The Man Who First Flung a Word of Abuse at His Enemy Instead of a Spear Was the Founder of Civilization

Sigmund Freud? An English Writer? Walt Menninger? Joyce Brothers? Robert Byrne? Apocryphal?

spear10Dear Quote Investigator: The control and deflection of violent impulses is central to the development of fruitful social interactions. A cogent remark on this topic has been attributed to the acclaimed father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. Here are three versions:

1) The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.
2) The first man to hurl an insult rather than a spear was the founder of civilization.
3) The first human who hurled a curse instead of a weapon against his adversary was the founder of civilization.

I have not been able to find a precise citation. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1893 Sigmund Freud and Josef Breuer published an article titled “Ueber den psychischen Mechanismus hysterischer Phänomene” in a Vienna medical journal. The title could be rendered in English as “On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena”. The following was the pertinent passage in German about the beginning of civilization. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Aber, wie ein englischer Autor geistreich bemerkte, derjenige, welcher dem Feinde statt des Pfeiles ein Schimpfwort entgegenschleuderte, war der Begründer der Civilisation, so ist das Wort der Ersatz für die That und unter Umständen der einzige Ersatz (Beichte).

A comprehensive twenty four volume work in English called “The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud” was released during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The third volume published in 1962 contained a translation by James Strachey of the 1893 passage above: 2

But, as an English writer has wittily remarked, the man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization. Thus words are substitutes for deeds, and in some circumstances (e.g. in Confession) the only substitutes.

A comment in the “Standard Edition” stated that the medical journal article was based on a shorthand report of a lecture delivered by Freud together with revisions by Freud. Importantly, Freud ascribed the remark about civilization to an unnamed English writer. So, one may say Freud popularized the saying, but he did not originate it.

Translation is often a complex operation, and here the identity of the weapon was arguably ambiguous. The words “arrow”, “dart”, and “spear” were each worthy of consideration as possible translations for “Pfeil”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A footnote to the text above pointed to another volume of the “Standard Edition” which included a translation of the 1905 work by Sigmund Freud titled “Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten” which can be rendered as “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” or “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious”. This volume did contain a thematically related remark, but it did not strongly match the target quotation: 3

As Lichtenberg puts it in drastic terms: ‘Where we now say “Excuse me!” we used to give a box on the ears.’ Brutal hostility, forbidden by law, has been replaced by verbal invective; and a better knowledge of the interlinking of human impulses is more and more robbing us—by its consistent ‘tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner’—of the capacity for feeling angry with a fellow man who gets in our way.

In 1976 a well-known clinical psychiatrist and newspaper columnist named Dr. Walt Menninger ascribed an instance of the saying directly to Freud: 4

Because it expresses intense feelings in words rather than actions, Freud commented that the first man to hurl an insult rather than a spear was the founder of civilization.

In 1978 the popular syndicated psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers discussed profanity in a column. She mentioned the viewpoint of Dr. Walt Menninger and then she printed a version of the saying ascribed to Freud that matched the one given by Menninger: 5

Freud reminded us that the first man to hurl an insult rather than a spear was the founder of civilization.

In 1979 the “Sunday World-Herald” of Omaha, Nebraska printed a profile of Reinhold Aman who was described as the editor of a journal called “Maledicta” and a leading authority on abusive language. Aman attributed the saying to Freud: 6

Freud said, “The first human being who hurled a curse against his adversary instead of a rock was the founder of civilization.” Aman concurs and says that without powerful curse words, human beings will again be throwing sticks and stones and trying to break each other’s bones.

The 1988 collection “1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” compiled by Robert Byrne included a version of the saying using “stone” which was uncertainly linked to Freud: 7

The first human being who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.
Attributed to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

In conclusion, Sigmund Freud helped to popularize the expression when he employed it in a German medical journal article in 1893, but Freud credited an unnamed English writer. Dr. Walt Menninger also helped to popularize the saying in English when he included it in a 1976 column, but he credited Freud.

Image Notes: Portrait of Sigmund Freud with cigar by Max Halberstadt via Wikimedia Commons. Spearheads from Nelson’s Perpetual Loose-Leaf Encyclopedia (1917) John H. Finley. Images have been cropped, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to Dr. Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Grothe has published a series of books filled with sayings and quotations that have been beautifully curated and cleverly categorized. Special thanks to Amy West for her translation expertise. Any errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Notes:

  1. Date: 1893 January 29, Journal: Wiener Medizinische Presse: Organ für Praktische Ärzte, Volume 34, Number 5, Article: Ueber den psychischen Mechanismus hysterischer Phänomene, Authors: Von Dr. Josef Breuer und Dr. Sigm. Freud in Wien, Start Column Number 165, Quote Column Number 166, Publisher: Urban & Schwarzenberg, Wien. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1962, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Translated from German under the General Editorship of James Strachey, In Collaboration with Anna Freud, Assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, Volume 3 (1893-1899): Early Psycho-Analytic Publications, German article title: Ueber den Psychischen Mechanismus Hysterischer Phänomene, English article title: On the Psychical Mechanism of Hysterical Phenomena, Start Page 25, Quote Page 36, Published by Hogarth Press, London. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1960, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Translated from German under the General Editorship of James Strachey, In Collaboration with Anna Freud, Assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson, Volume 8 (1905): Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Chapter 3: The Purpose of Jokes, Start Page 90, Quote Page 102, Published by Hogarth Press, London. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1976 August 26, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Profanity is laden with profundity by Dr. Walt Menninger (William Walter Menninger), Quote Page 7B, Column 1, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1978 August 07, Marietta Journal Article, Ask Dr. Brothers: Why Profanity In Children? by Dr. Joyce Brothers, Quote Page 9B, Column 1, Marietta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1979 December 9, Sunday World-Herald (Omaha World-Herald), If You Don’t Read This: May Your Tongue Grow Dull and Give You the Hives by Jules Loh, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)

    He quotes Sigmund Freud: “The first human who hurled a curse instead of a weapon against his adversary was the founder of civilization.”

    In 1980 “The Times-Picayune” of New Orleans, Louisiana also published a profile of Reinhold Aman and included an instance of the remark ascribed to Freud. This version was slightly different and used the word “rock” instead of “spear” or “weapon”: 8 1980 September 21, Times-Picayune, Well Cursed With Today’s ‘Give-‘Em-Hell’ Language by Jeanie Blake, Section 3, Quote Page 10, Column 4 and 5, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)

  7. 1988, 1,911 Best Things Anybody Ever Said Selected and Compiled by Robert Byrne, Unnumbered Page, Quotation Number 633, A Fawcett Book, Published by Random House Publishing Group. (Quotation was reprinted from 1987 edition of “Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”), (Google Books Preview)