The Dictionary Is the Only Place Where Success Comes Before Work

Vince Lombardi? Mark Twain? Arthur Brisbane? Vidal Sassoon? Stubby Currence? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is an astute saying about gaining achievements through effort that deftly refers to the alphabetical order of a dictionary. Here are two versions:

1) Success comes before work only in the dictionary.
2) The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.

This expression has been attributed to football coach Vince Lombardi, humorist Mark Twain, newspaper editor Arthur Brisbane, hair stylist Vidal Sassoon, and others. Would you please explore its origin?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain made this statement. It is not listed on Barbara Schmidt’s website, an important reference tool for checking expressions ascribed to the luminary. Also, it does not appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”.

The earliest strong match for this saying located by QI was published in 1935 by a newspaper columnist named Stubby Currence. The details are given further below.

QI conjectures that the expression emerged from a precursor statement that was in circulation by the 1920s. The following was printed in a New Castle, Pennsylvania newspaper in 1925, and the same statement with the words “for it” deleted was printed in a Humboldt, Iowa newspaper in 1926: 1

One way to find success without working for it is to look it up in the dictionary.

Three key vocabulary items were shared with the saying under investigation: “success”, “working”, and “dictionary”. But the meaning here was somewhat different. The reader might find the word “success” simply by looking it up in a dictionary, but this action was distinct from actually obtaining worldly success. The wordplay and joke structure here were distinguishable, but there were multiple points of similarity with the phrase being traced.

In 1932 “The News-Herald” newspaper of Franklin, Pennsylvania printed another version of the precursor quip. This instance semantically matched the 1925 citation, but syntactically it was closer to the next citation in 1935: 2

In a dictionary is the only place one can find success without working for it.

In 1935 an expression solidly matching the one given by the questioner was published in the “Bluefield Daily Telegraph” of Bluefield, West Virginia. The words appeared in a column called “The Press Box” by Stubby Currence who covered sports for the paper. QI does not know whether Currence was the crafter of the jape or simply the transmitter: 3

BUFF SAYS: “The dictionary is the only place where you come to SUCCESS before you get to WORK.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1941 “The Pampa News” of Pampa, Texas printed a column titled “Just between Us Girls” containing an unattributed instance of the saying that used dialectical spelling: 4

Dictionary am de only place where you come to success befor’ you git to work.

In 1953 “The Echo” newspaper of Richardson, Texas published an unattributed instance together with a miscellaneous set of unrelated items under the title “Moments”: 5

Only in the dictionary will you find success coming before work.

In 1954 the saying was incorporated in a classified advertisement in a Syracuse, New York paper: 6

“THE DICTIONARY IS THE ONLY place where success comes before work.”
National Vocational Ser.

In 1957 the energetic quotation collector and widely-syndicated columnist Bennett Cerf ascribed the saying to Arthur Brisbane who was a famous newspaper editor based in New York who died in 1936. QI has not found any earlier support for this interesting attribution; hence, its status remains uncertain: 7

Arthur Brisbane liked to point out that the dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.

In 1980 “The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations” included an entry for the saying with a linkage to hairdresser and businessman Vidal Sassoon who credited an unnamed teacher: 8

The only place where success comes before work is in a dictionary. [On BBC radio, quoting one of his teachers]

In 1994 the adage was ascribed to Vince Lombardi in a sports column of “The Seattle Times” in Washington. Lombardi died in 1970: 9

QUOTE ‘The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work. Hard work is the price we must all pay for success.’ Vince Lombardi

In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit Stubby Currence based on the 1935 citation. The attributions to Arthur Brisbane and Vince Lombardi were only weakly supported by very late citations. The citation for Vidal Sassoon was substantive, but the saying was already in circulation. This entry represents a snapshot of what QI has discovered and additional data in the future may shift the ascription.

Image Notes: Open book from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Excerpts from the 1817 edition of “A Dictionary of the English Language: Compiled for the Use of Common Schools in the United States” by Noah Webster published by George Goodwin.

(Great thanks to David Barnhart, Ben Zimmer, and wikicitas whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Barry Popik who also fruitfully examined this saying, and to “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” which has a valuable entry on this topic.)


  1. 1925 July 27, New Castle News, Hints and Dints, Quote Page 4, Column 3, New Castle, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) 10 1926 February 12, The Humboldt Republican (Humboldt Independent), Office Dog Barks, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Humboldt, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1932 May 5, The News-Herald, Looking at the News of Today by William J. Crawford, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Franklin, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1935 February 17, Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Fodder For Sports From: The Press Box by Stubby Currence, Section 2, Quote Page 1, Column 6, Bluefield, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1941 August 24, Pampa Daily News, Just Between Us Girls by Johnnie Davis, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Pampa, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1953 July 31, The Echo (Richardson Echo), Moments, (Collection of short unrelated items), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Richardson, Texas. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1954 March 19, The Post-Standard, (Classified Advertisement for National Vocational Ser.), Quote Page 37, Column 2, Syracuse, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1957 July 23, State Times Advocate, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 2-B, Column 3, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1980, The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations, Edited by J. M. Cohen and M. J. Cohen, Second edition, (Reprint dated 1983), Section: Vidal Sassoon, Page 298, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1994 February 4, The Seattle Times, Section: Sports, Column: Sideline Chatter, It Stop, Let It Stop, Let It Stop!, Compiled by Chuck Ashmun, Quote Page C2, Seattle, Washington. (NewsBank Access World News)