If You Can Keep Your Head When Everybody Round You Is Losing His, Then It Is Very Probable That You Don’t Understand the Situation

Rudyard Kipling? Elizabeth Ogden Smith? Bob Rigley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular poem “If —” by the prominent literary figure Rudyard Kipling has often been parodied. The first lines extol the ability to remain levelheaded in situations where others are panicking. A comical twist suggests that the unflappable person probably does not really understand what is happening. Would you please examine this humorous response?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the “High School Bulletin” section of a newspaper published in Rhinebeck, New York in September 1935. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

And if you can keep your head when everybody round you is losing his, then it is very probable that you don’t understand the situation.

The second match in December 1936 occurred in the high school news section of a Lake Park, Iowa newspaper. The word “and” was omitted, and the word “around” replaced “round”: 2

If you can keep your head when everybody around you is losing his, then it is very probable that you don’t understand the situation.

In both cases, the creator of the expression was anonymous. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Rudyard Kipling published the poem “If —” in the collection “Rewards and Fairies” in 1910. These were the first six lines: 3

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, . . .

The final two lines provided a resolution to all the conditional “if” statements:

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!

In 1922 the “Journal of Education” printed a parody. These were the first six lines and the final two lines of the playful send-up: 4

If you can keep your hair when all about you
Are bobbing theirs—in future to regret;
If you can leave your ears as Nature made them,
Devoid of dangling stones or twinkling jet;
If you can wear your skin without cosmetics
Or, failing this, invoke but moderate aid; . . .

Ah, then, Dear Girls, the problems of the future
Will all be safe in your strong woman’s hands.

Elizabeth Ogden Smith. Greengables, West Chester, Pa.

In 1935 and 1936 the comical line under examination appeared in newspapers as noted previously.

In 1939 the “Chicago Tribune” of Illinois printed an instance within the popular column “In the Wake of the News”. The words were ascribed to Bob Rigley: 5

Revising Kipling.

And then there is the other angle: When you keep your head when every one about you is losing theirs, maybe you don’t understand the situation. —Bob Rigley.

In 1940 the remark appeared without attribution as a filler item in “The Lewisburg Journal” of Pennsylvania: 6

And if you can keep your head when everybody around you is losing his, then it is very probable that you don’t understand the situation.

In 1956 “The Billboard” periodical printed a thematically related comment: 7

PETE NITNEY SAYS . . .
that any one who remains CALM in the midst of all this CONFUSION just doesn’t UNDERSTAND the situation.

In 1982 “Peter’s Almanac” by Laurence J. Peter included another instance: 8

If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs—you probably don’t know what’s going on.

The 1986 book “2,000 Sure-Fire Jokes for Speakers” by humorist Robert Orben included this variant: 9

If you can keep your head while all others around you are losing theirs—get somebody to explain the situation to you.

In conclusion, the funny response to the beginning of Rudyard Kipling’s poem was created by an anonymous individual by 1935. Bob Rigley received credit by February 1939. Variants have entered circulation over the years.

(Great thanks to the discussants on the Wombats mailing list whose inquiries and responses led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The discussants included: Carolyn Haley, Fred Shapiro, Phyllis Bratton, and Donna Halper.)

Notes:

  1. 1935 September 20, The Rhinebeck Gazette, High School Bulletin: Published by Rhinebeck High School: Section: Jokes, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Rhinebeck, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1936 December 17, The Lake Park News, The Little Sioux Warrior, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Lake Park, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1910, Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling, Chapter: Brother Square Toes, Poem: If, Quote Page 181 and 182, Doubleday, Page & Company, Garden City, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1922 June 8, Journal of Education, Volumes 95, Number 23, IF (With apologies to Kipling), Quote Page 628, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1939 February 21, Chicago Tribune, In the Wake of the News, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Chicago, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1940 November 21, The Lewisburg Journal, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 7, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1956 July 21, The Billboard, Pipes for Pitchmen by Bill Baker, Quote Page 70, Column 2, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1982, Peter’s Almanac by Laurence J. Peter, Date: December 14, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1986, 2,000 Sure-Fire Jokes for Speakers: The Encyclopedia of One-Liner-Comedy by Robert Orben, Topic: Philosophy, Quote Page 141, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)