“I simply can’t bear fools.” “Apparently, your mother could.”

Dorothy Parker? An old farmer? A young newspaper editor? Bennett Cerf?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently when a friend delivered a clever retort I told her it was worthy of Dorothy Parker, but she did not recognize the name. I love Parker’s witticisms and am sad that her fame is going into eclipse.  The prominent publisher and joke collector Bennett Cerf told an anecdote about Parker on a cruise ship that I relayed to my friend [BCDP]:

A drunk on the boat developed an unrequited passion for her; Dorothy referred to him as a “rhinestone in the rough.” On one occasion he assured her, “I simply can’t bear fools.” “Apparently,” said Miss Parker, “your mother did not have the same difficulty.”

My skeptical friend wondered if these quips were created by Dorothy Parker. I assumed that they were. Could you look into these jests?

Quote Investigator: The cleverness of Parker was attested to by many admirers, and she may have delivered the lines in Cerf’s anecdote. But the two jokes have a long history, and she did not craft either of them.

The famous short story writer O. Henry used the phrase “rhinestone-in-the-rough” which is a comical twist on the phrase “diamond in the rough” in a tale in “McClure’s magazine” in 1904. Since Parker was only born in 1893 she was too young to be the originator of the expression. A version of the joke about bearing fools was told decades earlier in the periodical “Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion” in 1858.

Continue reading “I simply can’t bear fools.” “Apparently, your mother could.”

Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down

Collis Huntington? Richard Ballinger? David Starr Jordan? Upton Sinclair?

Dear Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the top railroad tycoons in the 1800s. His business skills helped to build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States and many other rail links. But his detractors considered him ruthless and greedy. These negative traits are displayed in an extraordinary saying that he supposedly pronounced:

Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.

Is Huntington really responsible for this colorful expression? I have found some books that claim with varying degrees of certainty that he said it. However, I have not found any direct evidence. Could you look into this question?

Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the Big Four railroad barons in the 1800s and QI will be glad to research this saying. The image above is part of a railroad bond that features his portrait. There is no evidence that Huntington said this controversial quotation. He died in 1900 and the words were popularized starting in 1910 by David Starr Jordan who was the president of Stanford University.

Jordan applied the phrase to several individuals and groups of people whose conduct earned his disapproval. He said the words were the “motto of the exploiter“.  Yet, Jordan never put the saying directly into the mouth of any individual that he criticized. Instead, he said that the phrase was a guiding principle or motto of those he disliked. Indeed, a commentator in 1914 stated that Jordan himself had coined the saying, and it had thenceforth achieved nationwide circulation.

In 1922 Jordan disparagingly said that Collis Huntington used the quotation as his “code of ethics.” The prominent muckraking commentator Upton Sinclair echoed Jordan’s statement about Huntington in one of his books in 1923. Over a period of time the facts were garbled and by the 1960s and 1970s some writers claimed that Huntington himself spoke the quotation. Thus, the words of a severe critic of Huntington were reassigned to Huntington himself.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down

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].

Continue reading A Collision at Sea Can Ruin Your Entire Day

There Are Things Known, and Things Unknown, and In Between Are the Doors

Jim Morrison? Ray Manzarek? Aldous Huxley? William Blake?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the best rock groups in history is The Doors, and its legendary front man Jim Morrison was one of the greatest rock stars ever. That is my opinion. But I am sending you this message because I want your opinion concerning a quotation:

There are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the Doors.

I was told that this sentence is the explanation that Jim Morrison gave when he was asked how the name of his band was chosen. But I have also been told that the major Romantic figure, poet, and painter William Blake came up with the saying. And somebody else claims that the writer, mystic, and experientialist Aldous Huxley was the creative intellect behind this insight. Could you disentangle this?

Quote Investigator: William Blake’s circa 1790 work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” contained a quote that famously spoke of perception and metaphorical doorways:

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.

Aldous Huxley wrote a 1954 book called “The Doors of Perception” that discussed his experiences with psychoactive agents; its title was an allusion to Blake’s work. But QI has not located the quotation under investigation in the texts of Blake or Huxley.

QI believes that the quote was derived from the words of the musician Ray Manzarek who together with Jim Morrison co-founded The Doors. In 1967 Newsweek magazine profiled the rock group and quoted Manzarek saying the following [NRM]:

There are things you know about, and things you don’t, the known and the unknown, and in between are the doors—that’s us.

QI hypothesizes that this quotation was streamlined and then the words were reassigned to more prominent figures such as Jim Morrison, Aldous Huxley and William Blake.

Continue reading There Are Things Known, and Things Unknown, and In Between Are the Doors

Figures Don’t Lie, But Liars Do Figure

Carroll D. Wright? Mark Twain? Charles H. Grosvenor? James G. Blaine? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I hope you will be able to settle a disagreement between friends concerning the following quotation:

Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

My friend believes that this saying originated with Samuel Clemens otherwise known as Mark Twain. I think it was created by Carroll D. Wright who was once the top statistics expert in the United States. Could you research this quote and help us to determine who composed it?

