The Squeaky Wheel Gets the Grease

Josh Billings? Josh Weathersby? Cal Stewart? Ring Lardner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Individuals who complain often receive the most attention. There is a popular analogy about squeaky wheels that I think has been incorrectly attributed to the humorist Josh Billings who was a famous lecturer in the 1800s. (Billings was the pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw.) Here are three versions of the maxim:

The wheel that squeaks the loudest is the one that gets the grease.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

Some reference works credit Josh Billings, but none of these works present a solid citation. Would you please attempt to uncover the truth about the provenance of this adage?

Quote Investigator: Some books have suggested that the maxim appeared in a poem called “The Kicker” that was supposedly composed by Josh Billings circa 1870. But the careful and scholarly reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” remarked that the existence of “The Kicker” by Billings has never been verified.[ref] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Josh Billings, Quote Page 85, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) [/ref] Indeed, QI believes that the attribution to Billings is unsupported.

The earliest appearance of this expression located by QI occurred in a collection of stories published in 1903. The author Cal Stewart constructed a colorful raconteur character that he called Uncle Josh Weathersby. The saying under investigation was contained in an epigraph that was ascribed to this character:[ref] 1903, Uncle Josh Weathersby’s “Punkin Centre” stories by Cal Stewart, Page 6, Regan Printing House, Chicago. (Google Books full view; also HathiTrust) link [/ref]

“I don’t believe in kickin’,
It aint apt to bring one peace;
But the wheel what squeaks the loudest
is the one what gets the grease.”
—Josh Weathersby.

The word “kickin” was a slang term that referred to complaining or causing a disturbance..

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1737 Benjamin Franklin printed a precursor of the saying in his famous series of books “Poor Richard’s Almanack”. The meaning was distinct from the maxim under study, but it was thematically related:[ref] 1737, Poor Richard: An Almanack For the Year of Christ 1737, [Poor Richard’s Almanac], Benjamin Franklin, Month: July, First Quarter, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with images; Accessed at on December 19, 2012; Thanks to Sam Clements who noted that the quotation was ascribed to Benjamin Franklin)[/ref]

The worst wheel of the cart makes the most noise.

In 1796 Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the famous playwright and theater owner, delivered a speech in the British House of Commons where he was a member. He made a precursor remark that was thematically similar to the saying, but it was not an adage:[ref] 1796, The Parliamentary Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the House of Commons, Sixth Session of Seventeenth Parliament of Great Britain Speaker: R. B. Sheridan (Richard Brinsley Sheridan), Date of speech: February 26, 1796, Start Page 189, Quote Page 189, Printed for J. Debrett, Piccadilly, London. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Stephen Goranson who located this quotation of Sheridan) link [/ref]

There was no possibility of doubt, but that some of this oil of influence had been sent to grease that squeaking wheel in the city, called the mercantile interest!

In 1880 a precursor expression appeared as a couplet in a volume titled “The Telephone of Labor” by George Marshall Sloan. The words were printed as an epigraph on the title page, and also in the body of the text as part of a larger poem. The “fifth wheel” apparently referred to the management and owners of an enterprise:[ref] 1880, The Telephone of Labor by George Marshall Sloan, Quote appears on Title Page and Page 265, Publisher Unknown, Chicago. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

This wagon’s creaking ne’er will cease
While its fifth wheel gets all the grease.

In 1903 an instance of the saying was printed in the collection: “Uncle Josh Weathersby’s ‘Punkin Centre’ Stories” by Cal Stewart. This is the earliest evidence located by QI of the modern version of the saying as mentioned at the beginning of this article:[ref] 1903, Uncle Josh Weathersby’s “Punkin Centre” stories by Cal Stewart, Page 6, Regan Printing House, Chicago. (Google Books full view; also HathiTrust)[/ref]

“I don’t believe in kickin’,
It aint apt to bring one peace;
But the wheel what squeaks the loudest
is the one what gets the grease.”
—Josh Weathersby.

In 1910 a variant of the verse was printed in the Wall Street Journal which acknowledged another periodical, but the newspaper did not ascribe the words  to a specific author:[ref] 1910 May 20, Wall Street Journal, Pepper and Salt: Make A Noise, Quote Page 2, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest; Thanks to Sam Clements for finding this citation)[/ref]

You don’t like a kicker.
He doesn’t tend to peace.
But the wheel that squeaks the loudest
Is the wheel that gets the grease.
–Wisconsin Banker

In July 1913 Ring Lardner, the prominent short story author and sports columnist, wrote an article in the Chicago Tribune that included a version of the saying. Lardner labeled the verse “ANON”:[ref] 1913 July 6, The Chicago Sunday Tribune (Chicago Tribune), In the Wake of the News by R. W. Lardner, (Apropos of Heine Zim), Quote Page C1, Column 4, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest; Thanks to Fred R. Shapiro who found this citation)[/ref]

I hate to be a kicker,
For it does not make for peace,
But the wheel that does the squeaking
Is the wheel that gets the grease.

In December 1913 the original verse was printed in a trade publication called “Graphite”, and it was attributed to Cal Stewart:[ref] 1913 December, Graphite, Graphite Grease, Quote Page 3671, Column 2, Dixon Crucible Co., Jersey City, New Jersey. (Google Books full view)[/ref]

“I don’t believe in kickin’ —
It ain’t apt to bring one peace;
But the wheel that squeaks the loudest
Is the one what gets the grease.”
–Cal Stewart’s Philosophy

A variant of the expression that referred to “oil” instead of “grease” was in circulation by 1923 as recorded in the sports pages of the Washington Post:[ref] 1923 June 18, Washington Post, Friday Forces in Pair of Runs, Ending Clash by Frank H. Young, Quote Page 10, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) [/ref]

They say that the wheel that squeaks is the one that gets the oil, and the rookie had been pestering Donie to give him a chance ever since he arrived. He was promised one yesterday and he got it.

In 1937 the eleventh edition of the influential reference work “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” ascribed the saying to humorist Josh Billings. No citation was given to provide supporting evidence, and it is not clear why this attribution was made.  This interesting fact about the genesis of the linkage between Josh Billings and the adage was noted in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”.[ref] 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 275, Column 1, Yale University Press, New Haven.(Google Books Preview)[/ref]

In 1955 Bennett Cerf, the prodigious quotation collector, included a version of the adage in his syndicated newspaper column, and he ascribed the words to Josh Billings:[ref] 1955 April 4, Boston Globe, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 10, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)[/ref]

The wheel that squeaks loudest is the one that gets the grease.

In conclusion, based on current evidence this adage should be credited to Cal Stewart and not to Josh Billings. Perhaps some previous researcher confused the fictional character Josh Weathersby with the penname Josh Billings.

(Many thanks to Sam Clements, Fred R. Shapiro, Stephen Goranson, Charles Doyle and others for their work exploring this maxim.)

Exit mobile version