An Epigram is Only a Wisecrack That’s Played Carnegie Hall

Oscar Levant? Edmund Fuller? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I see on the website that you looked into a quotation credited to the pianist, actor, and wit Oscar Levant and showed that someone else probably said it first. But I am confident that the following quote was originally said by Levant, and it fits the theme of the blog:

An epigram is only a wisecrack that’s played at Carnegie Hall.

Could you tell me whether these are the words of Oscar Levant?

Quote Investigator: QI will be happy to research this saying for you. To understand the humor in the remark it is helpful to know that Carnegie Hall has historically been one of the top venues for musical performances in New York and the world. This epigram about epigrams does appear to be the creation of Levant, but the wording given above differs from the earliest instances found by QI.

In 1941 a collection titled “Thesaurus of Quotations” edited by Edmund Fuller listed the following version of the saying attributed to Oscar Levant [TQF]:

An epigram is a gag that’s played Carnegie Hall.

There are a few other versions of the saying. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading An Epigram is Only a Wisecrack That’s Played Carnegie Hall

An Eye for an Eye Will Make the Whole World Blind

Mohandas Gandhi? George Perry Graham? Louis Fischer? Henry Powell Spring? Martin Luther King?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mohandas Gandhi’s policy of non-violence was famously used during the campaign for independence in India.  There is a well-known quotation that helps to express the rationale for this non-retaliatory philosophy:

An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind.

I have read that Gandhi spoke this statement or something similar, but I haven’t yet found a precise citation for this. Could you find out when and where Gandhi said this?

Quote Investigator: One of the world’s top quotation experts, Fred R. Shapiro editor of the Yale Book of Quotations (YBQ), has examined this question. This is what the YBQ says [YQG]:

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind” is frequently attributed to M. K. Gandhi. The Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence states that the Gandhi family believes it is an authentic Gandhi quotation, but no example of its use by the Indian leader has ever been discovered.

The YBQ notes that an important biographer of Gandhi, Louis Fischer, used a version of the expression when he wrote about Gandhi’s approach to conflict. However, Fischer did not attribute the saying to Gandhi in his description of the leader’s life. Instead, Fischer used the expression himself as part of his explanation of Gandhi’s philosophy. QI thinks some readers may have been confused and may have decided to directly attribute the saying to Gandhi based on a misreading of Fischer’s works.

The epigram is a twist on a famous Biblical injunction in the Book of Exodus [21:24]: Eye for eye, tooth for tooth. These words appear in the King James English translation. There is a more elaborate version of the clever maxim based on these two phrases:

An eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth would lead to a world of the blind and toothless.

QI has located relevant variants for this longer expression in 1914 and 1944. Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading An Eye for an Eye Will Make the Whole World Blind

A Man May Do an Immense Deal of Good, If He Does Not Care Who Gets the Credit

Benjamin Jowett? Father Strickland? William T. Arnold? Harry Truman? Ronald Reagan? Charles Edward Montague? Edward Everett Hale?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a quotation I love that presents an insightful guideline for the most effective way to achieve a goal by accenting humility:

The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit for doing them.

When I tried to find out who was responsible for this quotation I became confused because there are so many different versions of what I consider to be the same basic idea. Could you look into this expression or family of expressions and figure out who first verbalized the thought?

Quote Investigator: This is a complicated question, and QI will attempt to tackle it for you. This concept of positive action coupled with a generous spirit has a multiplicity of formulations, and it has inspired a large number of people. Here are five versions:

[1] A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.

[2] This was the opportunity for a man who likes to do a good thing in accordance with the noble maxim … “Never mind who gets the credit.”

[3] The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.

[4] There is no limit to what a man can do who does not care who gains the credit for it.

[5] There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.

These sayings are certainly not identical, but they are closely interlinked thematically. Quotation number [1] appeared in a diary entry from the year 1863 in which the words were recorded as spoken by a Jesuit Priest named Father Strickland. This is the earliest citation located by QI.

In 1896 the text of [2] was published, and the phrase “Never mind who gets the credit” was dubbed the noble maxim of Edward Everett Hale.

In 1905 quotation [3] was published, and the words were attributed to Benjamin Jowett who was a theologian and classical scholar at Oxford University. But one of the author’s who made this attribution decided it was flawed, and in a later book he reassigned credit for the saying from Jowett to a “Jesuit Father”. This is probably a reference to Father Strickland. This maxim is a very close match to the quote given by the questioner above.

Expression [4] was used by Charles Edward Montague in 1906, but he did not claim coinage of the phrase. He said it was the favorite saying of his friend and colleague the journalist William T. Arnold. But Montague did not credit Arnold as originator either. He left the attribution anonymous by using the locution “someone has said”.

In 1922 Montague published a close variant of saying [4], “There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit”, in his book “Disenchantment”. For this reason he is sometimes cited in modern texts and databases.

