Neil deGrasse Tyson? Robert Benchley? Kenneth Boulding? Ross F. Papprill? Groucho Marx? Jeremy Bentham? Anonymous?
There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.
The version of the joke given above appeared in a tweet by the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. 1 Do you know who originated this quip?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this joke located by QI was published in “Vanity Fair” magazine in February 1920. The humorist and actor Robert Benchley wrote “an extremely literary review” of an unlikely book, a massive tome with densely printed type: The New York City Telephone Directory. Benchley was unhappy with the “plot” and said, “It lacks coherence. It lacks stability.” His article included the following memorable remark. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1921 Robert Benchley published a collection of his work titled “Of All Things”, and he reprinted the “Vanity Fair” article containing the quotation. 3
In 1949 a book reviewer in the “New York Times” employed a version of the saying but did not provide an attribution. This instance used “kinds” instead of “classes”: 4
It was once remarked there are two kinds of people in the world—those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t.
In 1967 an entertaining variant of the joke using the word “dichotomies” was printed in the “Journal of Research and Development in Education”. The remark appeared in the introductory section of the proceedings of a conference on mathematics education, and no ascription was given: 5
I once heard that there are two kinds of people: those who couch everything in dichotomies and those who do not.
In 1970 the book “The Riot Makers: The Technology of Social Demolition” included the following instance without attribution: 6
A wit once said, “The human race is divided into two kinds of people: those who divide the human race into two kinds of people, and those who don’t.”
A 1973 book “Career Exploration and Planning” contained the following passage: 7
Most people are not extreme types or extreme in traits, but fall somewhere between the extremes. It is therefore quite inaccurate to characterize people by types. As someone has jokingly remarked, “There are two types of people in the world, those who divide everybody into types and those who do not.”
In 1975 a textbook called “An Introduction to General Systems Thinking” used an instance of the saying as an epigraph for a subsection. The words were credited to an economist named Kenneth Boulding: 8
There are two kinds of people in the world—those who divide everything in the world into two kinds of things and those who don’t.
In 1977 “The Book of Lists” was published, and a version of the saying was printed in a section called “Unnatural Laws”. The statement was linked to someone named Barth: 9
There are two types of people: those who divide people into two types, and those who don’t.
In 1979 the author of the 1975 citation given previously revisited this topic. This time he used a variant expression with the word “dichotomize”: 10
In an earlier volume (Weinberg 1975), we discussed the tendency of people to categorize. There are two kinds of people—those who dichotomize everything and those who don’t. In this chapter and the next, we’re going to ignore our previous warnings on the dangers of dichotomizing and do some ourselves, for the sake of bringing order to the vast diversity of regulatory mechanisms.
In 1979 the compilation “1,001 Logical Laws” credited Benchley with the statement but presented a version with a phrasing that differed from Benchley’s actual words: 11
Benchley’s Law of Distinction:
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe the world can be divided into two kinds of people, and those who don’t
In 1983 Time magazine published an article that compared and contrasted proverbs and aphorisms. Benchley’s comical aphorism was referenced: 12
There are two classes of people in the world, observed Robert Benchley, “those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.”
Half of those who divide quote Benchley and his fellow aphorists. The other half prefer proverbs. And why not? The aphorism is a personal observation inflated into a universal truth, a private posing as a general. A proverb is anonymous human history compressed to the size of a seed.
In 2000 “The Times Book of Quotations” compiled by the London newspaper “The Times” attributed an instance of the saying to a person named Ross F. Papprill: 13
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don’t.
By 2002 the saying had been assigned to the famous comedian Groucho Marx in a message distributed through the Usenet discussion system: 14
Then again, Groucho Marx once said “There’s two kinds of people in the world: Those who think people can be divided up into two types, and those who don’t. I don’t!”
