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 known to QI appeared as a filler item in the “Oklahoma City Star” newspaper in 1934. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1934 July 20, Oklahoma City Star, (Filler item), Section M2, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“The only place where SUCCESS comes before WORK is in the dictionary.”—Clipped.

The acknowledgement “clipped” probably meant that the quip was clipped from another periodical; hence, the ascription remains anonymous. QI believes that the expression evolved over time from related jokes, and details are presented below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1920 “The Kodak Magazine” of Rochester, New York published the following item:[ref] 1920 December, The Kodak Magazine, Volume 1, Number 7, (Quotation is displayed on a page by itself), Quote Page 50, Published by Eastman Kodak Company, Rochester, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The only way to find success quickly without working for it, is to look it up in the dictionary.—Business Language

This precursor joke differed from the one under examination, but it exhibited several points of similarity. Both gags shared three key vocabulary items: “success”, “working”, and “dictionary”.  Also, both gags were based on reading a dictionary.

The quip above appeared in other newspapers such as “The Lloydminster Times” of Alberta, Canada in February 1921[ref] 1921 February 17, The Lloydminster Times, (Filler item), Quote Page 5, Column 3, Lloydminster, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref] and “The Chilliwack Progress” of British Columbia, Canada in October 1921.[ref] 1921 October 27, The Chilliwack Progress, (Filler item), Quote Page 5, Column 6, Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

In April 1922 “The Columbia Evening Missourian” published a different precursor joke:[ref] 1922 April 19, The Columbia Evening Missourian, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 1, Columbia, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Play should never come before work, except in the dictionary.

This second precursor was comparable to the one under examination, but the keywords were “play” and “work” instead of “success” and “work”. A different phrasing of this precursor appeared in “The Kansas City Times” of Missouri during the following week:[ref] 1922 April 28, The Kansas City Times, Missouri Noters, Quote Page 18, Column 5, Kansas City, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

The Columbia Missourian says that the only time play should come before work is in the dictionary.

In May 1922 the second precursor gag appeared in “The San Diego Union” of California:[ref] 1922 May 20, The San Diego Union, Round-A-Bouts, Edited by A. Roundabouter, Quote Page 4, Column 6, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank) [/ref]

I arise to remark that about the only time “play” should come before work is in the dictionary.

In 1932 “The News-Herald” newspaper of Franklin, Pennsylvania printed another phrasing for the first precursor quip. This instance used the phrase “the only place”:[ref] 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) [/ref]

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

In July 1934 the first instance of the joke under analysis appeared in an Oklahoma newspaper as mentioned previously:[ref] 1934 July 20, Oklahoma City Star, (Filler item), Section M2, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

“The only place where SUCCESS comes before WORK is in the dictionary.”—Clipped.

In 1935 the jest appeared in the “Bluefield Daily Telegraph” of Bluefield, West Virginia within a column called “The Press Box” by Stubby Currence who covered sports for the paper:[ref] 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) [/ref]

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

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:[ref] 1941 August 24, Pampa Daily News, Just Between Us Girls by Johnnie Davis, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Pampa, Texas. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

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”:[ref] 1953 July 31, The Echo (Richardson Echo), Moments, (Collection of short unrelated items), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Richardson, Texas. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

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:[ref] 1954 March 19, The Post-Standard, (Classified Advertisement for National Vocational Ser.), Quote Page 37, Column 2, Syracuse, New York. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

“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:[ref] 1957 July 23, State Times Advocate, Try and Stop Me by Bennett Cerf, Quote Page 2-B, Column 3, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

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:[ref] 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) [/ref]

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:[ref] 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)[/ref]

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 conjectures that the expression evolved from two precursor jokes that were circulating by the 1920s. The earliest strong match in 1934 was anonymous. The attributions to Stubby Currence, Arthur Brisbane, and Vince Lombardi appeared after the saying was 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. Also, thanks to researcher Barry Popik who fruitfully examined this saying. Further thanks to “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” which has a valuable entry on this topic. Many thanks to researcher Peter Reitan who located two important citations dated February 17, 1921 and July 20, 1934.)

Update History: On June 10, 2022 citations dated February 17, 1921 and July 20, 1934 were added, and the article was partially rewritten.

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