George Bernard Shaw? Oscar Wilde? Irvin Cobb? Michel de Montaigne? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A very popular acerbic adage combines wisdom and wistfulness together with a modicum of jealousy:
Youth is wasted on the young.
These words have been attributed to two famous Irish wits: George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Oddly, I have not seen any precise citations. Would you please help?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a syndicated newspaper column called “Cook-Coos” by Ted Cook in February 1931. 1 The expression was ascribed to George Bernard Shaw, and the central meaning was congruent to modern instances; however, the phrasing was quite different Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2
Someone asked Bernard Shaw what, in his opinion, is the most beautiful thing in this world.
“Youth,” he replied, “is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”
QI has not yet identified an interview with Shaw containing the above remark; hence, the attribution was indirect. In the following months and years there was an efflorescence of similar statements linked to Shaw employing highly-variable phrasing. No closely matching written remark has been found in the corpus of Shaw; thus, residual uncertainty remains.
Attributions to Oscar Wilde were in circulation by 1963, but QI has found no substantive support for the linkage.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1904 Shaw crafted the comedy “John Bull’s Other Island”. The youth of one of the characters was described as wasted; however, the remark was particularized to one individual and did not reflect the full meaning of the adage: 3
The real tragedy of Haffigan is the tragedy of his wasted youth, his stunted mind, his drudging over his clods and pigs until he has become a clod and a pig himself—until the soul within him has smouldered into nothing but a dull temper that hurts himself and all around him.
In 1907 a monograph about the life of Shaw by Holbrook Jackson was published, and it included a remark by the playwright concerning his “wasted and mischievous” early years. The personal experiences of Shaw may have inspired the saying if he truly did say it: 4
I was an unmitigated nuisance until the phenomenon described in the first act of Man and Superman as the dawning of the moral passion took place; and by that time I was nearing the end of my schooldays, which I look back on as the most completely wasted and mischievous part of my life.”
In February 1931 the following words were attributed to Shaw as mentioned previously in this article:
“Youth,” he replied, “is the most beautiful thing in this world—and what a pity that it has to be wasted on children!”
In March 1931 an instance credited to Shaw was printed in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of Brooklyn, New York, but the word choice was a different, i.e., “beautiful thing” became “wonderful thing” and “pity” became “shame”: 5
And as Bernard Shaw replied, when asked what he thought of youth—thinks that youth is a wonderful thing. It is a shame it has to be wasted on children.
Her youthfulness, marvelous mop of bright hair and comic paper dialect encompass a combination seldom attained among the bright lights. Youth is always wonderful. As George Bernard once exclaimed, it seems a shame to waste it on children.
In May 1931 a profile of the prominent humorist Irvin S. Cobb was published in a Sunday newspaper supplement. Cobb presented an instance of the saying while crediting Shaw: 8
If there is any melancholy in Cobb it is the melancholy of middle age looking back to years that will never be again. He quoted with deep feeling a recent epigram from Bernard Shaw: “The most precious thing in the world is youth. Too bad it is wasted on children.”
And then he was reminded of Robert Louis Stevenson’s mournful plaint: “If youth only knew and age only could.”
In December 1931 “The New York Times” reported that a sermon delivered by Harry Emerson Fosdick included a version of the saying: 9
Declares Youth Is Wasted by Children Who Are Unaware of the Treasure They Possess.
Concurring in the opinion of George Bernard Shaw, the Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick told his congregation at Riverside Church, Riverside Drive and 122d Street, yesterday morning, that it was a pity youth had to be wasted in childhood. “Half the time children do not know what a treasure they possess,” he said.
Also in December 1931 a Massachusetts newspaper printed an expression that was not attributed to Shaw or any other individual. This version used “youth” and “young” which are often used in modern instances: 10
What a pity it is that so much youth is wasted on young people, who don’t know by experience how to make the best use of it.—Springfield Union.
In 1934 a newspaper in Seattle, Washington printed yet another variant: 11
George Bernard Shaw once wrote that “Youth is the most precious thing in life; it is too bad it has to be wasted on young folks.”
Mr. Bernard Shaw is a postmaster at the ready retort. A young woman sitting next to him at dinner remarked: “What a wonderful thing is youth!”
“Yes—and what a crime to waste it on children,” G.B.S. replied sagely.—Montreal Daily Star.
Many philosophers maintain too much store is placed on youth. You will remember one declaring it was too bad youth has to be wasted on young people–or words to that effect. Most certainly they can not, do not, appreciate it.
In 1936 the important literary magazine “The New Yorker” published a version of the anecdote from the pen of Clifton Fadiman: 16
At dinner one evening, the bright young lady on Mr. Shaw’s right burbled, “Ah, what a wonderful thing is youth!” He swung his beard round at her crisply and replied, “Yes—and what a shame to waste it on children.”
In 1938 the gossip columnist and future impresario Ed Sullivan printed an instance together with a gloss: 17
The old saying was: “It’s a pity that youth is wasted on the very young.” . . . . You can paraphrase it to read: “It’s unfortunate that experience is wasted on those who have exceeded fifty,” because the youngsters are in sore need of it.
