Tact Is the Knack of Making a Point Without Making an Enemy

Isaac Newton? Howard W. Newton? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton supposedly coined the following expression:

Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.

A variant of this statement uses “knack” instead of “art”. Interestingly, Isaac Newton made some powerful enemies during his lifetime. Do you think this attribution is correct?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Isaac Newton employed this saying. The misattribution was probably caused by confusion with another person whose last name was Newton.

The earliest match found by QI appeared in “Redbook” magazine in August 1946 within a piece by Howard W. Newton presenting a collection of witticisms. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.

Advertising executive Howard W. Newton is the leading candidate for creator of this saying.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In December 1945 “The Edinburg Daily Courier” of Indiana printed a different comment about tact and ascribed the words to Howard W. Newton. The creation of two distinct remarks about tact suggests that Newton was eager to construct a memorable statement on the topic: 2

Howard W. Newton, vice-president J. M. Mathes, Inc.—“A man has tact when he shows neither his impatience nor his patience.”

Two days later the comment and ascription immediately above appeared in a Columbus, Indiana newspaper under the title “Wisdom and Wisecracks”. 3

In August 1946 Howard W. Newton wrote the saying under analysis within an article in “Redbook” as noted previously.

In September 1946 the saying appeared within a small box on the front page of a Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania newspaper. No ascription was specified: 4

GOOD EVENING
Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.

Eleven days later the expression appeared in an Oxnard, California newspaper without attribution: 5

COULD BE—Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.

In December 1946 Howard W. Newton received credit in a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania newspaper: 6

Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.
—Howard W. Newton.

In September 1948 the quotation was oddly credited to “H. W. Nawton” instead of “Howard W. Newton” in an Ohio newspaper: 7

Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.–H. W. Nawton.

In 1953 the syndicated column “Office Cat” printed a version with “art” instead of “knack”; no attribution was listed: 8

TACT is the art of making a point without making an enemy.

In 1964 a filler item in a Holland, Michigan newspaper credited the expression to the single name Newton. This type of ambiguous attribution probably eventually led to the reassignment of the saying to Isaac Newton: 9

Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy. — Newton.

In 2000 the “Star Tribune” of Minneapolis, Minnesota ascribed the saying to Isaac Newton: 10

“Tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy.”
Sir Isaac Newton, philosopher

In conclusion, the earliest citation for this expression in August 1946 was written by advertising executive Howard W. Newton. It was grouped together with other quips and sayings that were probably coined by Newton; hence, he is the likely creator. The attribution to Isaac Newton is unsupported.

Image Notes: Illustration of Newton’s cradle from QuinceMedia at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Peter Gordon of Fireball Crosswords whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Gordon noted the conflicting attributions to Isaac Newton and Howard W. Newton. Special thanks to Jeff Graf, Stephen Goranson, and Jesse Sheidlower who helped to verify the important August 1946 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1946 August, Redbook, Volume 87, Issue, 4, Do You Agree? by Howard W. Newton, Start Page 50, Quote Page 50, Column 1, Published by Hearst Magazines, New York. (Women’s Magazine Archive ProQuest)
  2. 1945 December 3, The Edinburg Daily Courier, They Say, Quote Page 2, Column 6, Edinburg, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1945 December 5, The Evening Republic, Wisdom and Wisecracks, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Columbus, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1946 September 17, Mount Carmel Item, (Quotation in box located in upper left of front page), Quote Page 1, Column 1, Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1946 September 28, Oxnard Press Courier, Pen and Pencil by Cerf, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Oxnard, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1946 December 4, Harrisburg Telegraph, (Filler item), Quote Page 17, Column 8, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1948 September 4, The Chronicle-Telegram, (Filler item), Quote Page 3, Column 8, Elyria, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  8. 1953 July 29, The Sheboygan Press, Office Cat, Quote Page 30, Column 2, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1964 October 2, The Holland Evening Sentinel, (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Holland, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 2000 September 27, Star Tribune, Today’s Quote, Quote Page E1, Column 2, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)