In 2012 a book referred to a talk delivered at TED during which the jest was assigned to philosopher Jeremy Bentham; however, QI has found no support for this linkage: 15
In Sir Ken Robinson’s wonderful 2010 TED talk on the learning revolution, he starts to explain to the audience that he divides the world into two groups, then he stops himself and with great humor says, “Jeremy Bentham, the great utilitarian philosopher, once spiked this argument. He said, ‘There are two types of people in the world, those who divide people into two types, and those who do not.'”
Other variants have been constructed over the years. For example, an unknown humorist familiar with the binary number system crafted the following: 16
Someone once said that there are only 10 kinds of people in the world: those who understand binary, and those who don’t.
The binary number “10” corresponds to the number 2 in the standard decimal number system.
In conclusion, QI believes that Robert Benchley should be credited with this jest which was published in 1920. Later versions were probably derived directly or indirectly from Benchley’s remark though it may have been independently recreated. The first instance with the word “dichotomies” in 1967 was given an anonymous ascription.
Image Notes: Robert Benchley image from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain. People image from Openclips at Pixabay. Resized with modified color.
Update History: The joke about 10 was added on February 8. 2014. On June 17, 2015 the 2012 citation for Bentham was added.
(Great thanks to D. C. Carney whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bruce Reznick for reminding QI of the binary quip. Additional thanks to Dani Leinwander who told QI about the attribution to Bentham.)
- Tweet by Neil deGrasse Tyson @neiltyson, Tweet date: December 13, 2013, Tweet time: 11:25 AM, Retweets: 3,845, Favorites: 2,847, Tweet text: There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who divide everybody into two kinds of people, and those who don’t. (Accessed twitter.com on February 7, 2014) link ↩
- 1920 February, Vanity Fair, “The Most Popular Book of the Month: An Extremely Literary Review of the Latest Edition of the New York City Telephone Directory” by Vanity Fair’s Book Reviewer (Robert Benchley), Start Page 69, Quote Page 69, Conde Nast, New York. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1921, Of All Things by Robert C. Benchley, Chapter XX: The Most Popular Book of the Month, Quote Page 187, Henry Holt and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1949 February 6, New York Times, Section: New York Times Book Review, Arthur Koestler as Philosopher: The Author of “Darkness at Noon” Offers A Corrective for Man’s Warring Impulses by Irwin Edman, (Book Review of “Insight and Outlook” by Arthur Koestler), Quote Page BR1, Column 4, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1967 Fall, Journal of Research and Development in Education, Proceedings of National Conference on Needed Research in Mathematics Education, Section II: Introduction by William M. Fitzgerald, Page 49, Volume 1, Number 1, Published by College of Education, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1970, The Riot Makers: The Technology of Social Demolition by Eugene H. Methvin, Quote Page 240, Published by Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Questia) ↩
- 1973, Career Exploration and Planning by Bruce Shertzer, Quote Page 126, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1975, An Introduction to General Systems Thinking by Gerald M. Weinberg, Quote Page 150, John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1977, The People’s Almanac Presents The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace, and Amy Wallace, Quote Page 481, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1979, On the Design of Stable Systems by Gerald M. Weinberg and Daniela Weinberg, Quote Page 212, John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Page 102, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1983 July 11, Times, “Essay: Proverbs or Aphorisms?” by Stefan Kanfer, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time Magazine Archive; Accessed content.time.com on February 7, 2014) ↩
- 2000, The Times Book of Quotations, Section: The People, Quote Page 533, HarperCollins, Glasgow, United Kingdom. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2002 January 16, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.music.dylan, From: John @bethelcollege.edu, Subject: Re: New Live Album? (Google Groups Usenet Database; accessed February 7, 2014) ↩
- 2012, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown, Section: Daring Greatly: Setting Boundaries, Finding True Comfort, and Cultivating Spirit, Unnumbered Page, Published by Avery: An Imprint of Penguin Random House, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 2002, A+ Exam Cram 2: Windows 2000 Directory Services Infrastructure by James G. Jones and Craig Landes, Quote Page 133, Que Certification, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Preview) ↩