Finally, quotation [5] appeared in the 1980s on a small plaque atop the desk in the Oval Office of the White House during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Man May Do an Immense Deal of Good, If He Does Not Care Who Gets the Credit

Meretricious and a Happy New Year

Gore Vidal? Franklin P. Adams? George S. Kaufman? Mary Horan? Chico Marx? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The holiday season is here, and I have a question about a pun. A critic once told Gore Vidal that one of his novels was meretricious and Gore pointedly replied:

Really? Well, meretricious and a happy New Year to you too!

This anecdote is set in the 1970s and when I read about it recently I was reminded of stories about the Algonquin Round Table. The group members used to play a game in which a word was selected and a participant was challenged to create a clever sentence using it. I think meretricious was one of the words chosen, and the result was the quip used by Gore Vidal many years later. Could you check into this?

Quote Investigator: Top quotation researcher Nigel Rees explored this topic in two issues of his periodical “The ‘Quote Unquote’ Newsletter” in July 1998[1]The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1997-2001 (Kindle), Issue: July 1998, Volume 7, Number 3, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Further Findings, Newsletter Published and distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate … Continue reading and October 1998.[2]The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1997-2001 (Kindle), Issue: October 1998, Volume 7, Number 4, Edited by Nigel Rees, Article: Earlier or Not: Meretricious – and a happy New Year, Newsletter … Continue reading An episode of verbal jousting by Gore Vidal was mentioned. In addition, the newsletter noted an attribution to Franklin P. Adams by 1977. Most fascinating was an instance of the wordplay in a Marx Brothers radio show in 1933.

The earliest instance located by QI was published in December 1929 by the famous columnist Walter Winchell who referred to the sentence construction activity as a “parlor diversion.” Winchell presented two examples of puns which he attributed to the actress Mary Horan. The third example used meretricious, but the joke was not credited to a specific person.

Later citations shown below credit George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, The Marx Brothers, and Vidal Gore. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Meretricious and a Happy New Year

References

References
1 The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1997-2001 (Kindle), Issue: July 1998, Volume 7, Number 3, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section: Further Findings, Newsletter Published and distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk (Compilation 1997-2001 available as Kindle ebook)
2 The Quote Unquote Newsletter 1997-2001 (Kindle), Issue: October 1998, Volume 7, Number 4, Edited by Nigel Rees, Article: Earlier or Not: Meretricious – and a happy New Year, Newsletter Published and distributed by Nigel Rees, Hillgate Place, London, Website: www.quote-unquote.org.uk link (Compilation 1997-2001 available as Kindle ebook)

Epitaph: At Last She Sleeps Alone

Robert Benchley? Irvin Cobb? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A variety of quips have been credited to the great wit and stylish film actor Robert Benchley, but I don’t see his name very often on this website. Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes contains a story that illustrates his sharp humor. Benchley was attending a Hollywood bash and sitting next to a beautiful actress who married often and engaged in love affairs even more frequently. A popular party game called for each guest to write his or her own epitaph [BRB]:

She complained that she could not think what to write about herself. The humorist suggested: “At last she sleeps alone.”

Would you please explore this tale to see if Benchley concocted this zinger?

Quote Investigator: In addition to Bartlett’s Book of Anecdotes this popular witticism appears as a punch line in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations [ORB] and the Yale Book of Quotations [YRB].  All three references credit Benchley and the earliest citation of 1943 is given by the YBQ.

QI has found an instance of this yarn with Benchley composing the jocular epitaph that was published at the slightly earlier date of 1942. But another famed humorist was a participant in a very similar story, and he produced the same punch line several years before this date. Since the joke is somewhat risqué and also a bit unkind QI was surprised to find it ascribed to the folksy entertainer Will Rogers in 1935.

Yet the quip without the supplementary anecdote may have been in circulation for an even longer period. One well-known historian states that the joke was told by the columnist Irvin Cobb about a high-profile socialite named Sally Ward who died in 1896. Here are selected instances in chronological order.

Continue reading Epitaph: At Last She Sleeps Alone

To Err is Human; To Really Foul Things Up Requires a Computer

Paul Ehrlich? Alexander Pope? Senator Soaper? Bill Vaughan? Agatha Christie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am reading your blog and that shows I am not a Luddite, but computers can be very exasperating. One of my favorite quotations on this topic is the following:

To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.

When I tried to find out who said this originally I came across the name of biologist Paul Ehrlich. He wrote an influential and controversial book “The Population Bomb” in 1968. But I cannot figure out where or when Ehrlich said this quotation. Would you delve into this and determine the specifics? I suspect that it is another anonymously authored witty remark.

Quote Investigator: The popularity of this funny maxim is indicated by its appearance in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations,[1] Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Sayings 49”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 October 6) the Yale Book of Quotations,[2] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 670, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) and the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.[3] 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations [Inside title Columbia Book of Quotations], Page 171, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books preview) link In each of these three references the adage is presented as anonymous. The Yale Book of Quotations gives the earliest cite dated October 3, 1969.

