Life Is Hard and Then You Die

Tony Daniels? Edmund Vance Cooke? James J. Montague? Carolyn McKane? Tom Robbins? Anonymous?

drama12Dear Quote Investigator: There are many upbeat sayings on your website, but I would like you to explore a popular motto of the disaffected. Here are four versions:

Life is hard and then you die.
Life is rough and then you die.
Life sucks and then you die.
Life is a bitch, then you die.

Do you have any idea who coined this astringent adage of unhappiness and resignation?

Quote Investigator: An exact match for the fourth member of this family of sayings was printed in “The Washington Post” in 1982. The newspaper profiled a precocious 15-year-old and described a meeting of her high-school friends who held a wide-ranging discussion. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

…friends discussed everything from the definition of a lerp (“worse than a wimp, a totally worthless person”) to the meaning of life, a question that was addressed cynically by the composer, 15-year-old Tony Daniels, who said, “Life’s a bitch, then you die.”

The above statement is the earliest close match known to QI for this family of sayings. This citation is given in the “Yale Book of Quotations” 2 and the “Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”. 3

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1922 “Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations” printed part of a poem that was thematically similar to the saying under investigation: 4

This life’s a hollow bubble, Don’t you know?
Just a painted piece of trouble, Don’t you know?
We come to earth to cry,
We grow older and we sigh,
Older still, and then we die!

Don’t you know?

Edmund Vance Cooke—Fin de Siècle.

In 1923 “The New York Times” printed an inquiry from a reader who was clearly searching for Cooke’s poem but was unable to remember the lines correctly: 5

Can any of your readers tell me how to obtain the humorous poem which begins something like this:

This world is nothing but a bubble, don’t you know,
A mighty lot of trouble, don’t you know:
You live, you sigh and then you die, don’t you know.

In 1924 “The Washington Post” published a comically lachrymose poem titled “No Hope” by James J. Montague that included the phrase “life is hard” adjacent to a line about inescapable mortality: 6

‘Twas ever thus, since childhood’s hour
I never had a joy,
That some malign, superior power
Did not, ere long, destroy.
. . .

To gain some joy from this I try,
Though life is hard and rough,
Yet I suppose that I shall die
If I live long enough!

In 1929 “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut printed a humorous poem called “The Hypochondriac (The M.D.’s Joy)” by Carolyn McKane that included a partial match: 7

Doctor, doctor, hold my head
Feel my pulse and fix my bed.
Doctor, doctor. I’m so ill
Can’t you give me one more pill?
. . .
Oh what a bitter, crucifying day.
But life is hard and death will have its way.
. . .
But tomorrow you shall see
I’ll get some one else to doctor me.

In October 1982 “The Washington Post” printed a remark by a young man named Tony Daniels as mentioned previously:

Life’s a bitch, then you die.

In March 1983 a student newspaper in Oshkosh, Wisconsin printed the saying: 8

This, of course, led to the fall of the Roman Empire and sprouted the sayings, “Man cannot live by man alone,” and “Life is a bitch and then you die.”

In October 1983 the saying appeared in the Usenet newsgroup net.jokes in a message with the subject line “bumper sticker”: 9

Life is a Bitch; then you die.

In 1984 the popular novelist Tom Robbins included a version of the adage using the word “rough” in his book “Jitterbug Perfume”: 10

“Sorry. You know, my daddy used to say, ‘Life is rough, and then you die.'”
“Bad attitude,” said Wiggs.
“Then he’d wink and say, ‘But, meanwhile, there’s Mardi Gras.'”

In February 1984 the statement appeared together with hundreds of other slogans in an advertisement for T-Shirts in “Mother Jones Magazine”: 11

99 LOVE MEANS HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY EVERY FIVE MINUTES
100 LIFE’S A BITCH THEN YOU DIE
101 I USED TO BE AN IDEALIST, BUT I GOT MUGGED BY REALITY

In Spring 1984 an essayist in the literary journal “enclitic” referred to a t-shirt with an instance of the saying using the word “hard”: 12

As a popular T-shirt says, “life is hard and then you die.” Given this rapid rate of change, the increasing knowledge of risk and danger, the sense that the rules for survival no longer guarantee a good life, the commodification of all value, life is increasingly lived in a state of “controlled panic.”

In April 1984 a columnist in “The Des Moines Register” of Iowa spoke to two punk rockers who employed an instance with the word “sucks”: 13

Both agreed, however, the “Life sucks, and then you die.”

A newspaper in Nottingham, England printed an entertaining variant that was spoken during a 2009 vampire film: 14

“Life’s a bitch, then you don’t die,” grumbles a vampire in Daybreakers.

In conclusion, the earliest close match known to QI was printed in “The Washington Post” in 1982, but QI suspects that the adage was already in circulation. Precursors such as “But life is hard and death will have its way” appeared by the 1920s.

Image Notes: Picture of sad worried woman from RyanMcGuire at Pixabay. Happy and sad drama masks from Nemo at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Tori whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the pseudonymous Chauncy Gardiner who identified the poem “Fin de Siècle” based on the information in the 1923 inquiry in “The New York Times”.)

Notes:

  1. 1982 October 10, Washington Post, Brainchild by Sara Rimer, Start Page SM12, Quote Page SM17, Column 2, Washington, D. C. (ProQuest)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Modern Proverbs, Quote Page 528, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 141, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1923 (First published Dec. 1922), Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations, Completely Revised and Greatly Enlarged by Kate Louise Roberts, Topic: Life, Excerpt from “Fin de Siècle” by Edmund Vance Cooke, Quote Page 443, Column 1, Funk & Wagnalls Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1923 January 28, New York Times, Section: Book Review, Queries and Answers, Queries: “Don’t You Know”, Quote Page BR29, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)]
  6. 1924 January 23, Washington Post, More Truth Than Poetry by James J. Montague, Poem: No Hope, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  7. 1929 February 7, The Hartford Courant, The Lighter Side by H. I. H., Poem: The Hypochondriac (The M.D.’s Joy) by Carolyn McKane, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  8. 1983 March 30, Oshkosh Advance Titan, Any day in history by “Associated Piss”, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Oshkosh, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  9. 1983 October 19, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: net.jokes, From: Paul Novak @ihhfl.UUCP, Subject: bumper sticker. (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 16, 2016) link
  10. 1985 (Copyright 1984), Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, Quote Page 317, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1984 February-March, Mother Jones Magazine, (Advertisement for T-Shirts), Quote Page 61, Column 1, Published by Mother Jones. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1984 Spring-Fall, enclitic, Volume 8, “I’d Rather Feel Bad Than Not Feel Anything At Al”: Rock and Roll Pleasure and Power by Lawrence Grossberg, Start Page 94, Quote Page 106, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1984 April 8, Des Moines Sunday Register (The Des Moines Register), Hoover: Over the Coffee, Quote Page C1, Column 6, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 2010 January 7, Nottingham Evening Post, Warts’n’all biopic gives few reasons to be cheerful, Page Number Not Specified, Nottingham, England. (NewsBank Access World News)