George Bernard Shaw? Abba Eban? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular phrase used to criticize individuals and groups. Here are three examples:
Some politicians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
He never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity.
This group loses no chance to miss an opportunity.
Can you determine who originated this turn of phrase?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1922 when the diary of Sir Algernon West was published. The critical words were attributed to the prominent playwright and social commentator George Bernard Shaw, and they were aimed at Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery who was for a short time the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1
Bernard Shaw, in later years, described him as a man who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity, and W. Johnson, afterwards Cory the Eton master, said in a classical allusion that he wanted the palm without the dust.
The phrase “wanted the palm without the dust” referred to the desire to obtain victory without a major expenditure of effort. The excerpt above assessing Rosebery’s character was part of a section recounting events in 1892 but the date of the remark by Shaw was not precisely specified. Algernon West died in 1921.
When the volume containing the “Private Diaries of the Right Hon. Algernon West” was examined in “The New York Times” in October 1922 the reviewer found the shrewdly humorous remark about Rosebery distinctive enough to reprint: 2
Bernard Shaw, in later years, described him as a man who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity…
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1959 a two part article about Rosebery was published in the journal “History Today”. The complex portrait of the politician included an instance of the expression that had been printed back in 1922: 3
“The most ambitious man that I had ever met,” declared Sir Charles Dilke, after a Sunday afternoon walk at Mentmore in 1880. A man, quipped Bernard Shaw, who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity. Rosebery has been the subject of many varying judgments, each of them more subjective than is usually the case when politicians are assessed.
Bernard Shaw’s jibe that Rosebery was a man who never missed a chance of missing an opportunity expresses another point of view, that of the political extrovert who turns aside with contempt from hesitation, pusillanimity, and doubt.
In March 1963 the U.K. periodical “The Spectator” referenced the quip and credited Shaw: 6
Bernard Shaw could not have alleged that Rosebery never missed a chance of missing an opportunity had he been able, and prepared, to look at the Foreign Office files. As Foreign Secretary in Gladstone’s last administration, Rosebery was purposeful and, if anything, too resolute in the pursuit of aims which were by no means necessarily those of his colleagues.
In 1970 the diplomat Abba Eban spoke before the National Press Club in the U.S. and deployed a version of the saying: 7
“Some politicians never lose a chance of missing an opportunity but at least the chance exists,” he said.
In 1971 Eban deployed the phrase again, but the target of his animus was different. He expressed unhappiness with the United Nations organization instead of “some politicians”: 8
Mr. Eban voiced the view that the United Nations had “lost no chance of missing a great opportunity” in the last Assembly when it failed to accept the proposal put forward by four African presidents.
In 1972 the biography “Eban” by Robert St. John was published, and it contained an instance of the jest: 9
Addressing a typical black-tie-and-evening-gown audience in Washington in the fall of 1970, Eban sparkled with epigrams, some new, some he had used before: …
“There are political leaders who never lose a chance to miss an opportunity.”
In 1988 “The New York Times” magazine printed a profile of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat that mentioned a version of the saying: 10
Now Arafat will tell you bluntly — in a paraphrase of former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s famous quip that the P.L.O. has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity — that “We have missed too many opportunities in the past. We cannot afford to lose this one.”
In conclusion, the earliest evidence in 1922 pointed to George Bernard Shaw as creator of this quip although QI has not yet located any direct evidence in his writings or transcribed speeches. The phrasing has evolved over time, and in recent decades Abba Eban has been a locus for the remark’s popularization.
(Thanks to Daniel Greenwald who inquired about this expression at the Freakonomics website. Thanks also to from Gene Eisman who inquired via email. These messages gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Great thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the 1970 citation in the Baltimore Sun. Thanks to Edward David Luft who helped QI fix a grammatical error and a typo. Remaining errors are the responsibility of QI.)
- 1922, Private Diaries of the Rt. Hon. Sir Algernon West, G.C.B. by Sir Algernon West, Edited by Horace G. Hutchinson, Chapter III: 1892: The General Election, Quote Page 35, E.P. Dutton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1922 October 1, New York Times, In Gladstone’s Cabinet, (Book Review of “Private Diaries of the Right Hon. Algernon West”), Start Page 50, Quote Page 50, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1959 March, History Today, Volume 9, Number 3, Rosebery: Office and Eclipse by John Raymond, Part 2 of 2, Start Page 176, Quote Page 184, Published by History Today, London. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1964 (Copyright 1963), Rosebery: A Biography of Archibald Philip, Fifth Earl of Rosebery by Robert Rhodes James, Quote Page 488, (Reprint of 1963 edition from Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London), Macmillan Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: George Bernard Shaw, Page 705, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1963 March 15, The Spectator, Too Dark a Horse to Back by Nicholas Mansergh, Quote Page 330 (Archive Page 22), Column 2, London, England. (Spectator Online Archive at archive.spectator.co.uk; accessed October 30 2013) link ↩
- 1970 October 13, The Sun (The Baltimore Sun) Eban Warns U.N. on Mideast Move by Peter J. Kumpa, Start Page A1, Quote Page A4, Column 1, (ProQuest) ↩
- 1971 December 29, Christian Science Monitor, Israel feels U.S. relaxes squeeze after Indo-Pak war by Francis Ofner (Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor), Start Page 1, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1972, Eban by Robert St. John, Quote Page 491, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1988 December 18, New York Times, The Ambiguous Yasir Arafat by Marie Colvin, Start Page SM32, Quote Page SM60, New York. (ProQuest) ↩