Even a Stopped Clock Is Right Twice a Day

Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach? Lewis Carroll? Charles L. Dodgson? Joseph Addison? Richard Steele? Diedrich Knickerbocker? Washington Irving? Albany de Grenier Fonblanque? Paulo Coelho? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: An obtuse, unreliable, or incompetent person occasionally performs properly. Here are three versions of a proverb reflecting this observation:

  1. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
  2. A broken watch is certain to be right twice a day.
  3. A clock that stands still is sure to point right once in twelve hours.

This saying has been attributed to the prominent Austrian writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach and to the famous children’s author Lewis Carroll, a.k.a., Charles L. Dodgson the author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. Even in the 1700s dress fashions were ever changing. If one maintained a single clothing style it would become passé, but eventually it would return to “the mode”, i.e., become fashionable again. “The Spectator” employed the clock-based simile when discussing this topic. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI:[ref] 1721, The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq; Volume 3 of 4, The Spectator, Number 129, Issue Year: 1711, Issue Date: “Saturday, July 28”, Start Page 83, Quote Page 83, Printed for Jacob Tonson at Shakespear’s-Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Did they keep to one constant dress, they would sometimes be in the fashion, which they never are as matters are managed at present. If instead of running after the mode, they would continue fixed in one certain habit, the mode would some time or other overtake them, as a clock that stands still is sure to point right once in twelve hours: in this case therefore I would advise them, as a Gentleman did his friend who was hunting about the whole town after a rambling fellow, If you follow him you will never find him, but if you plant your self at the corner of any one street, I’ll engage it will not be long before you see him.

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele founded and operated “The Spectator”. Both were significant literary and political figures. Scholarly reprints in later years identified Joseph Addison as the author of the excerpt above.[ref] 1886, Addison: Selections from Addison’s Papers Contributed to the Spectator, Main Author: Joseph Addison, Edited with Introduction and Notes by Thomas Arnold, No. 129: The same subject; letter describing the fashions in the West of England, Start Page 265, Quote Page 266, Oxford, Clarendon Press. (HathiTrust Full View) link link [/ref]

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1809 Diedrich Knickerbocker published “A History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty”. The two volume history was comical and satirical, and the actual author was Washington Irving who later achieved fame with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle”. The proverb appeared in the second volume:[ref] 1809, A History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty by Diedrich Knickerbocker (Washington Irving), Volume 2 of 2, Book 5: Chapter 1, Quote Page 8, Inskeep & Bradford, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

The clock that stands still, and points resolutely in one direction, is certain of being right twice in the four and twenty hours—while others may keep going continually, and continually be going wrong.

During his teen years Charles L. Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) constructed a set of magazine-like manuscripts for his family members. One series called “The Rectory Umbrella” (circa 1850-53) included a counterintuitive comparison of the accuracy of a stopped clock versus a slow clock. This discussion was reprinted decades later in 1898 in “The Strand Magazine” of London:[ref] 1898 December, The Strand Magazine, Volume 16, Number 96, Before “Alice” — The Boyhood of Lewis Carroll by Stuart Collingwood, “The Rectory Umbrella: Difficulties No. 2.”, Start Page 620, Quote Page 620, George Newnes Ltd., Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

“Which is the best: a clock that is right only once a year, or a clock that is right twice every day? ‘The latter,’ you reply, ‘unquestionably.’ Very good, reader, now attend.

“I have two clocks: one doesn’t go at all, and the other loses a minute a day; which would you prefer? ‘The losing one,’ you answer, ‘without a doubt.’ Now observe: the one which loses a minute a day has to lose twelve hours, or seven hundred and twenty minutes, before it is right again: consequently, it is only right once in two years, whereas the other is evidently right as often as the time it points to comes round, which happens twice a day.

