Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation has been attributed to the writer and political commentator Gore Vidal:
The four most beautiful words in the English language are ‘I told you so’.
Was this statement crafted by Vidal?
Quote Investigator: Gore Vidal did employ versions of this saying on multiple occasions. But the earliest strongly matching instance located by QI was spoken in the British House of Lords in 1953 by Lord Mancroft (Stormont Mancroft). Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
I should like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, for having given us the opportunity of discussing this matter this afternoon and also for the moderate and reasonable way in which he has put his point of view forward. Indeed, I should like to congratulate the noble Lord, also, on having successfully resisted the temptation to utter those happiest words in the English language, “I told you so.”
Mancroft used the adjective “happiest” instead of “most beautiful”, and he did not count the words, but the notion he expressed was very similar.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1963 Lord Mancroft employed the saying again while speaking in the House of Lords: 2
I think it was the American author Bret Harte who said that the saddest words in the English language were, “what might have been”. If that is so, the happiest words are undoubtedly, “I told you so”. I am happy to recall that in my maiden speech on Defence, in your Lordships’ House over fifteen years ago, I proposed a scheme almost identical with the one we are discussing this afternoon.
In the passage above Mancroft also referred to “the saddest words” which he linked to Bret Harte. It was true that Harte wrote a comment on this topic; however, he was reacting to an 1854 remark by the poet John Greenleaf Whittier who proclaimed that the saddest words were “It might have been”. 3
The earliest linkage to Gore Vidal found by QI appeared in a 1975 article titled “They’re saying” printed in a Hutchinson, Kansas newspaper. Vidal used the adjective “marvelous”: 4
“The one thing about being a prophet, it’s extremely satisfying, no matter how dire the prophecy. I expect to be standing there as the mushroom clouds blossom over the earth — as all our bones begin to shine at night with radioactivity — I’ll be saying that marvelous phrase, ‘I told you so.'” — Gore Vidal, author.
On November 1, 2000 Vidal answered questions submitted by the readers of “The Independent” newspaper in London. One inquirer asked about the rate of decline Vidal foresaw for the international power of the United States. Vidal did not present a chronology, but he answered with self-satisfaction: 5
Whatever comes, I shall be ready with a sermon, the four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.
On November 13, 2000 Lord Williams of Mostyn (Mr. Gareth Williams) employed a version of the expression while speaking in the House of Lords: 6
Incidentally, I accept that the court process which addresses these serious offences is extremely lengthy. However, I utter the happiest words in the English language when I say, “I told you so”.
In December 2000 a columnist in “The Sunday Times” of London commented on a slowdown in the ascent of housing prices. He employed the adjective “sweetest” and ascribed the words to Vidal: 7
There is a certain satisfaction in being proved right that the growth couldn’t continue. It may have taken five years for my pessimism to be validated, but now it’s time to utter what Gore Vidal described as the four sweetest words in the English language: I told you so.
Also in December 2000 “The Guardian” newspaper in London published “Quotes of the Year: Did they really say that?” and included the remark by Vidal: 8
‘The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so.’
Gore Vidal, on the prospect of American decline
In April 2001 a reporter at the “San Francisco Chronicle” spoke to Vidal, and he employed a version of the saying: 9
“The four most beautiful words in the English language,” Vidal says, “are ‘I told you so.’ I’m an expert at turning those words out.”
In 2006 the “Los Angeles Times” published a profile of Vidal, and a reporter interviewed him. Vidal delivered another version of the saying using the adjective “greatest”: 10
Under the weight of the world, at the apex of his frustration, Vidal is wont to smile. There is satisfaction in the muck, somewhere. “I’ll never forget the joy,” he says, and trails off, and pauses, and sips. “The four greatest words on Earth are ‘I told you so,'” he says. “I have seen to it that I’m able to say that at period intervals, like a cuckoo clock.”
In conclusion, Gore Vidal did employ this saying on numerous occasions; however, evidence suggests that he did not coin it. Currently, the first citation points to Lord Mancroft as originator of the family of expressions in 1953 although future researchers may uncover earlier citations.
Image Notes: The word “I Told You So” in Rothenburg Decorative typeface from typographer Mediengestaltung (Dieter Steffmann) via 1001fonts.com.
(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 1953 February 18, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, House of Lords, Leasehold Reform, Speaking: Lord Mancroft (Mr. Stormont Mancroft), Lords Sitting, volume 180, cc512-59. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on December 9, 2015) link ↩
- 1963 July 31, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, House of Lords, Defence Reorganisation, Speaking: Lord Mancroft (Mr. Stormont Mancroft), Lords Sitting, volume 252, cc1214-48. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on December 9, 2015) link ↩
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: John Greenleaf Whittier, Quote Page 816, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1975 August 16, Hutchinson News, Section: The News Clock, They’re saying, Quote Page 5A, Column 1, Hutchinson, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 2000 November 1, The Independent, Section: News, Gore Vidal: You ask the questions – (Such as: Gore Vidal, do you really think you can’t be friends with anyone you have sex with?), Quote Page 7, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2000 November 13, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, House of Lords, Sodomy with a member of the opposite sex, Speaking: Lord Williams of Mostyn (Mr. Gareth Williams), Lords Sitting, volume 619 cc65-117. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on December 9, 2015) link ↩
- 2000 December 10, The Sunday Times, Section: Features, Slowdown leaves pessimists with bittersweet taste – Homehunters, Author/Byline: Mick Heaney, Quote Page: Irish Property 7, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2000 December 31, The Guardian, Quotes of the year: Did they really say that?: LUVVIE LAND, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2001 April 18, San Francisco Chronicle, Section: Daily Date Book, Gore Vidal at War – Author takes on Bush and the U.S. anti-terror campaign, Author/Byline: Jonathan Curiel (Chronicle Staff Writer), Quote Page D1, San Francisco Chronicle, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 2006 April 2, Los Angeles Times, Style & Culture; THE WRITER’S LIFE; The last mystery of Vidal; A writer steeped in history and remembrance makes his stand in a city of reinvention buy Steven Barrie-Anthony, Quote Page E1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