Quote Investigator: The saying has been credited to Mark Twain for more than ninety-five years, but the first citation for Twain located by QI is dated 1913. This is after Twain’s death and there is no corroborating evidence for the attribution in Twain’s own writings.

Carroll D. Wright was a prominent statistician employed by the U.S. government, and he did use the expression in 1889 while addressing the Convention of Commissioners of Bureaus of Statistics of Labor. But Wright did not claim that he coined the expression [CDW1]:

The old saying is that “figures will not lie,” but a new saying is “liars will figure.” It is our duty, as practical statisticians, to prevent the liar from figuring; in other words, to prevent him from perverting the truth, in the interest of some theory he wishes to establish.

Wright indicates that the second half of the quotation which is a twist using wordplay on the first half is a “new saying”. Indeed, QI has traced the statement back a few more years. The oldest three citations found by QI contain no attributions. The first instance is in a North Dakota newspaper of 1884 where the sentiment is presented as an anonymous piece of wisdom.

Continue reading Figures Don’t Lie, But Liars Do Figure

Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

Laurie Anderson? Steve Martin? Frank Zappa? Martin Mull? Elvis Costello? Thelonius Monk?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have a difficult riddle for you. A mailing list I belong to has discussed the following quotation several times during the past ten years, and the question of its origin has never been satisfactorily resolved.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Thelonius Monk, Clara Schumann, Miles Davis, George Carlin and several other people have been credited with concocting this extraordinarily popular and enigmatic simile. There is another common version of the quote: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Is there any chance that you could attempt to trace this famous saying?

Quote Investigator: With the help of colleagues, correspondents, and wonderful music librarians QI can report some revealing citations. The first close match appears in the “Detroit Free Press” of Michigan in February 1979 within a column titled “Bob Talbert’s quotebag” which presents miscellaneous quotations. The dots are in the original text. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Martin Mull . . .
. . . Comedian-musician on music criticism: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

The second close match appears in a magazine dedicated to the history of rock and roll called “Time Barrier Express”. The September-October 1979 issue contains a profile of the group Sam & Dave by Gary Sperrazza in which he discusses the interplay and rapport of the duo: 2

All quick, very natural, and captured on vinyl. It’s so hard to explain on paper, you’ll just have to find the records and listen for yourself (because I truly believe — honest — that writing about music is, as Martin Mull put it, like dancing about architecture).

Based on current evidence QI believes that Martin Mull is the most likely originator of this expression. It is not clear how Bob Talbert and Gary Sperrazza heard or read about the quotation. Mull did release several albums combining comedy and music in the 1970s. He also appeared in the television soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, and the talk show parody “Fernwood 2 Night” (later renamed “America 2-Night”). It is possible that he used the phrase in one of these venues, or perhaps he said it during a stage performance or interview.

Researchers have been attempting to trace this well-known saying for many years. It is a recurrent topic in discussion forums and on mailing lists. Alan P. Scott was the key pioneer in this endeavor, and he has created a wonderful webpage that records his gleanings and includes a comprehensive list of people that have been credited with the quotation. 3

The clever maxim was probably not created ex nihilo. QI has found a family of similar expressions about music that date back to 1918. This backstory helps to illuminate the aphorism, and it begins with a remark involving “singing about economics.”
Continue reading Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

Notes:

  1. 1979 February 18, Detroit Free Press, Bob Talbert’s quotebag, Quote Page 19C, Column 5, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1979 September-October, Time Barrier Express, “Looka Here! It’s Sam & Dave!” by Gary Sperrazza, Page 25, Column 1, Issue Number 26, Volume 3, Number 6, White Plains, N.Y. (Verified using scanned images from the Music Library & Sound Recordings Archives at Bowling Green State University; Great thanks to the librarian at BGSU)
  3. Alan P. Scott authored webpage about the origin of the saying “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” (Accessed 2010 November 7) link

If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman

Margaret Thatcher? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to learn about a sentence supposedly said by Margaret Thatcher who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1980s. The version I was told is:

If you want a speech made you should ask a man, but if you want something done you should ask a woman.

This is a fascinating statement, but I am incredulous. Could you investigate? Where and when did she say this? Or is this another fake quotation?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will look into this provocative remark for you. Two important reference works, the Yale Book of Quotations [YQMT] and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [OQMT], list a version of this saying that appeared in People magazine in 1975. This instance of the adage includes the prefatory phrase “In politics”. Here is an excerpt from People [PMT]:

“In politics,” Margaret Thatcher once acidly observed, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

The Yale Book of Quotations also states, “Thatcher is said to have used this in a 1965 speech.” Yes, QI can report that a newspaper called the Evening News on May 20, 1965 quotes Thatcher using the phrase when addressing a women’s group.

Continue reading If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman