Oscar Wilde? Thomas Merton? Gilbert Perreira? Menards? America Ferrera? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I have spent hours trying to determine whether Oscar Wilde wrote the following as commonly claimed:
Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.
I have not found a single good citation. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made this remark. It is not listed in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, an extensive collection compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1
The earliest compelling thematic match known to QI appeared in the literary journal “The Hudson Review” in 1967. The influential spiritual thinker and mystic Thomas Merton published an essay titled “Day of a Stranger” which referred to “being yourself”: 2 3
In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.
Merton humorously stated that there was “very little chance of my being anybody else”, whereas the quotation under examination offered a different comical rationale: “everyone else is already taken”, but the crux was similar. Interestingly, Merton cautioned against self-consciously trying to be oneself.
The “Day of a Stranger” essay was reprinted multiple times in anthologies, journals, and collections. It may have facilitated the later construction of the quotation. Many thanks to adept researcher Bodhipaksa who told QI about this citation.
The first strong match located by QI was disseminated via the Usenet discussion system in December 1999. The words were appended to the end of a message posted to a newsgroup used primarily by residents of the Netherlands. The statement was enclosed in quotation marks signaling that it was already in circulation; also, no attribution was specified: 4
“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
Oscar Wilde did write several remarks about identity and appearance that were thematically related to this quotation, but the perspective was different.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1882 Oscar Wilde wrote an introduction to a collection of verse and while discussing principles of aesthetics he broached the topic of “one’s real life”. Boldface has been added: 5
In some such way as this we could gather up these strewn and scattered petals of song into one perfect rose of life, and yet, perhaps, in so doing, we might be missing the true quality of the poems; one’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead; and beautiful poems, like threads of beautiful silks, may be woven into many patterns and to suit many designs, all wonderful and all different…
In July 1890 Oscar Wilde published “The Picture of Dorian Gray” in “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine”. The central thesis of the novel was the disjunction between the outward appearance of an individual and his or her internal thoughts and feelings. During one scene the character Basil Hallward criticized his friend Lord Henry who responded with humor: 6
“You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose.”
“Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know,” cried Lord Henry, laughing.
The phrase “be yourself” in the quotation under investigation is comparable to “being natural”, and here Wilde playfully reversed the conventional notion.
In September 1890 an essay by Wilde titled “The True Function and Value of Criticism” was published in the London periodical “The Nineteenth Century”. Wilde suggested there was a complex relationship between masks and candor: 7
Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
In 1891 Wilde published an extensively revised version of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” that included some new chapters. The following passage is from the new chapter fifteen during which Dorian Gray attended a party: 8
Perhaps one never seems so much at one’s ease as when one has to play a part. Certainly no one looking at Dorian Gray that night could have believed that he had passed through a tragedy as horrible as any tragedy of our age.
Oscar Wilde’s play “An Ideal Husband” was first performed in 1895. In one scene the character Sir Robert Chiltern asked Mrs. Cheveley whether she was an optimist or pessimist. She replied that she was neither and that both stances were merely poses. Chiltern continued with another question: 9
Sir Robert Chiltern: You prefer to be natural?
Mrs Cheveley: Sometimes. But it is such a very difficult pose to keep up.
Wilde revisited the theme of authentic identity in the epistolary work “De Profundis” which he composed while in prison and which was published in 1905 after his death in 1900: 10
It is tragic how few people ever “possess their souls” before they die. “Nothing is more rare in any man,” says Emerson, “than an act of his own.” It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are some one else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.
In 1967 a thematic match from Thomas Merton was published, and in 1999 an exact match appeared as noted previously.
An instance of the saying attributed to someone named Gilbert Perreira was included in a webpage filled with quotations at abazoo.angelfire.com. The date on the page suggested that the quotation was recorded on September 8, 2000. Unfortunately, the retroactive modification of text and dates on webpages is quite easy and can happen inadvertently; hence, assigning a degree of confidence to this date and attribution was somewhat difficult. (But see indirect support further below): 11
“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” – Gilbert Perreira
An instance was printed in September 2000 within a multi-page newspaper advertising supplement for a chain of stores in the Midwest called Menards. At the bottom of some pages inspirational sayings were printed; for example, these three statements were displayed:
People who do things that count, never stop to count them.
Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.
Try not to become a person of success but rather a person of value.
No ascriptions were provided for these adages. This advertising insert was placed in newspapers in a variety of geographical areas, e.g., Ironwood, Michigan, 12 Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 13 and Aberdeen, South Dakota. 14
In April 2001 an instance attributed to Gilbert Perreira appeared in a newsgroup of the Usenet discussion system. This date was can be believed with confidence: 15
Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken. — Gilbert Perreira
In 2002 an article published in a Fort Wayne, Indiana weekly newspaper presented the following version: 16
Do not dress to look like or try to be someone else. Be yourself (everyone else is taken anyway). Be comfortable and breathe. Choose what suits you.
