If In the Last Few Years You Haven’t Discarded a Major Opinion or Acquired a New One, Check Your Pulse. You May Be Dead

Gelett Burgess? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Anyone who wishes to remain intellectually vital must be willing to challenge his or her own opinions. Viewpoints should evolve and flawed notions should be replaced. I came across the following cogent expression:

If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead.

These words have been credited to a humorist, editor, and art critic named Gelett Burgess. Today, Burgess’s quirky fame rests on the word “blurb” which he coined and on a nonsense verse about a “purple cow” which he crafted.

I have not been able to find a citation for the above quotation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1937 Gelett Burgess published a playful book of advice titled “Look Eleven Years Younger” which included a partial match for the expression. The volume actually contained two versions of the saying. The second instance was printed in a summary section at the end of a chapter. Numbers have been added to this excerpt: 1

1) When you find you haven’t discarded a major opinion for years, or acquired a new one, you should stop and investigate to see if you’re not growing senile.

2) If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one investigate and see if you’re not growing senile.

The first part of quotation number two above was a close match to the saying under investigation, but the second part suggested that inflexible individuals might be facing senility instead of death. QI has not found a superior match in the writings of Burgess although future researchers may discover such a match.

Burgess died in 1951, and QI believes that the modern “pulse” saying evolved from his words. The earliest instance appeared in 1977 in the pages of “Forbes” magazine where it was ascribed to Burgess. QI does not know where “Forbes” found this variant.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.


In 1948 “The Saturday Review” published a language puzzle constructed by Fraser Young. The solution of the puzzle was a close match to the second instance in the 1937 book. The word “getting” was used instead of “growing”, one comma was added, and Burgess was credited: 2

Answer to Literary Crypt No. 257
If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, investigate and see if you’re not getting senile.
GELETT BURGESS.

In 1949 a newspaper in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada printed an article about a community group meeting that included an instance of the saying without attribution: 3

Roll call was an exchange of Christmas gifts. The motto for the month could be very disturbing. It was “If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one investigate and see if you’re not growing senile.”

On August 1, 1977 “Forbes” magazine published a version in its regular column called “Thoughts on the Business of Life”. Burgess was credited, but the saying referred to pulse/death instead of senility. In addition, the verb form “hadn’t” was used instead of “haven’t”: 4 5

If in the last few years you hadn’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead.
GELETT BURGESS.

On August 14, 1977 a columnist in “The Bakersfield Californian” of Bakersfield, California published an instance that precisely matched the version in Forbes, but no attribution was included. 6 In December 1977 a widely-syndicated column about cards called “The Aces On Bridge” by Ira G. Corn included an instance that exactly matched the version in “Forbes” and credited Burgess. 7

In 1978 a letter from a reader that was published in a Baton Rouge, Louisiana newspaper included an instance ascribed to Burgess containing “pulse” and the verb form “haven’t”: 8

Gelett Burgess was quoted in the Reader’s Digest as saying. “If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead.”

In 1985 a collection called “A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations” compiled by Bernard E. Farber included the saying with a pointer to “Forbes”: 9

If in the last few years you hadn’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead.
—Gelett Burgess,
in Forbes, Aug. 1, 1977.

In conclusion, Gelett Burgess can be credited with the two statements he wrote in 1937 containing the word “senile”. QI believes that the variant expression with the word “pulse” which entered circulation by 1977 was based on Burgess’s saying; however, there was insufficient evidence to state that he coined it. The originator of the variant remains uncertain.

Image Notes: Portrait of Gelett Burgess circa 1910 from Online Archive of California: The Bancroft Library Portrait Collection via Wikimedia Commons. Image of pulse trace from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to M. J. Chappell whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Update History: On April 18, 2016 the bibliographic note for the 1977 “Forbes” citation was updated to indicate that the information had been verified on microfilm.

Notes:

  1. 1937, Look Eleven Years Younger by Gelett Burgess, Quote Page 206 and 208, Simon and Schuster, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  2. 1948 May 29, The Saturday Review, Fraser Young’s Literary Crypt, Quote Page 10, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  3. 1949 December 17, The Lethbridge Herald, Alberta Women’s Institute News by Mrs. M. L. McKenzie, Quote Page 12 (Unnumbered Page), Column 4, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1977 August 1, Forbes, Thoughts on the Business of Life, Quote Page 80, Column 2, Forbes Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  5. 1985, A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations, Compiled by Bernard E. Farber, Section: Change of Opinion, Quote Page 204, McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1977 August 14, The Bakersfield Californian, Buena Vista: no apology necessary by W. J. McCance, Quote Page 25, Column 4, Bakersfield, California. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1977 December 20, The Times Recorder, The Aces On Bridge by Ira G. Corn Jr. (Syndicated), Quote Page 9B, Column 3, Zanesville, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1978 August 3, Morning Advocate, Section: Letters, School Board vs. Dissenters: Letter from Mrs. Elizabeth McHugh, Quote Page 11A, Column 3, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1985, A Teacher’s Treasury of Quotations, Compiled by Bernard E. Farber, Section: Change of Opinion, Quote Page 204, McFarland & Company, Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified on paper)