Of Two Evils, Choose the Prettier

Carolyn Wells? Bruce Porter? Gelett Burgess? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following well-known adage concisely states a controversial moral principle:

Of two evils, choose the lesser.

I’ve heard these cynical variants:

  • Of two evils, choose the one you haven’t tried before.
  • Of two evils, a journalist will write about the one that gets the most clicks.
  • Of two evils, choose the prettier.

Would you please explore the history of the last statement?

Quote Investigator: In 1904 the popular and prolific writer and poet Carolyn Wells published a collection of short pieces called “Folly for the Wise”. A section titled “Maxioms” included these items. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Reward is its own virtue.
The wages of sin is alimony.
A penny saved spoils the broth.
Of two evils, choose the prettier.
Nonsense makes the heart grow fonder.
A word to the wise is a dangerous thing.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1896 “The Lark” magazine of San Francisco, California published a set of sayings under the title “Inexpensive Cynicisms”. Three authors received credit: Carolyn Wells, Bruce Porter, and Gelett Burgess who was also the editor of the periodical. A close match to the adage appeared in the set. Here’s a sampling of four items: 2

Profit is not without Honour save in Boston.
Flirtation is the Thief of Time.
Western communications corrupt good Manners.
Of two Devils choose the Prettier.

Also in 1896 the sayings were reprinted in “The Pacific Unitarian” of San Francisco, and “The Lark” was acknowledged. 3

In 1899 “The Literary Era: A Monthly Repository of Literary and Miscellaneous Information” printed a set of “Modern Aphorisms” with an ascription to Carolyn Wells. A version of the proverb with “two evils” instead of “two devils” appeared. Here’s a sampling: 4

Reward is its own virtue.
A living friend is better than a dead love.
Of two evils choose the prettier.
Never put off till to-morrow what you can wear to-night.
He who loves and runs away may live to love another day.
—Carolyn Wells in the “Criterion.”

In 1904 the expression appeared directly in a book authored by Carolyn Wells as mentioned at the beginning of this article.

In 1955 the remark was remembered in “Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms” by Herbert V. Prochnow: 5

Of two evils choose the prettier. Carolyn Wells

The same statement and ascription continued to circulate in the humorously titled 1971 collection “Bartlett’s Unfamiliar Quotations”: 6

In 1990 quotation compiler Robert Byrne placed a close variant in “The Fourth and By Far the Most Recent 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”: 7

When confronted with two evils, a man will always choose the prettier.
Unknown

The 1999 treatise “Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs” by Wolfgang Mieder and Anna Tóthné Litovkina contained a pertinent entry listing variants such as the following: 8

Of two evils choose the less(er) [least].
(When faced with two unpleasant options, choose the less damaging one.)

A press agent never choses the lesser of two evils, but the one most likely to be talked about.
Between two evils, choose neither; between two goods, choose both.
Instead of choosing the lesser of two evils, choose the one you haven’t tried before.
Of two evils, choose the prettier.

In conclusion, Carolyn Wells should receive credit for the proverb referring to “two evils” in her 1904 book. She should also probably receive credit for the adage referring to “two Devils” in 1896 although she may have crafted it together with Bruce Porter and Gelett Burgess.

Image Notes: Picture of two Venice carnival masks from annca at Pixabay. Image has been resized, retouched, and cropped.

Notes:

  1. 1904, Folly for the Wise by Carolyn Wells, Maxioms, Quote Page 50, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1897, The Lark, Book II, Nos. 13-24, May 1896 to April 1897, Issue: October 1896, The Lark; No. 18 by Les Jeunes, Editor: Gelett Burgess, Article: Inexpensive Cynicisms, Authors: Carolyn Wells, Bruce Porter, and Gelett Burgess, Unnumbered Page, Published by William Doxley, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1896 October, The Pacific Unitarian, Volume 4, Number 12, Inexpensive Cynicisms (acknowledgement to “The Lark”), Quote Page 378, Column 2, Pacific Unitarian Conference, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1899 October, The Literary Era: A Monthly Repository of Literary and Miscellaneous Information, Volume 6, Number 10, Modern Aphorisms, Quote Page 297, Henry T. Coates & Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1955, Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms by Herbert V. Prochnow, Topic: Beauty, Quote Page 27, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1971, Bartlett’s Unfamiliar Quotations by Leonard Louis Levinson, Topic: Evil, Quote Page 89, Cowles Book Company: Henry Regnery Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1990, The Fourth and By Far the Most Recent 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 122, Atheneum: Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) link
  8. 1999, Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs by Wolfgang Mieder and Anna Tóthné Litovkina, Quote Page 158-159, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont. (Verified on paper)