George Bernard Shaw? Farmer Brown? Isaac Marcosson? Stephen Leacock? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The advice offered by economists is often equivocal and hedged. The famous playwright and witty social critic George Bernard Shaw reportedly crafted the following lament:
If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please examine this topic?
Quote Investigator: “The Saturday Review of Literature” credited George Bernard Shaw with the expression above in May 1933, but the saying had entered circulation by July 1932 without an attribution. In addition, intriguing precursors appeared by the 1920s. Hence, the ascription to Shaw is currently uncertain.
Below are selected citations in chronological order.
This parodic remark was based on a popular class of expressions that were designed to help readers envision large quantities of items by placing them end to end and describing the resultant length. For example, in 1885 a newspaper article stated that the Vanderbilt family had acquired a vast fortune of two hundred million dollars. The article calculated the number of barrels of flour purchasable with that money and then imagined placing the barrels in a very long line. Emphasis added by QI: 1
Enough to buy 40,000,000 barrels of flour at $5 each. If these barrels were placed end to end they would reach around the earth on the parallel of Boston, or they would fence in every State in the Union.
In 1925 a columnist named Tom Sims published the following comical statement which employed the same template as the saying under investigation: 2
If all the arguments in the world were placed end to end, they would not reach any conclusion.
The above statement was a paraprosdokian with the reader primed to expect a distance or a physical location following the word “reach”. In 1927 the exact same quip appeared in newspapers in a Quanah, Texas 3 and Waunakee, Wisconsin without attribution. 4
In 1929 the joke continued to evolve within the template. The term “statesmen” replaced “arguments”, and “agreement” replaced “conclusion”. Cosmetically, the phrasing changed from “placed” to “laid”. 5
If all the statesmen in the world were laid end to end they would not reach—an agreement.
Both “statesmen” and “economists” are groups of people; hence, semantically, the above precursor displayed an important shift.
In July 1932 “The Oakland Tribune” of Oakland, California printed an instance closely matching the modern expression, but an anonymous attribution was specified: 6
And here is one that is going the rounds: “If all the economists in this country were laid end to end, they would never reach a conclusion.”
In February 1933 a newspaper in Ogden, Utah reported on a speech by “C.S. (Farmer Brown) field representative of the American Farm Bureau federation”. He prepared the audience for the joke by initially using a conventional version of the “end to end” remark. He also replaced “never” (used in 1932) with “not even”: 7
If the eggs of Nebraska were placed end to end they would reach across the state and back half way. If the economists were placed end to end they would not even reach a conclusion.”
The May 20, 1933 issue of “The Saturday Review of Literature” contained an article by George Soule reviewing a book on economics. Soule ascribed the quip to George Bernard Shaw, and this was the first linkage to Shaw found by QI: 8
The statement attributed to Bernard Shaw, however, that “If all the economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion,” comes the nearest to being just. There is almost no unanimity among them, and little substantial agreement.
On the same day, May 20, 1933, the widely-syndicated columnist O. O. McIntyre credited the remark to the author Isaac Marcosson: 9
The best answer to economics is Isaac Marcosson’s: “lf all the economists in the world were placed end to end they would not reach a conclusion.”
In 1939 the Canadian humorist and economist Stephen Leacock published an article in the “The New York Times”, and he mentioned a variant of the joke that was delivered a few years earlier at a club in Boston, Massachusetts: 10
Indeed, it has been calculated that if all the economists were laid out in a line, end to end, starting at the Mexican border, they would reach—–” The orator paused impressively and added: “nowhere.”
In 1949 the indefatigable quotation compiler Evan Esar credited Shaw in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”: 11
SHAW, George Bernard, born 1856, British dramatist, critic, novelist, social reformer, and wit.
If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
In 1963 President John F. Kennedy used the saying in a speech while crediting Shaw: 12
Today every problem has several alternative solutions, and every answer raises several questions. I am more than ever convinced of the words once uttered by George Bernard Shaw: “If all economists were laid end to end, they still would not reach a conclusion.”
In conclusion, this saying evolved over a period of years from precursors with similar syntax and overlapping semantics. The earliest strong match appeared in July 1932 with an anonymous attribution. The expression was ascribed to George Bernard Shaw, Isaac Marcosson, and an American Farm Bureau representative in 1933. Based on current data, the saying should be considered anonymous. Yet, this analysis represents only a snapshot of research, and future developments may yield a solid attribution.
Image Notes: Decision junction by Peggy_Marco at Pixabay. George Bernard Shaw writing in notebook circa 1914 from the LIFE Photo Archive via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to Allen Peabody and Victor Schafer whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Barry Popik who identified the instance in the May 1933 column by O. O. McIntyre. Popik’s research was shared here.)
- 1885 December 19, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Vanderbilt’s Wealth: Some Speculations on How Much It Will Buy (From the Boston Globe), Quote Page 11, Column 6, St. Louis, Missouri. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1925 July 18, Brownwood Bulletin, Tom Sims Says, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Brownwood, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1927 June 17, Quanah Tribune Chief, (Filler item), Quote Page 8, Column 4, Quanah, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1927 August 18, The Waunakee Tribune, Turning on the Spotlight, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Waunakee, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1929 May 8, The Daily Republican, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Monongahela, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1932 July 9, The Oakland Tribune, The Other Fellow by Ad Schuster, Quote Page 20, Column 3, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1933 February 26, The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Weber Farmers Hear Serious and Lighter Views of Difficulties, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Ogden, Utah. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1933 May 20, The Saturday Review of Literature, Volume 9, Number 44, Bridges to the Unknown by George Soule, (Book Review of “The Industrial Discipline and the Governmental Arts” by Rexford G. Tugwell), Start Page 601, Column 2, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz) ↩
- 1933 May 20, Bryan Daily Eagle, New York Day by Day by O. O. McIntyre (McNaught Syndicate), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Bryan, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1939 August 20, New York Times, Lost in the Jungle of Economics by Stephen Leacock (Professor Emeritus, McGill University; Former Head of Department of Economics) Quote Page SM1, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: George Bernard Shaw, Quote Page 180, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩
- 1963 March 14, The Washington Post, Partial Text of Kennedy Speech: Familiar Questions, Quote Page A4, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