Rita Mae Brown? Will Rogers? Fred Rose? C. H. White? Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.? Uncle Zeke? Barry LePatner? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Good judgement is rooted in experience, but a humorous addendum notes that the crucible of experience is poor judgment. This notion has been credited to humorist Will Rogers and activist Rita Mae Brown. Would you please explore its origin?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Muncie Evening Press” of Muncie, Indiana in 1932. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
Fred Rose quoted this comment at the Rotary Club-Central Senior Class meeting Tuesday: “Good Judgment depends mostly on experience and experience usually comes from poor judgment.”
The phrasing signaled that the saying was anonymous, and Rose was not asserting coinage. This article presents a snapshot of current knowledge, and earlier citations may be discovered in the future. Rita Mae Brown used the expression in 2001 after it had been circulating for decades.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1890 Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was serialized in “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine”. The famous wit presented a thematically related remark about experience: 2
Experience was of no ethical value. It was merely the name we gave to our mistakes.
Wilde included a similar quip in his successful comedy “Lady Windermere’s Fan” which was staged in 1892 and published in 1893: 3
CECIL GRAHAM: Experience is the name Tuppy gives to his mistakes. That is all.
DUMBY: Experience is the name every one gives to their mistakes.
CECIL GRAHAM: One shouldn’t commit any.
DUMBY: Life would be very dull without them.
In 1932 a newspaper in Muncie, Indiana printed a solid match for the saying under examination as mentioned previously.
In 1943 “The Baltimore Sun” of Baltimore, Maryland published a story about a vast Desert Training Center for World War II soldiers that stretched from Yuma, Arizona into California. Major General C. H. White employed the saying ascribed to an unnamed fount of wisdom. This version used dialectical spelling, e.g., “pore” for “poor”: 4
Only experience teaches and improves. In the words which General White quoted, from some humble but wise authority, “Good judgment comes from ‘sperience, an’ ‘sperience comes from pore judgments.” The soldier’s aim here is to get the “pore judgments” behind him.
In April 1945 “Reader’s Digest” printed an anecdote titled “The Voice of Experience” contributed by Brigadier General John W. Lang. The tale set in 1936 featured a jejune instructor who proposed that Regimental Headquarters create training courses for captains because he feared they might make errors. Officer Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. disagreed and supported his skepticism by referring to a folksy sage: 5
Up rose Buckner and ended all argument by saying: “Uncle Zeke was known in my Kentucky home town for his wisdom. One day a young friend asked him, ‘Uncle Zeke, how come you’re so wise?’
“‘Because I’ve got good judgment,’ the old man replied. ‘Good judgment comes from experience, and experience — well, that comes from poor judgment!'”
The late Simon Bolivar Buckner used to tell a story of an old resident in his Kentucky home who was celebrated for his wisdom.
“Uncle Zeke,” a young man once asked, “how does it come you’re so wise?”
“Because,” said the old man, “I’ve got good judgment. Good judgment comes from experience, and experience—well that comes from poor judgment!”
In 1955 an instance using “bad judgment” instead of “poor judgment” appeared in “The Irving News Record” of Irving, Texas: 8
Like ordinary citizens members of these public boards many times make honest mistakes–for after all good judgment comes from experience which in turn comes from bad judgment.
In 1965 the compilation “Proverbs, Epigrams, Aphorisms, Sayings, and Bon Mots” by Jacob M. Braude included the saying: 9
Good judgment comes from experience, which comes from poor judgment.
In 1986 the collector Robert Byrne placed the saying into “The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”: 10
Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.
Also in 1986 an instance with a different phrasing appeared in “The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations”: 11
Good judgement comes from experience, and experience — well, that comes from poor judgement. Anon.
In 2000 a columnist in “Florida Today” of Cocoa, Florida printed a selection of quotations ascribed to Will Rogers that he received in a forwarded email. The first one was probably never said by Rogers: 12
“WILL ROGERS’ Wisdom’ is the title of Satellite Beacher Frank Aaron’s e-mail. We selected these nuggets from it:
1. Good judgment comes from experience — and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
In 2001 Rita Mae Brown published the lesbian romance “Alma Mater” which included the saying, but Brown labelled it an “old saying”: 13
I don’t know what people expect. Young men often lack judgment. What is the old saying? ‘Good judgment comes from experience and experience comes from bad judgment.’
In conclusion, this saying was anonymous in the earliest instances published in 1932 and 1943. An anecdote published in “Reader’s Digest” in 1945 stated that in 1936 Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., a military officer, credited an old man called Uncle Zeke. The linkage to Will Rogers was unsupported. Rita Mae Brown helped to popularize the expression by using it in 2001.
Image Notes: Detail showing Plato and Aristotle conversing from “The School of Athens” fresco by Raphael; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.
(Great thanks to Samuel LoPresto whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also thanks to researcher Barry Popik for his valuable research on this topic located here. Popik found a match in “Reader’s Digest” in 1945.)
- 1932 February 17, The Muncie Evening Press, In the Press of Things, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Muncie, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1890 July, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Start Page 3, Quote Page 31, Published by J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1893, Lady Windermere’s Fan: A Play About a Good Woman by Oscar Wilde, Quote Page 96, Published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane at the Sign of the Bodley Head in Vigo Street, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1943 May 18, The Baltimore Sun, Final Combat Preparation at Desert Training Center by Mark S. Watson, Quote Page 10, Column 3, Baltimore, Maryland. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1945 April, Reader’s Digest, The Voice of Experience, Contributed by Brigadier General John W. Lang, Quote Page 66, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1945 December 11, Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Poor Judgment Vital to Wisdom From the Piquanoc Pow-Wow, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1945 December 20, Cameron Herald, A Little Fun: Jokes to Make You Laugh, Uncle Zeke’s Wisdom, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Cameron, Texas. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1955 January 27, The Irving News Record, Thanks to Both, Section 2, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Irving, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1965, Proverbs, Epigrams, Aphorisms, Sayings, and Bon Mots by Jacob M. Braude, Series: Complete Speaker’s and Toastmaster’s Library, Quote Page 30, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1986, The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 576, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans) link ↩
- 1986, The Fitzhenry & Whiteside Book of Quotations (Revised and Enlarged), Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Section: Experience, Quote Page 122, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, Toronto. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2000 March 31, Florida Today, Milt by Milt Salamon, Quote Page 16A, Column 3, Cocoa, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 2001, Alma Mater by Rita Mae Brown, Quote Page 108, Ballantine Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