London. [First Published in 1935 by George All & Unwin Ltd, London] (Google Books preview) link ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Page 299, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Misquotations, Oxford University Press. (Accessed Oxford Reference Online in May 2010) ↩
- 2000 October 14, Australian Magazine, The (Australia), Mystic Medusa – Travel Issue, [Horiscope information], Section: Magazine, Page 062, Nationwide News Pty Limited, Australia. (Access World News NewsBank) ↩