Margaret Atwood? Posy Simmonds? Guy Bellamy? Marilyn Duckworth? R. D. Laing? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation may be morbid, but I still consider it cleverly humorous:
Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.
Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: Tracing this statement is difficult because it emerged from a family of related sayings. Here is a summary snapshot showing quotations with dates:
1656: Life is an Incurable Disease. —Abraham Cowley
1943: Some people think of life as a fatal disease. —Francis T. Cunningham
1968: Life is a hereditary disease. —Anonymous Graffito
1971: Life is a terminal disease. —Anonymous Graffito
1980: Life is a sexually transmitted disease. —Anonymous Graffito
1981: Life is just another sexually transmitted social disease. —Margaret Atwood
1982: Life is a sexually transmitted disease. — attributed to Posy Simmonds
1982: Life is a sexually transmitted disease. —Guy Bellamy
1984: Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease. —Marilyn Duckworth
1985: Life is a sexually transmitted disease & there’s a 100% mortality rate. —R. D. Laing
The prominent New Zealand author Marilyn Duckworth combined expressions about transmission and mortality to yield the target quotation by 1984.
Below are selected citations in chronological order.
In 1656 a collection of poems by the acclaimed English poet Abraham Cowley was published in London. The poem “To Dr. Scarborough” finished with the following two lines: 1
Let Nature, and let Art do what they please,
When all’s done, Life is an Incurable Disease.
In 1943 Reverend Francis T. Cunningham delivered a speech at Lander College in Greenwood, South Carolina that discussed different outlooks on life. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
He said that some people think of life as a fatal disease or as a bad joke, but that the Christian life has meaning and is one that follows the directions of God.
In 1968 an article in “Time” magazine followed a class taught by the author Robert Reisner at Manhattan’s New School for Social Research as participants collected graffiti from lavatory walls. 3
Classes begin with students presenting their homework—arresting specimens of graffiti that they have collected during the week. Among recent, and printable, student finds: “Life is a hereditary disease,” found at the Princeton University student center; “Sacred cows make great hamburger,” from an East Side cafe.
A 1971 newspaper article described a senior honor thesis written for the anthropology department of the University of California, Berkeley about women’s graffiti titled “Write On! A Study of Female Latrinalia” by Luana Martilla. The following examples were included: 4
Some of the graffiti reflected despair: “Help, I’m all alone” and “Life is a terminal disease.”
In 1972 “The Indianapolis Star” of Indianapolis, Indiana printed short prayer that began with the following: 5
Life is a fatal disease, O God, and I recognize that I have been dying ever since I was born. Still, I come boldly into your presence and ask that the remaining years of my life be spent in your service.
In 1980 top quotation expert Nigel Rees published a collection of choice scribblings titled “Graffiti 2”. The following was the first instance of the saying using “sexually transmitted”. Lancaster was the location: 6
Life is a sexually transmitted disease.
Influential literary figure Margaret Atwood included an instance in her 1981 novel “Bodily Harm”: 7
Mortality infested her, she was a carrier, it was catching. She lay there with his face against her neck, thinking of something she’d seen written in a men’s washroom once when she was doing a piece on graffiti. Life is just another sexually transmitted social disease.
In 1982 the humorist Guy Bellamy published the novel “The Sinner’s Congregation”. A character employed the saying during a conversation: 8
“She has that look in her eyes which persuades a man that he should reproduce himself,” he said. “It’s certainly persuaded me.”
“Oh, not all that breeding stuff again,” said Mrs Stapleton. “Life is a sexually transmitted disease.”
In December 1982 “The Observer” of London published a review of eight cartoon collections including “Pick of Posy” by Posy Simmonds whose works appeared in “The Guardian”. The reviewer described a motto visible on a shirt in a cartoon panel by Simmonds: 9
And if some of her jokes are broader than others, why shouldn’t posterity be made to puzzle its head a little over whether, in 1982, there could really have been such a thing as an ethno-botanist with a pigtail and a tee-shirt reading ‘Life is a sexually transmitted disease,’…
In 1984 Marilyn Duckworth published “Disorderly Conduct” which included the following passage on its final page: 10
She is unaware, of course, that her disorder was always more than physical. What she suffers from is the human condition, no less. Nineteen-eighties version — urban colonial. She can expect a succession of bizarre and distressing symptoms. Small disasters, small rejections, dripping like acid onto her nerves and burrowing into her sense of well-being. Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.