In September 1939 “The Rotarian” printed the following with an ascription to Shaw: 18
Music is much too important to be wasted upon opera, just as youth (Mr. Shaw is the authority) is too important to be wasted upon the very young.
In December 1939 columnist Ed Sullivan printed the adage again, but this time he added an uncertain ascription to the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne: 19
“It is a pity that youth is wasted on the very young,” remarked Montaigne or some other French wit. The cry was an oblique expression of the fact that so many things come only with age: experience, poise, expertness at a trade, understanding.
In 1945 the novelist Ann Pinchot shared a book chapter with the readers of the “Atlanta Daily World” of Georgia. Pinchot’s text included a phrase that exactly matched the modern version of the saying: 20
“I dreamed last night I was young again,” Reyna said presently. “What is it Shaw says—a pity youth is wasted on the young.”
In 1963 columnist Claire MacMurray writing in “The Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio tentatively assigned the saying to Oscar Wilde: 21
Someone — maybe Oscar Wilde — said that youth is wasted on the young. Maybe it’s also true that happiness is wasted on those who have had no real trouble.
In conclusion, the earliest strong matches for the saying appeared in 1931 and were attributed to George Bernard Shaw. The phrasing evolved over time and displayed considerable variation. Researchers have been unable to find the adage in Shaw’s writings.
The first citation dated February 14, 1931 differed significantly from the anecdote dated September 12, 1935. The lines ascribed to Shaw in 1931 were split into two parts; one part was delivered by an unidentified woman and the other part by Shaw. Overall, the accuracy of the ascription to Shaw was uncertain. Perhaps future researchers will uncover more evidence.
Images Notes: Portrait of George Bernard Shaw circa 1909. Depiction of the Fountain of Youth on the 500 Swiss Francs banknote. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been retouched, cropped, and resized.
(Great thanks to Jonathan Caws-Elwitt, Kevin Basil Fritts, and Michael Becket whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Stephen Goranson who helped QI by locating the May 10, 1931 instance. Thanks also Charles Doyle and Fred R. Shapiro for pioneering research. Additional thanks to discussants Wilson Gray, Joel Berson, and Laurence Horn.)
- 1931 February 14, Rockford Register-Republic, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1931 February 14, Nevada State Journal, Cook-Coos by Ted Cook (King Features Syndicate), Quote Page 5, Column 2, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1907, John Bull’s Other Island and Major Barbara: also How He Lied to Her Husband by Bernard Shaw John Bull’s Other Island, Act IV, (Character Larry speaking), Quote Page 109, Archibald Constable & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1907, Bernard Shaw by Holbrook Jackson, Quote Page 40, G. W. Jacobs & Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1931 March 8, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Section: Brooklyn Eagle Magazine, Big Brothers to Broadway by Rian James, Quote Page 18, Column 4, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 April 22, Denton Record-Chronicle, New York Day by Day by O. O. McIntyre, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Denton, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 April 22, The San Bernardino County Sun, O. O. McIntyre, Quote Page 20, Column 7, San Bernardino, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1931 May 10, Seattle Sunday Times (Seattle Daily Times), Section: National Weekly, Deflation Good for Everybody Philosophizes Irvin S. Cobb, Quote Page 8, Column 6, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1931 December 28, New York Times, Fosdick Says Religion Keeps People Young, Quote Page 20, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1932 December 20, Daily Boston Globe, They Do Use It, Though, Quote Page 28, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1934 August 10, Seattle Daily Times, Age Gives Way to Youth in New Liberty Picture by Richard E. Hays, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1935 September 12, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, The Youthful Pshaw, Quote Page 14, Column 3, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 September 28, The Literary Digest, The Spice of Life, Quote Page 40, Column 2, Published by Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1935 November 27, Denton Record-Chronicle, Modern Women by Marian Mays Martin, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Denton, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1935 December 02, Trenton Evening Times, Modern Women by Marian Mays Martin, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1936 April 25, The New Yorker, Books by Clifton Fadiman, Start Page 68, Quote Page 68, Column 1, F.R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (New Yorker page scan database) ↩
- 1938 October 12, Chicago Daily Tribune, Looking at Hollywood: Life Begins at 59 by Ed Sullivan, Quote Page 23, Column 8, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1939 September, The Rotarian, My Pet Hate Is—Golf! by Quentin Reynolds, Start Page 36, Quote Page 36, Column 1, Published by Rotary International. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1939 December 22, Chicago Daily Tribune, Looking at Hollywood: The Observation Post by Ed Sullivan, Start Page 23, Quote Page 25, Column 5 and 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1945 July 14, Atlanta Daily World, Rival to My Heart: Chapter Sixteen by Ann Pinchot, Quote Page 6, Column 3, Atlanta, Georgia. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1963 July 30, Plain Dealer, Good Morning From Claire Mac Murray, Quote Page 16, Column 1 and 2, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