George Bernard Shaw? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The famous playwright, critic, and essayist George Bernard Shaw has been credited with a remark about his world-wide fame. He entertainingly stated that his acclaim rested on his ability to engage in thought once or twice a week because others attempted to think only two or three times a year. Would you be willing to trace this quotation?
Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this remark known to QI was published in the mass-circulation periodical “Reader’s Digest” in May 1933. The statement was printed in a section called “Quotable Quotes” together with a miscellaneous collection of other items: 1
George Bernard Shaw once addressed a company as follows: “I suppose that you seldom think. Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”
Unfortunately, the passage did not present any details about when the words were spoken nor was the audience identified. Shaw died in 1950, and the expression coupled with this ascription achieved wide-spread dissemination many years before his death.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
QI searched for remarks made by Shaw about the frequency of mental exertions. Shaw did offer emphatic advice in a letter dated 1894 to a young journalist. But he did not discuss the frequency of thought; instead, he discussed the frequency of writing. Hence, this engaging quotation was only tangentially related to the one being explored: 2
The one certain thing is that you must write, write, write every day for several years if you are to become a master workman in your profession.
“Reader’s Digest” was an important nexus for the popularization of quotations, and other publications reprinted its choice sayings. For example, in the same month of May 1933 a financial trade publication called “Commercial West” printed the exact same text given by “Reader’s Digest”. The monthly publication schedule of “Reader’s Digest” necessitated the distribution of the magazine during part of the month before the cover date. Hence, the Shaw item was available to the editors of other publications in April 1933. 3
In August 1933 the “Christian Science Monitor” of Boston, Massachusetts published the quotation in a slightly briefer form in a column called “What They Say”: 4
“Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”—G. Bernard Shaw.
In September 1933 the item from the “Christian Science Monitor” was reprinted in the “Chester Times” of Chester, Pennsylvania. The short note ran under the same title of “Shaw Thinks”. 5
In October 1933 a version of the quotation that exactly matched the “Reader’s Digest” instance was printed in the “Hartford Courant” of “Hartford, Connecticut”: 6
In June 1937 the expression appeared in a column called “Along El Camino Real With Ed Ainsworth” in the “Los Angeles Times”. The introductory words before the quote were more elaborate: 7
A contributor sends in an item suggesting that the cerebellum he dusted off and put into use.
George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying: “I suppose that you seldom think. Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”
SHAW, George Bernard, born 1856, British dramatist, critic, novelist, social reformer, and wit.
Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.
Some commentators were unamused by the Shavian remark. In 1963 a columnist in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana newspaper presented a slightly condensed version by omitting the words “for myself”: 10
G. B. Shaw once said a bit cynically and presumptuously, “Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an International reputation by thinking once or twice a week.”
In conclusion, the quotation with an ascription to George Bernard Shaw appeared in the “Reader’s Digest” in May 1933 and then radiated outward. The phrasing of the quote in the 1930s usually closely matched the one given in the magazine.
QI does not know where the magazine obtained the quotation. Perhaps someone witnessed the remark and contacted the magazine. The magazine solicited contributions from readers and paid for quotations. QI does not know what type of vetting process was used. Perhaps future research will discover more about the provenance.
Image Notes: Picture of George Bernard Shaw in 1909 from Wikimedia Commons. Calendar from OpenClips on Pixabay. Yellow light bulb from OpenClips on Pixabay. Images combined, composed, and retouched by QI.
(Great thanks to Dan O’Hanlon who inquired about a thematically similar quotation attributed to Shaw. Also, special thanks to Laura Griffin whose inquiry gave further impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Many thanks to researcher Hugo who identified the “Commercial West” citation. Much appreciation to the Chester Fritz Library of the University of North Dakota for help elucidating the “Commercial West” citation.)
- 1933 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 23, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 16, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1985, Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters: 1874-1897, Edited by Dan H. Laurence, (Letter from George Bernard Shaw to Golding Bright; dated December 14, 1894), Start Page 470, Quote Page 470, Viking Penguin, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1933 May 6, Commercial West, Volume 65, (Untitled freestanding short item), Quote Page 27, Column 3, Publisher by Financial Communications, Eden Prairie, Minnesota. (Verified with scans; great thanks to the Chester Fritz Library of the University of North Dakota) ↩
- 1933 August 25, Christian Science Monitor, What They Say, Quote Page 13, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1933 September 13, Chester Times, Shaw Thinks, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Chester, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1933 October 1, Hartford Courant, (Short item without a title), Quote Page D2, Column 6, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1937 June 6, Los Angeles Times, Along El Camino Real With Ed Ainsworth, Quote Page A18, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Quote Page 179, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩
- 1949 April 24, New York Times, “Wit Conquers All, Or Laughter Through the Ages” by Charles Poore, (Review of “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations” edited by Evan Esar), Quote Page BR6, Column 5, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1963 October 27, Sunday Advocate (Advocate), Finding the Way: Room to Think by Ralph W. Loew, Quote Page 6-B, Column 8, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