Ambrose Bierce? Henry Ward Beecher? Laurence J. Peter? Groucho Marx? Harry H. Jones? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The rant of an enraged person often contains statements that necessitate contrite apologies later. Here is an adage reflecting this insight:
Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.
These words have been attributed to the preacher Henry Ward Beecher, the humorist Ambrose Bierce, and the quotation compiler Laurence J. Peter. Do you know who should receive credit?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI points to a famous comedian who is rarely mentioned in conjunction with this saying. In June 1954 a column titled “Inside TV” by Eve Starr was published in a North Carolina newspaper, and Starr reported on two jokes told by Groucho Marx during his show. Boldface has been added: 1
Groucho quips: “It takes a heap of spending to make a house a home.” His best advice to contestants is: “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
Ambrose Bierce did write a parody fable that was tangentially related to this theme, and a detailed citation for this short tale is given below. However, QI has found no substantive evidence that Bierce wrote or spoke this quotation. Oddly, a major reference work stated that the expression appeared in Bierce’s “The Cynic’s Word Book” of 1906 which is better known under its later title “The Devil’s Dictionary”. However, QI has examined multiple editions of this book and the quotation was absent.
The misattribution to Henry Ward Beecher was based on an incorrect reading of an entry in a 1977 quotation collection created by Laurence J. Peter. Details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1899 “Fantastic Fables” by Ambrose Bierce was released, and it contained a collection of stories which undercut or subverted traditional moralistic advice. A tale about a father and son presented the recommendation that an angry person should wait instead of taking inappropriate precipitate action; however, this suggestion was comically undermined: 2
“My boy,” said an aged Father to his fiery and disobedient Son, “a hot temper is the soil of remorse. Promise me that when next you are angry you will count one hundred before you move or speak.”
No sooner had the Son promised than he received a stinging blow from the paternal walking-stick, and by the time he had counted to seventy-five had the unhappiness to see the old man jump into a waiting cab and whirl away.
The above tale was thematically connected to the saying, but it did not contain the adage, and the humorous thrust was quite different.
In 1954 a columnist reported that Groucho Marx spoke a version of the quip to a contestant on television. QI hypothesizes that the show was “You Bet Your Life” which was hosted by Groucho. This was the earliest instance found as noted previously:
His best advice to contestants is: “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
In September 1956 “The Reader’s Digest” printed the joke with an attribution of “Anonymous”. This mass-circulation periodical was an important nexus for disseminating quotations: 3
Speak when you’re angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.
In July 1957 a Geneva, New York newspaper printed an instance in the upper left corner of the front page under the title “Thought For Today”. The words were ascribed to someone named “Harry H. Jones”: 4
“Speak when you are angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
— Harry H. Jones
In December 1958 the popular syndicated columnist Earl Wilson printed a version, but he did not present a source: 5
Speak when you’re angry and you’ll make the best speech you ever regretted.
In 1962 the quip appeared in newspapers via the syndicated feature titled “Today’s Chuckle”, and no ascription was given: 6
Speak when you are angry and you will make the finest speech you will ever regret.
In 1965 the well-known columnist Walter Winchell printed an instance which he credited to an unidentified magazine: 7
Good quote in a mag: “Speak when you’re angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
In 1971 a newspaper in Marcellus, New York printed a Real Estate advertisement that expressed the saying with a different vocabulary: 8
Sound off when you’re angry, and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret!
In 1977 Laurence J. Peter published the influential collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time”. Peter enjoyed injecting his own commentary into the entries of his compilation. The following entry was for a statement credited to a prominent religious figure named Henry Ward Beecher. Yet, the parenthetical remark was not written by Beecher; it was written by Peter. Nevertheless, some readers misunderstood the text and incorrectly assigned the words to Beecher: 9
Never forget what a man says to you when he is angry.
—Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) (Speak when you’re angry—and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.)
In 1978 the popular advice columnist Ann Landers printed the saying and improperly credited Beecher. She also changed “Henry” to “Harriet”: 10
CONFIDENTIAL to Ashamed of Myself: It has happened to all of us at one time or another. Harriet Ward Beecher said it best: “Speak when you are angry and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret”
In 1986 an advertisement for a Baptist church in a Pennsylvania newspaper attributed the adage to the well-known humorist Ambrose Bierce: 11
Anger and bitterness are often expressed in destructive verbal explosions. “Speak when you are angry,” said Ambrose Bierce, “and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” Verbal retaliation accomplishes no constructive purpose.
In 1987 the saying was ascribed to Laurence J. Peter in a Medina, New York newspaper: 12
Thought for Today: “Speak when you are angry—and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”— Dr. Laurence J. Peter, Canadian born educator and author.
In conclusion, based on current evidence QI suggests that Groucho Marx should be credited with this remark. There is no substantive support for attributing the words to Ambrose Bierce. Also, ascriptions to Henry Ward Beecher and Laurence J. Peter are mistaken.
Image Notes: Ambrose Bierce by John Herbert Evelyn Partington via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait has been cropped. Angry emoticon from OpenClips on Pixabay. Emoticon has been modified to conform more closely to a circular shape. Groucho Marx promotional postcard for “You Bet Your Life” program. Image has been cropped.
(Great thanks to Dave Hill whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Hill runs the website “WIST: Wish I’d Said That!” which presents a valuable collection of quotations and citations.)
- 1954 November 3, Greensboro Record, Inside TV by Eve Starr, Quote Page B3, Column 4, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1899 (Copyright 1898), Fantastic Fables by Ambrose Bierce, Father and Son, Start Page 16, Quote Page 16, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1956 September, Reader’s Digest, Volume 69, (Freestanding quotation at bottom of page), Quote Page 142, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1957 July 18, The Geneva Times, Thought for Today (Saying in upper left corner), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Geneva, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1958 December 2, Aberdeen American-News (Aberdeen Daily News), Earl Wilson’s New York, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1962 February 3, Aberdeen American-News (Aberdeen Daily News), Today’s Chuckle, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1965 July 28, Buffalo Courier-Express, Celebs, Sallies and Squelches from Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 24, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1971 September 9, Marcellus Observer (Press-Observer), (Real Estate Advertisement: Open House by Merthel Babcock), Quote Page 16, Column 3, Marcellus, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Anger, Quote Page 51, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1978 October 24, The Daily Press, Advice: Church’s ‘demands’ cause guilt feelings by Ann Landers, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Utica, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1986 January 17, Altoona Mirror, (Advertisement for Calvary Baptist Church), Quote Page B5, Column 5, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1987 May 21, The Journal-Register, Thought for Today, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Medina, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