In 2008 a newspaper in Tucson, Arizona wrote about a set of doodles that were created and donated by celebrities. The drawings were sold in a charity auction event designed to raise money for an elementary school: 17
Current doodles include ones done by Al Pacino; “Ugly Betty” star America Ferrera, who wrote, “Be Yourself, Everyone Else Is Taken”; and a drawing of the New York City skyline done by Donald Trump.
In 2009 an article syndicated by Newstex about building a personal brand discussed the blog of consultant Dan Schawbel who employed an extended version of the expression: 18
And my favorite section of the blog is his tab called “Quote Me” where he lists some of his favorite things to say like “Be the real you because everyone else is taken and replicas don’t sell for as much.”
In conclusion, Oscar Wilde did compose several witticisms about identity and dissimulation, but none was a strong match to the quotation. Thomas Merton wrote a statement that semantically overlapped the quotation, but it was distinct. The earliest known exact match appeared in 1999, and it was anonymous. Shortly afterward it was attributed to a person named Gilbert Perreira. Perhaps more will be learned in the future.
Image Notes: Identity-Face image from geralt on Pixabay. Oscar Wilde portrait in 1882 is from Wikimedia and is in the public domain.
(Great thanks to Sydney Sprague whose email query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to Benjamin Dreyer who tweeted two months ago that the quotation was not crafted by Oscar Wilde. Many thanks to Bodhipaksa who runs the very valuable website fakebuddhaquotes.com which carefully evaluates quotations in the spiritual domain. Bodhipaksa told QI about the intriguing Thomas Merton citation. Special thanks Terri Guillemets, creator of “The Quote Garden”, who listed several quotes by Oscar Wilde in a section called “Quotes about Being Yourself”. Appreciation to Barry Popik who sent the interesting September 8, 2000 citation to QI. Additional thanks to Michelle Lara Lin of the “Quotesome Blog” for her analysis. Further thanks to thenostromo, an Administrator at “QuoteLand”, for his analysis.)
Update History: On April 10, 2016 citations dated 1967; December 27, 1999; September 8, 2000; and April 16, 2001 were added. The conclusion was rewritten.
- 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1967 Summer, The Hudson Review, Volume 20, Number 2, Day of a Stranger by Thomas Merton, Start Page 211, Quote Page 211, Hudson Review, Inc., New York. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1991, Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings by Thomas Merton, Edited by Lawrence Cunningham, Day of a Stranger, Start Page 214, Quote Page 215, Paulist Press, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1999 December 27, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: nl.markt.comp, dds.markt, nl.markt.overig, From: Erick T. Barkhuis @email.com, Subject: Re: comleet systeem, (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 31, 2016) link ↩
- 1882, Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf, Verses by James Rennell Rodd (1st Baron Rennell), With an Introduction by Oscar Wilde, L’Envoi (Introduction), Start Page 11, Quote Page 23 and 24, J. M. Stoddart & Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1890 July, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, Published by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1890 September, The Nineteenth Century (A Monthly Review), Volume 28, The True Function and Value of Criticism; With Some Remarks On the Importance of Doing Nothing: A Dialogue (Concluded) by Oscar Wilde, Start Page 435, Quote Page 447, Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, Chapter 15, Quote Page 260, Ward, Lock and Co., London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- 1905, The Plays of Oscar Wilde, Volume 2, An Ideal Husband, (Performance Note: Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, January 3, 1895), (Pages numbers are reinitialized at 1 for each play), Start Page 1, Quote Page 8, Published by John W. Luce & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1905, De Profundis by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 63, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London. (HathiTrust Full View) link link ↩
- Website: Angelfire Webpage Hosting, Webpage content: Growing collection of quotations, Date on website: September 8, 2000, Website description: Several webpages of quotations at Angelfire, (Accessed abazoo.angelfire.com on January 27, 2014) link ↩
- 2000 September 23, Daily Globe, (Advertisement Section: Octoberfest Sale: Menards), (Freestanding item at bottom of full page advertisement), Quote Page 7, (NArch Page 25), Ironwood, Michigan. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2000 September 24, Cedar Rapids Gazette, (Advertisement Section: Octoberfest Sale: Menards), (Freestanding item at bottom of full page advertisement), Quote Page 7, (NArch Page 360), Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2000 September 24, Sunday American News (Aberdeen Daily News), (Advertisement Section: Octoberfest Sale: Menards), (Freestanding item at bottom of full page advertisement), Quote Page 7, (GNB Page 187), Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 2001 April 16, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: mailing.postfix.users From: John Pettitt @cloudview.com, Subject: One of the more interesting spams, (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 28, 2016) link ↩
- 2002 December 25, Frost Illustrated (Weekly Newspaper), Take a holistic approach to your New Year’s dieting resolution, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Fort Wayne, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2008 September 4, Tribune Business News (McClatchy – Credit: The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson), The case of the lost doodles: Celebrity drawings that helped Prince School suddenly stopped arriving by Andrea Rivera, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM Complete) ↩
- Date: 2009 April 7, Publication title: Newstex Entrepreneurship Blogs, Title: Small Business Trends: Me 2.0: Build a Powerful Brand to Achieve Career Success, Publisher: Newstex, Place of publication: Chatham. (ProQuest Entrepreneurship) ↩