A Day Without Laughter is a Day Wasted

Charlie Chaplin? Steve Martin? Groucho Marx? Nicolas Chamfort?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following guideline for living makes sense to me, so I try to find humor in something every day:

A day without laughter is a day wasted

When I read this maxim originally it was credited to Charlie Chaplin, but I once heard it attributed to Groucho Marx. Do you know who said it and on what occasion?

Quote Investigator: This principle is sometimes credited to popular comedic entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx, but the idea was expressed more than two centuries ago. The French writer Nicolas Chamfort was famous for his witticisms and epigrams. In 1795 the periodical Mercure Français reprinted the following saying from one of his manuscripts [MFNC]:

La plus perdue de toutes les journées est celle où l’on n’a pas ri.

The earliest instance of this aphorism in the English language located by QI is dated 1803 in a periodical titled “Flowers of Literature” in a section titled “Laughing” [FLFB]:

I admire the man who exclaimed, “I have lost a day!” because he had neglected to do any good in the course of it; but another has observed that “the most lost of all days, is that in which we have not laughed*;” and, I must confess, that I feel myself greatly of his opinion.

The asterisk footnote pointed to the bottom of the page where the French phrase listed above was presented. The text did not identify Chamfort as the author of the saying, but it did give his precise French wording as the source of the English epigram.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1817 a book describing the experiences of an English visitor to Paris was published. The visitor indicated that the saying was well known in his social circle in Paris, and he provided a translation but not an attribution [SPWJ]:

The news of the day followed. Everyone seemed to subscribe to the opinion that—’La plus perdue de toutes les journées est celle où l’on n’a pas ri,’ – the most lost of all days is that in which one has not laughed.

In 1880 an essay on “Wit and Humour” was published that contained a statement echoing the words of Chamfort without naming him [MLNC]:

A Roman emperor who did no useful work on a certain day said that he had lost that day. Someone in later times said that if he passed a day without laughing he should consider it a lost day.

In 1887 an address delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution on the topic of aphorisms included the saying and credited it to Chamfort [AAJM]:

We cannot be surprised to hear of the lady who said that a conversation with Chamfort in the morning made her melancholy until bedtime. Yet Chamfort is the author of the not unwholesome saying that, “The most wasted of all days is that on which one has not laughed.” One of his maxims lets us into the secret of his misanthropy. “Whoever,” he said, “is not a misanthropist at forty, can never have loved mankind.”

In 1896 the phrase in French and English was included in a reference called “The Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations” and was ascribed to Chamfort. Here is the English translation provided [CPQC]:

The most completely lost of all days is that on which one has not laughed.

In 1955 the idea of the maxim was expressed in a syndicated newspaper column titled “Sketches” by Ben Burroughs [BBWD]:

When a day goes by without a smile … or hearty bits of laughter … it is indeed a wasted day … and will be ever after …

In 1957 an index covering periodicals from the Soviet Union included an article title from a magazine abbreviated “ussr”. A version of the saying appeared in the article title [CDSP]:

Grigori Alexandrov says day without laughter is day wasted [illus] ussr aug ’56, 22-23

In 1969 the syndicated newspaper column “Sketches” repeated the text that contained the saying that appeared in 1955. This reappearance provided continuing circulation for the expression [BBW2].

In 1979 an article about the death of George Q. Lewis, “the nation’s foremost laugher and founder of the National Laugh Foundation”, included a quotation from Lewis in which he deployed the saying [DGQL]:

“Life should be a laugh, not a lament,” he said in a recent interview. “A day without laughter is a wasted day. What is life without laughter? It’s dismal, it’s dull, it’s depressing.”

In 1992 the film “Shining Through” was released and in the script a character credits the maxim to Charlie Chaplin [STMG]:

‘Charlie Chaplin says a day without laughter is a day wasted ,’ says Linda Voss (Melanie Griffith) in “Shining Through.”

If you agree, then cancel all appointments, call in sick and rush out to see this World War II spy melodrama before it closes – which could happen any minute.

