Tact Is the Art of Recognizing When To Be Big and When Not To Belittle

Zig Ziglar? Charles Thompkins? Dana Robbins? Bob Talbert? Choupique? Bill Copeland? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a fun definition of “tact” that employs a pun which contrasts the terms “be big” and “belittle”. I saw this humorous statement in a book by the prominent motivational author Zig Ziglar. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A similar pun appeared in a Tucson, Arizona. newspaper in 1958 although “tact” was not mentioned. The paper described a PTA forum held at a local high school in Catalina. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The first panel on family living will have the topic “How Can Our Children Be Big When We Belittle Them?” Dr. Charles Thompkins, a pediatrician who writes for Parents Magazine, will act as moderator.

In September 1970 the definition of “tact” appeared within a column published in a Jackson, Mississippi newspaper: 2

PUN FUN
Tact, says Dana Robbins, is the art of recognizing when to be big and when not to belittle.

Dana Robbins may have been a local resident. QI does not know.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In October 1970 Bob Talbert who was a columnist at the “Detroit Free Press” of Michigan published a piece about graffiti. He presented many examples of scrawls he had collected including the following three: 3

  • Eve Said She Would Raise a Little Cain As Soon as She Got Abel.
  • Worrying Is the Only Game In Which, If You Guess Right, You Lose
  • Tact Is Being Able to Tell When to Be Big and When to Belittle.

The phrasing of the graffiti version of the pun was different. Bob Talbert’s column was reprinted in other newspapers such as the “Akron Beacon Journal” of Akron, Ohio. 4

In mid-October 1970 the joked appeared in “The Tooele Transcript” of Utah as a filler item, and Robbins received credit: 5

Tact is the art of recognizing when to be big and when not to belittle. — Dana Robbins.

In November 1970 the version of the joke above was used as the caption of a one-panel comic called “The Old Timer”. The illustration showed one golf player laughing while watching another player make an error. The comic was signed R.N, and no one else received credit. 6

In 1971 the statement appeared as an anonymous filler item in “The Holland Evening Sentinel” of Michigan. However, the pun was ruined because the phrase “be little” occurred instead of “belittle”. 7

Tact is the art of recognizing when to be big and when not to be little.

In 1972 a columnist in New Orleans, Louisiana presented a different ascription: 8

Choupique defines tact as the art of recognizing when to be big and when not to belittle.

In 1975 a columnist in State College, Pennsylvania attributed the quip to Bill Copeland: 9

DEFINITION: Tact, Bill Copeland writes, is the art of recognizing when to be big and when not to belittle.

In 1985 “Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale” mentioned the saying parenthetically: 10

Be careful and tactful when a prospect says something derogatory about a purchase previously made. (Tact, as you probably know, is the art of recognizing when to be big and when not to belittle.) Statements such as, “Boy, they sure took advantage of me!” or, “They saw me coming!” can be disastrous for you if you agree with the prospect.

In 1997 Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes credited Copeland: 11

Tact is the art of recognizing when to be big and when not to belittle.
—BILL COPELAND

In 2005 a garbled version appeared in “Words of Wisdom and Quotable Quotes”. The word “recognizing” was replaced by another word: 12

Tact is the art of reorganizing when to be big and when not to be little.
— Bill Copeland.

In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. Dana Robbins is the leading candidate for creator of this joke based on the September 1970 citation. A precursor pun appeared in 1958. By October 1970 an instance was seen in the form of anonymous graffiti. Choupique received credit by November 1972, and Bill Copeland received credit by July 1975.

Image Notes: Illustration of the King of Brobdingnag examining Gulliver from the book “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift. Illustration created circa 1803. Creator James Gillray died circa 1815. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to Peter Gordon of Fireball Crosswords whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Gordon sent in multiple citations including examples crediting Bill Copeland and examples using garbled phrasing.)

Notes:

  1. 1958 November 14, Tucson Daily Citizen, Catalina PTA Slates 3 Forums, Quote Page 30, Column 1, Tucson, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1970 September 2, The Clarion-Ledger, HEW-ITT TO THE LINE Let the Chips Fall Where They May by Purser Hewitt, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Jackson, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1970 October 1, Detroit Free Press, Bob Talbert’s Detroit: Graffiti to Drive You Up a Wall Or Perhaps Even Over the Top, Quote Page 13A, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1970 October 14, Akron Beacon Journal, Y’Gotta Have Bread Before You Can Loaf by Bob Talbert, Quote Page G10, Column 5, Akron, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1970 October 16, The Tooele Transcript, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 7, Tooele, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1970 November 12, Millard County Chronicle, (Caption of one panel comic titled “The Old Timer”), Quote Page 8, Column 5, Delta, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1971 September 29, The Holland Evening Sentinel, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Holland, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1972 November 13, The Times-Picayune, Remoulade: Nobody Can Disprove Indian Allegations by Howard Jacobs, Quote Page 15, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1975 July 23, Centre Daily Times, Milestone for Prayer’s Author, Quote Page 1, Column 5, State College, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1985 (Copyright 1984), Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale by Zig Ziglar, Chapter 18: Here Is a Professional, Quote Page 179, Berkley Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1997, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes: Wit and Wisdom for All Occasions, Chapter: People Together, Quote Page 61, Column 2, Published by Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  12. 2005, Words of Wisdom and Quotable Quotes, Compiled by A. N. P. Ummerkutty, Second Edition, Topic: Tact, Quote Page 164, Sura College of Competition, Chennai, India. (Google Books Preview)