In 1877 “Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science” published an article titled “A Queen of Burlesque” by an unnamed author. The proverb was used during a discussion of morality:[ref] 1877 May, Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science, Volume 19, A Queen of Burlesque, Start Page 580, Quote Page 580, J. B. Lippincott and Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

I am afraid that my too intimate acquaintance with all sorts of people has blunted my moral sense, so that I am incapable of distinguishing as I should do the good people from the bad; or may it be that no one is wholly good or wholly bad?—that everybody is like the clock which never goes, yet is certain to be right twice a day?

In 1880 a novel called “Pious Frauds” by Albany de Grenier Fonblanque included a concise instance:[ref] 1880, Pious Frauds: A Novel by Albany de Fonblanque, Volume 1 of 3, Chapter 13: The Sinking Stones of Garcin, Start Page 260, Quote Page 276, Richard Bentley and Son, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

Even a stopped clock is right, we know, twice in the twenty-four hours.

Sometimes the saying referred to a watch instead of a clock. In 1915 “The National Druggist” presented an elaborate simile with clerks, a slow watch, and a stopped watch:[ref] 1915 June, The National Druggist, Volume 45, Getting It Right the First Time by Frank Farrington, Start Page 240, Quote Page 240, Column 2, Henry R. Strong, Saint Louis, Missouri. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

These mistake-making clerks are like a watch. The watch that does not run at all is right twice a day, but the watch that is slow is never right, and the clerk that does nothing at least will not make any fatal errors, while the clerk who usually does things wrong might as well be wrong all the time as far as any faith in him is concerned.

In 1955 an instance appeared in “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes” by Jacob M. Braude:[ref] 1955, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes by Jacob M. Braude, Topic: Advice, Quote Page 19, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in third Printing of May 1956)[/ref]

No man’s advice is entirely worthless. Even a watch that won’t run is right twice a day.

In 1967 a newspaper in Roselle, Illinois printed an instance, and in 1969 a reference work by Herbert V. Prochnow printed that same instance. Both credited an Austrian writer:[ref] 1967 November 29, The Roselle Register, Quotoons, Quote Page 13, Column 4, Roselle, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)[/ref][ref] 1969, A Treasury of Humorous Quotations for Speakers, Writers, and Home Reference by Herbert V. Prochnow and Herbert V. Prochnow Jr., Section: Success, Quote Page 320, Published by Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Even a stopped clock is right twice every day. After some years, it can boast of a long series of successes. Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

The internationally popular Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho who writes in Portuguese included an instance in the 1990 novel “Brida”:[ref] 2008, Brida: A Novel (P.S.) by Paulo Coelho, Translated from Portuguese to English by Margaret Jull Costa, Quote Page 77, Harper Perennial, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)(Originally published in 1990)[/ref]

“Nothing in the world is ever completely wrong, my dear,” said her father, looking at the clock. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.”

In 2012 the quotation compiler Robert Byrne presented an absurdist variant ascribed to a humorist/actor in “The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said”:[ref] 2012, The 2,548 Wittiest Things Anybody Ever Said by Robert Byrne, Quote Page 2,394, Touchstone: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

A stopped clock is right twice a day, but a sundial can be used to stab someone, even at night.
—John Hodgman

In conclusion, the earliest occurrence of this saying known to QI appeared in “The Spectator” and was written by Joseph Addison. “The Spectator” was influential and was reprinted several times, thus Addison helped to popularize the expression. Yet, it is possible that the saying was in circulation before Addison employed it. Other well-known writers have used the expression including Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach, Charles L. Dodgson, Washington Irving, and Paulo Coelho. But none of them coined the proverb.

Image Notes: Multiple clock face images by geralt at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to barrieblonde whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Peter Morris who told QI that Lewis Carrol had written a pertinent piece. Many thanks to Jesse Sheidlower who told QI that modern scholarly editions of “The Spectator” indicate that Joseph Addison authored the excerpt containing the proverb.)

Update History: On September 2, 2016 the 1886 citation was added and the occurrence in “The Spectator” was credited to Joseph Addison.

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