In September 1984 a columnist in the “Philadelphia Daily News” shared with readers several examples of graffiti he had observed while traveling overseas: 11
Collecting Irish graffiti is easy. The hard part is categorizing what you’ve collected. Try sorting out the rest of these, yourself.
I used to think I was indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.
When Mozart was my age, he was seven years dead.
Suicide is the ultimate form of self-criticism.
Life is a sexually transmitted disease.
In 1985 a columnist in “The Observer” described his reaction to a comment made by the celebrity psychiatrist R. D. Laing: 12
‘LIFE, you see, is a sexually transmitted disease and there’s a 100 per cent mortality rate.’ . . .
When R. D. Laing said it to me last week, two completely different reactions were provoked: (1) I recalled having seen it as a piece of graffiti on a lavatory wall some months previously, and (2) I got to thinking what exactly did it mean?
In 1987 “The Philadelphia Inquirer” printed an interview with R. D. Laing, and included a variant of the saying given immediately above: 13
What else ticks him off? “The most dangerous places on earth are bedrooms. What’s the point of two people being faithful to each other when they’re unfaithful to everyone else?” he wonders. Always outrageous, he’s ready with the instant aphorism: “Life is a sexually transmitted disease that kills everyone.”
In 1988 “The Los Angeles Times” published a profile of Bob Ross who helped business people employ humor during speeches. Ross used an instance of the saying: 14
“You may as well have fun while you’re living your life anyway,” Ross concluded. “Life is a sexually transmitted disease that has no known cure.”
In conclusion, this article has presented a snapshot of current research, and earlier citations may yet be discovered. The notion that life was an incurable, fatal, or terminal disease appeared by 1656. The thought that life was a sexually transmitted disease appeared by 1980. The two quips were merged by 1984. QI would tentatively credit Marilyn Duckworth for the combination.
Image Notes: Representation of a sperm cell fertilizing an egg cell from pdimages.com via Wikimedia Commons. Author Margaret Atwood at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, Ontario, Canada in September 2006. Author: Vanwaffle; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Images have been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Ms Tjemong whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Dan J. Bye who identified important citations in 1980 and 1981. He also verified several citations in “The Observer”. In addition, thanks to Charles Doyle for accessing Guy Bellamy’s book. Also, thanks to Nigel Rees for his valuable reference “Graffiti 2”. Further thanks to Jonathan Lighter who prompted the search for the 1971 citation.)
- 1656, Title: Poems written by A. Cowley, Author: Abraham Cowley (1618-1667), Poem: To Dr. Scarborough, Start Page 35, Quote Page 37, Publication Location: London, Printed for Humphrey Moseley. (Early English Books Online) ↩
- 1943 March 27, The Index-Journal, Lander Students Hear Minister, Section 2: Society, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Greenwood, South Carolina. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968 November 15, Time, Curriculum: Handwriting on the Wall, Time, Inc. (Online Archive at time.com; accessed December 11, 2016) ↩
- 1971 August 4, Courier-Post, Do They Write On the Walls In the Ladies Room? by Susan Berman (Special to the Courier-Post), Quote Page 6, Column 4, Camden, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1972 December 30, The Indianapolis Star, Today’s Prayer, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- Graffiti 2, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Quote Page 81, Unwin Paperbacks, London. (Verified in hardcopy) ↩
- 1981, Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood, Part IV, Quote Page 201, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, Canada. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1982, The Sinner’s Congregation by Guy Bellamy, Quote Page 147, Secker & Warburg, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to University of Georgia library system) ↩
- 1982 December 5, The Observer, Mild dose of subversion by John Gross, (Book review of cartoon collections including “Pick of Posy” by Posy Simmonds), Quote Page 35, London, England. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1984, Disorderly Conduct by Marilyn Duckworth, Quote Page 160, Hodder and Stoughton, Auckland, New Zealand. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1984 September 17, Philadelphia Daily News, When Graffiti Is a Weapon: In Ireland – Read Any Good Walls Lately? by Jack McKinney, Quote Page 31, Column 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1985 March 17, The Observer, All the secrets fit to print: Brain drain by Peter Hillmore, Quote Page 18, London, England, (ProQuest) ↩
- 1987 May 3, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Interview with R. D. Laing: On Modern Witchcraft by Maralyn Lois Polak, Start Page 11, Quote Page 11, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1988 December 8, The Los Angeles Times, Section 5, Humor for Fun and Profit: Speaker Teaches Business of Lightening Up, Laughing All the Way to the Bank by Bill Manson, Start Page 21, Quote Page 26, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