Death Is Nature’s Way of Telling You to Slow Down

Madison Avenue? Doctor’s Advice? Graffito? Dick Sharples? Anonymous?

tortoise08Dear Quote Investigator: When I strained a muscle recently a friend told me that the injury was nature’s way of telling me to slow down. Another friend quipped:

Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.

Would you please explore this adage?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated column of Leonard Lyons in April 1960, Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Madison Avenue’s definition of Death: “Nature’s way of telling you to slow up”.

“Madison Avenue” is a street in New York City which for many years has been used as a metonym for the U.S. advertising industry. The instance presented by Lyons differed from the more common modern variant by using the phrase “slow up” instead of “slow down” although the meaning was congruent.

QI hypothesizes that the parodic guidance propounded by the expression evolved from similar pieces of health advice and statements in advertisements.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1903 a newspaper in Pennsylvania reported on the ominous physical collapse of a politician who fainted while giving a speech. This event was not fatal, but the template of the remark below was comparable to the modern statement under investigation: 2

That was a dramatic climax to Mayor Weaver’s address before the Methodist Social union of Philadelphia on Monday night, when, in the midst of his talk he was overcome by vertigo and sank back insensible in the arms of a friend. Fortunately it was nothing serious and in a short time the mayor had recovered sufficiently to enable him to return to his home. He has been leading a rather strenuous life since his inauguration and the little attack of Monday night was probably nature’s warning to slow up a bit.

In 1913 an article in a Pennsylvanian newspaper also referred to “nature’s warning”. In this case, the commandment was to “rest” instead of “slow down”: 3

Don’t play tennis or take long walks if you are feeling tired and “done up.” These feelings are nature’s warning that you need a rest, and if you fly in the face of such a warning you are bound to suffer for it later.

In 1925 a Wisconsin newspaper printed an advertisement for a laundry service. The symptom generating the warning was “tiredness”. The same basic advertisement ran in multiple newspapers around the U.S. over a period of years: 4

When you’re all tired out with the washing—when you feel as though you couldn’t work another minute—that tiredness is nature’s red lantern. It warns you that your health is in danger—tells you to slow up and take it easy for awhile. And with our Rough Dry service, you can “take it easy” every washday.

In 1955 a newspaper reported on a talk given by a surgeon who spoke about heart attacks: 5

A coronary attack, he brought out, doesn’t mean the victim will be doomed to a life of illness. But it is nature’s warning sign, the doctor said, and the individual must slow down.

Transforming a remark like the one above via exaggeration into a mordant quip about death would be unsurprising since heart attacks are sometimes fatal.

By April 8, 1960 the widely-syndicated column “The Lyons Den” included the saying being explored as noted previously: 6

Madison Avenue’s definition of Death: “Nature’s way of telling you to slow up”.

On April 25 Newsweek printed the saying, and the passage apparently was based on Lyons column: 7

Madison Avenue’s latest definition of death, bouncing around New York last week, will hardly tempt the conservative editors of Stedman’s Medical Dictionary: “It’s nature’s way of telling you to slow down.”

By May 14 the joke had made it into the pages of “The Saturday Review”, but the acknowledgement was given to “Newsweek” instead of Lyons: 8

According to Newsweek, here is Madison Avenue’s definition of death: It’s Nature’s way of telling you to slow down!

Also, sometime in 1960 the novel Spacehive by science fiction author Jeff Sutton was published. The work included an instance of the saying, but the precise chronological ordering with respect to the other 1960 citations was uncertain. The book probably had a substantial lead time, but a last-minute revision would have been possible: 9

“These damned missiles will be the death of me yet,” he remarked facetiously.
“Death,” Tolenberg intoned, “is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.”

In 1965 “The Saturday Review” printed an advertisement for a journal called “Books” which included a description of a graffito in a New York neighborhood: 10

A Greenwich Village graffito: “Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.”

In 1983 “The Oxford Book of Death” included an instance of the saying credited to a 1979 episode of the British television series “In Loving Memory” written by Dick Sharples: 11

After all, what is death? Just nature’s way of telling us to slow down.
Dick Sharples, In Loving Memory, Yorkshire Television, 1979
(according to A. Alvarez, an American insurance proverb)

The humorous adage has been included in important reference works such as “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” (2001), 12 “The Yale Book of Quotations” (2006), 13 and “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” (2012), 14

In conclusion, this saying was in circulation by 1960, and the originator was anonymous. Columnist Leonard Lyons was an important locus for its popularization. It was probably derived from phrases used in health advice and advertising copy.

Image Notes: Picture of tortoise from skeeze at Pixabay. Image has been retouched and resized.

(Thanks to Nigel Rees who discussed this saying in his January 2016 “Quote Unquote” Newsletter which inspired QI to explore the topic. QI highly recommends the works of quotation expert Rees; see his paper books and ebooks at Amazon. Many thanks to Charles Doyle who accessed the 1960 book “Spacehive”.)

Update History: On January 13, 2016 the bibliographic note for ‘Spacehive” was updated to indicate that the citation had been verified with scans.

Notes:

  1. 1960 April 8, Grand Prairie Daily News, The Lyons Den: Owls May View Hitchcock Movie by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Grand Prairie, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1903 May 13, Morning Tribune (Altoona Tribune), Editorial Department, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Altoona, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1913 July 30, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, Section: For Woman Children and Home, Hot Weather Dont’s, Quote Page 10, Column 2, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1925 May 2, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, (Advertisement for “Stannard’s Laundry” service called “Rough Dry”) Quote Page 7, Column 5, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1955 November 30, The Evening Times, Packer Surgeon Talks to Rotary on Lung Cancer, Coronary Heart Disease Quote Page 3, Column 5, Sayre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1960 April 8, Grand Prairie Daily News, The Lyons Den: Owls May View Hitchcock Movie by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Grand Prairie, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1960 April 25, Newsweek, Section: Medicine, Article: Brainstorms: Sicker, Sicker, Sicker, Quote Page 70, Column 1, Newsweek, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  8. 1960 May 14, The Saturday Review, Trade Winds by Jerome Beatty Jr., Start Page 6, Quote Page 8, The Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  9. 1960 Copyright, Spacehive by Jeff Sutton, Quote Page 135, Published by Ace Books, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)
  10. 1965 September 11, The Saturday Review, (Advertisement for the journal “Books” from Agel Publishing Company, New York), Quote Page 47, Column 1, The Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  11. 1987 (Copyright 1983), The Oxford Book of Death, Chosen and Edited by D. J. Enright, Quote Page 13, Published Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Topic: Death, Quote Page 105, Cassell, London, and Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Sayings, Quote Page 669, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  14. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Entry: Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down, Quote Page 52, Entry: Pain (Fatigue) is nature’s way of telling you to slow down (you need a rest). Quote Page 187, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)