Life Is Not Measured By the Number of Breaths We Take, But By the Moments That Take Our Breath Away

George Carlin? Maya Angelou? Vicki Corona? Hilary Cooper? Kevin Bisch? Will Smith? Philip James Bailey?

yoga08Dear Quote Investigator: The following inspirational quotation has been attributed to a wide variety of people:

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.

I doubt that this was coined by George Carlin or Maya Angelou though I have seen those ascriptions. Who do you think should be credited?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in 1989 in a book for dancers titled “Tahitian Choreographies” by Vicki Corona: 1

Yes, there are so many grueling details and rehearsals to agonize over, but the dances and music of Tahiti add a happy, healthy dimension to our lives! Remember that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away! Dancing can do that for you!

The above citation was uncovered by the author Phil Bolsta who was writing a book which included a large number of quotations. Bolsta admirably performed extensive research attempting to pin down the sources for the quotations in his book. Bolsta stated on his blog that he contacted Vicki Corona directly to explore the origin of the saying in her book: 2

I was shocked to find this popular quote in a 1989 thirty-two-page booklet on Tahitian dance. I called Vicki Corona on April 17, 2012, and she said that, to the best of her knowledge, the quote was hers because she always wrote original material for the series of dance booklets she produced. However, she acknowledged in a follow-up e-mail: “While I doubt it, there is a possibility that I may have heard that verbiage before and simply went with it, or maybe it just came out from the labyrinths of my mind. Since you’re a writer, also, you know how that works when you’re in the ‘zone’.”

Hence, there is some uncertainty about the origin of this quotation in the mind of the person who employed it in 1989.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The poet Philip James Bailey first released his magnum opus “Festus” in 1839. Later Bailey started to expand his poem. In 1853 a version was published in the United States that included the following passage which QI believes displays some points of conceptual similarity with the quotation under investigation: 3

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most—feels the noblest—acts the best.

The words of Bailey were echoed in a remembrance written in 1904 about a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania: 4

It does seem to us that his life was all too short. But a life cannot be measured by its length. For “we live in deeds, not years, in thoughts, not breaths; in feelings, not in figures on a dial. We must count time by heart-throbs.”

A version of this poetic passage ascribed to Bailey appeared in the 1968 compendium “The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life” 5 and the words continue to circulate, e.g., the modern reference work “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” included a memorable line: 6

We should count time by heart-throbs.
Festus (1839) sc. 5

In 1989 “Tahitian Choreographies” by Vicki Corona was published, and it included the questioner’s quotation as noted previously. The recurrence of “take” and “breath(s)” marks this phrase as distinctive:

Remember that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away! Dancing can do that for you!

Over the years other names have been attached to the quotation. For example, a posting in the Usenet newsgroup nz.tech in 2004 assigned the saying to the comedian George Carlin: 7

Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. (George Carlin)

In 2005 the movie “Hitch” written Kevin Bisch and starring Will Smith was released. The title character was played by Smith, and he delivered the following line which was a very close variant of the saying: 8 9

After that you’re on your own, but always remember life is not the amount of breaths you take. It’s the moments that take your breath away.

In 2007 an advertisement for a dating service in the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” attributed the saying to Hilary Cooper: 10

“Life is Not Measured By The Number of Breaths We Take. But By The Moments That Take Our Breath Away. Hilary Cooper

By 2009 the saying had been reassigned to the notable author Maya Angelou. A newspaper in Manchester, Connecticut reported on a redecorated café that prominently displayed the quotation: 11

The interior of the cafe has been totally redone — new carpeting, a new paint scheme that has some walls buttercup yellow and others a bluish green, and framed inspirational sayings on the walls to get patrons thinking about what’s most important in life. Molina’s favorite is the one by poet Maya Angelou that reads, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

Participants in discussion forums have offered different ideas about the origin of the expression. One commentator suggested it was from a greeting card company. QI has located no support for this suggestion at this time.

In conclusion, this entry represents a snapshot of salient pieces of evidence QI has located. Currently, Vicki Corona is the leading contender for originator, but she laudably admitted to some uncertainty.

(Great thanks to Phil Bolsta for his pioneering efforts examining this quotation. Special thanks to EllAnon whose query gave additional impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1989, Tahitian Choreographies by Vicki Corona, Volume 11, Book 18, Page 36, Dance Fantasy Productions, Printed by Dennis Bolton Enterprises, North Hollywood, California. (Google Books Preview) link
  2. Website: Triumph of the Spirit: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Troubled World, Article title: “Through God’s Eyes”—Sources of Quotes, Webpage description: Source notes for the quotations appearing in the book “Through God’s Eyes” by Phil Bolsta, Date on website: Entry posted in May 10, 2012, Website description: Blog of the author Phil Bolsta. (Accessed bolstablog.wordpress.com on December 16, 2013) link
  3. 1853, Festus: A Poem by Philip James Bailey, Quote Page 85, Benjamin B. Mussey and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1905, The Minutes of the Thirty-Seventh Session of the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church Held in the First Methodist Episcopal Church in Berwick, Pennsylvania on March 23-28, 1905, (Remembrance of Josiah Calvin Mumper by A. S. Fasick), Start Page 119, Quote Page 121, Published by the Methodist Episcopal Church, Press of Eaton & Mains, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1968, The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life by Forbes Magazine, Quote Page 242, Published by Forbes, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Editor Elizabeth Knowles, “Philip James Bailey”, Oxford Reference Online, Print Publication Date: 2009, Oxford University Press. (Accessed December 17, 2013)
  7. 2004 March 18, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: nz.tech, From: “Ren” <Renonenin…@xtra.co.nz>, Subject: Re: Panasonic ST-CH7 Amplifier Cooling Fan Resistor Help. (Google Groups Search; Accessed Decembers 17, 2013)
  8. Website: IMDb (Internet Movie Database), Article title: Hitch (I) (2005), Release Date of Movie: February 11, 2005 (USA), Movie Information: Writer – Kevin Bisch, Hitch – Will Smith. (Accessed imdb.com on December 17, 2013) link
  9. YouTube video, Title: Hitch Wisdom, Uploaded on May 3, 2009, Uploaded by: ZXV234, Clip from movie Hitch (2005), (Quotation starts at 1 minute 10 seconds of 1 minutes 22 seconds) (Accessed on youtube.com on December 11, 2013) link
  10. 2007 June 6, Princeton Alumni Weekly, Volume 107, Number 15, (Advertisement for Park Avenue International, a dating service), Quote Page 5, Published by Princeton Alumni Weekly, Princeton, New Jersey. (Google Books Full View)
  11. 2008 December 11, Journal Inquirer, Section: Living, A dream come true by Doreen Guarino (Journal Inquirer), Manchester, Connecticut. (NewsBank Access World News)