In 2002 a book about raising daughters quoted an e-mail from a parent that attributed the quotation to another famously funny person [WGGM]:

Recently, I received this e-mail from a father of three girls:

“In our house, adventure and laughter go together. Groucho Marx once said, ‘A day without laughter is a day wasted.’ I always liked that comment.”

In 2010 an absurdist twist on the saying is attributed to Steve Martin [CCRS]:

As that famous philosopher-turned-comedian-turned-actor Steve Martin used to say, “A day without laughter is like a day without sunshine and a day without sunshine is like … night.”

Chamfort has not been forgotten in modern times. For example, a columnist in 2011 invoked his name [BBNC]:

Sebastian Roch Nicolas Chamfort, born in 1740, was a French playwright famous for his wit. He said, “The most wasted day of all is that in which we have not laughed.”

In conclusion, the basic idea of this expression was recorded in the notebooks of Nicolas Chamfort by the 1790s. The adage moved into the English language shortly thereafter. Many different versions have been printed and spoken over the years. Thanks for your inquiry.

(Many thanks to Riccardo Bozzi for inspiring the formulation of this question and answer.)

[MFNC] 1795 July 18, Mercure Français: Historique, Politique et Litteraire, Maximes détachées extraites des manuscrits de Champfort, Page 351, Number 60, Au Bureau du Mercure, Paris. (Google Books full view) link

[FLFB] 1803, Flowers of Literature; for 1801 & 1802: Or Characteristic Sketches of Human Nature and Modern Manners by The Rev. F. Prevost and F. Blagdon, Volume 1, Laughing, Page 5, Printed by J. Swan for B. Crosby and Co. Stationers’ Court, London. (Google Books full view) link

[SPWJ] 1817, Six Weeks in Paris; or, A Cure for The Gallomania by A Late Visitant [William Jerdan], Volume 1 of 3, Page 83-84, Printed for J. Johnston, 98, Cheapside, London. (Google Books full view) link

[MLNC] 1880, Papers of the Manchester Literary Club, Volume VI, “Wit and Humour” by Rev. W. A. O’Conor [Read February 2, 1880], Page 146, Manchester: Published for the Club by Abel Heywood and Son, Oldham Street; and Bookseller’s Row, London. (Google Books full view) link

[AAJM] 1887, Aphorisms: An Address Delivered Before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, November 11, 1887 by John Morley, Page 47-48, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view) link

[CPQC] 1896, The Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations: English, Latin, and Modern Foreign Languages by J. K. Hoyt, Page 775, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[BBWD] 1955 December 6, Gettysburg Times, Sketches by Ben Burroughs: Don’t Lose a Day [General Features Corp.], Page 3, Column 3, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive)

[CDSP] March 20 1957, The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Quarterly Index: Third Quarter: 1956, Part II, Volume IX, Number 6, Page header M: not numbered, Joint Committee on Slavic Studies, American Council of Learned Societies, Social Science Research Council (United States), Washington, D.C. (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper) link

[BBW2] 1969 September 22, St. Petersburg Times, Sketches by Ben Burroughs: Don’t Waste a Day, Page 13-D, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive)

[DGQL] 1979 October 9, Daytona Beach Morning Journal, “George Q. Lewis, Laugh Promoter” [Associated Press], Page 8B, Column 3, Daytona Beach, Florida. (Google News Archive)

[WGGM] 2002, The Wonder of Girls: Understanding the Hidden Nature of Our Daughters by Michael Gurian, Page 167, Pocket Books: Simon and Schuster, New York. (Google Books preview)

[CCRS] 2010, Climate Confusion by Roy W. Spencer, reprint, Page xv, Encounter Books, New York. (Google Books preview)

[BBNC] 2011 April 2 [date of last update], lfpress (London Free Press), Little absurdities never hurt when laugher is the medicine by Bill Brady, Special to QMI Agency. (Acessed at lfpress.com on 2011 July 16) link