Paul Ehrlich is credited with the quote in some places, e.g., in a listing of “101 Great Computer Programming Quotes”.[4] 2008 January 1, Website: devtopics.com, DevTopics: Software Development Topics, 101 Great Computer Programming Quotes. (Accessed December 5, 2010) link But the earliest examples of the phrase attributed to Ehrlich were published many years after the words originally appeared in print.

In 1969 a thematically similar remark appeared in the book “Hallowe’en Party” by the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie:[5] 1970 (Copyright 1969), Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, Quote Page 35, Pocket Books, New York. (First published in 1969; this is 1970 paperback edition) (Verified with scans)

I know there’s a proverb which says, ‘To err is human’ but a human error is nothing to what a computer can do if it tries.”

A separate article about the Christie quotation is available here.

The first close match located by QI appeared on April 2, 1969 and was credited to a comical personage named ‘Senator Soaper’ who was the fictional alter ego of the newspaper columnist Bill Vaughan. The words initially appeared under that name in a Virginia paper:[6] 1969 April 2, Free Lance-Star, Senator Soaper [Free standing quote], Page 1, Column 2, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Google News archive)

To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer.

Current evidence suggests that William E. Vaughan crafted this phrase although it is possible he was influenced by the Agatha Christie passage.
Continue reading To Err is Human; To Really Foul Things Up Requires a Computer

References

References
1 Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Sayings 49”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 October 6)
2 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 670, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
3 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations [Inside title Columbia Book of Quotations], Page 171, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books preview) link
4 2008 January 1, Website: devtopics.com, DevTopics: Software Development Topics, 101 Great Computer Programming Quotes. (Accessed December 5, 2010) link
5 1970 (Copyright 1969), Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, Quote Page 35, Pocket Books, New York. (First published in 1969; this is 1970 paperback edition) (Verified with scans)
6 1969 April 2, Free Lance-Star, Senator Soaper [Free standing quote], Page 1, Column 2, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Google News archive)

The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing

John F. Kennedy? Edmund Burke? R. Murray Hyslop? Charles F. Aked? John Stuart Mill?

Dear Quote Investigator: Here is a challenge for you. I have been reading the wonderful book “The Quote Verifier” by Ralph Keyes, and he discusses the mixed-up quotations that President John F. Kennedy sometimes declaimed in his speeches. Here is an example of a famous one with an incorrect attribution:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Keyes says that the quote has not been successfully traced:[1] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 59, 109, and 286, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

. . . which Kennedy attributed to Edmund Burke and which recently was judged the most popular quotation of modern times (in a poll conducted by editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). Even though it is clear by now that Burke is unlikely to have made this observation, no one has ever been able to determine who did.

Will you explore this question?

Quote Investigator: First, “The Quote Verifier” volume has my highest recommendation. The impressive research of Keyes is presented in a fascinating, entertaining, and fun manner.

Edmund Burke died in 1797, and John Stuart Mill died in 1873. Both produced apothegms that are loosely similar to the quotation under investigation but are unmistakably distinct. The earliest known citation showing a strong similarity to the modern quote appeared in October of 1916. The researcher J. L. Bell found this important instance. The maxim appeared in a quotation from a speech by the Reverend Charles F. Aked who was calling for restrictions on the use of alcohol:[2]1916 October 31, San Jose Mercury Herald, Dr. Charles F. Aked On Liquor Traffic, Page 1, Section 2, [Page 9], San Jose, California. (Archive of Americana) (Thanks to Ken Hirsch for pointing out this … Continue reading

It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.

QI believes that the full name of Aked was Charles Frederic Aked, and he was a prominent preacher and lecturer who moved from England to America. The same expression was attributed to Aked in another periodical in 1920. Details for this cite are given further below.

The earliest attribution of the modern saying to Edmund Burke was found by top researcher Barry Popik. In July of 1920 a man named Sir R. Murray Hyslop delivered an address at a Congregational church conference that included the following:[3]1921, Volume of Proceedings of the Fourth International Congregational Council, Held in Boston Massachusetts June 29 – July 6 1920, Address Delivered July 5, 1920 to the International … Continue reading

Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

The search for the origin of this famous quotation has led to controversy. One disagreement involved the important reference book Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and the well-known word maven William Safire.

Below are selected citations in chronological order and a brief discussion of this altercation. Continue reading The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing

References

References
1 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 59, 109, and 286, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
2 1916 October 31, San Jose Mercury Herald, Dr. Charles F. Aked On Liquor Traffic, Page 1, Section 2, [Page 9], San Jose, California. (Archive of Americana) (Thanks to Ken Hirsch for pointing out this citation in a post by J. L. Bell at the website Boston 1775; Verified with newspaper scans from Archive of Americana; Thanks to Mike at Duke University for obtaining images from Archive of Americana) link
3 1921, Volume of Proceedings of the Fourth International Congregational Council, Held in Boston Massachusetts June 29 – July 6 1920, Address Delivered July 5, 1920 to the International Congregational Council, “Some Present Features of the Temperance Crusade” by Sir R. Murray Hyslop, J. P., Page 166, [The National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States, New York], The Pilgrim Press, Boston. (Google Books full view) link [Barry Popik’s web page link]