Confucius? Japanese Proverb? Chinese Proverb? William Elliot Griffis? Jeff Bezos?
Dear Quote Investigator: Seeking vengeance can backfire on an individual and lead to additional pain and suffering. The founding CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, referenced a powerful cautionary proverb about revenge during an interview in 2016 although he expressed uncertainty about its origin: 1
It’s attributed to Confucius. Who knows if it’s really Confucius or not, but: “Seek revenge and you should dig two graves, one for yourself”.
Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?
Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find this statement in the writings of Confucius. The earliest partial match known to QI appeared in an 1876 history book about Japan called “The Mikado’s Empire” by William Elliot Griffis who presented a list of Japanese proverbs which included the following. The statement in the second line provided an interpretation of the proverb. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
If you call down a curse on any one, look out for two graves.
(“Curses, like young chickens, always come home to roost.”)
This precursor statement did not mention the motivation of revenge. Yet, this saying evolved over time, and by 1915 the word “revenge” appeared instead of “curse”. See further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1885 a reporter for “The Sun” newspaper of New York spoke to an “American gentleman, lately returned to this city after a prolonged residence in Japan”. The returnee shared some Japanese sayings: 3
For instance, ‘Dig two graves before cursing a neighbor’ and ‘Tell no secrets to thy servant’ are not bad rules to follow.
In 1888 “A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese” included an instance of the “curse” saying together with an explanation: 4
Hito wo noroeba, ana fŭtatsu.
Person (accus.) if-one-curses, holes two (are).
Curse a man, and there will be two graves.
(A curse strikes not only him against whom it is pronounced, but also him who pronounces it.)
In 1915 a strong match for the popular modern expression occurred in “Peloubet’s Select Notes on the International Lessons for 1915”. This instance was also labeled a Japanese proverb; however, it used the word “revenge” instead of “curse”. Interestingly, the historian who wrote the 1876 citation received credit for the following passage: 5
“In the perfection of feudalism, the Japanese taught vengeance as a part of ethics and the vendetta as a fine art; yet even they out of long experience coined also the proverb, ‘If you would revenge yourself, dig two graves.’ The plotter usually fell into his own pit.”—William Elliot Griffis.
In 1951 a newspaper in Beckley, West Virginia wrote about a wrongly convicted person who was released from prison after unjustly serving twelve years. He uttered an instance of the proverb, but the attribution had oddly shifted from Japan to China: 6
Sobs shook his slim body when he was freed. But afterwards, he said, quoting a Chinese proverb: “He who seeks revenge digs two graves.”
In 1955 the saying achieved additional circulation when the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell told his readers that it was overheard at the “Stork Club” in Manhattan: 7
In the Stork: “Before you seek Revenge with someone be sure and dig two graves.”
In 1957 a letter to the editor of a newspaper in Albany, Oregon implausibly credited the ancient Greek sage Socrates: 8
It is fair to quote Socrates, “He that would take revenge better dig two graves,” . . .
In 1968 Walter Winchell revisited the saying in his column. This time he labeled the wisdom Chinese: 9
As the Chinese have said for centuries: When You Seek Revenge Dig Two Graves.
In 1987 a collection titled “Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations from All Ages” included the following entry: 10
The person who pursues revenge should dig two graves.
In conclusion, this article presents a snapshot of current research. The earliest evidence suggests that this saying is based on a Japanese proverb that contained the key notion of two graves: “If you call down a curse on any one, look out for two graves”. The meaning and phrasing of the proverb shifted over time, and by 1915 an instance was circulating in English that referred to “revenge” instead of a “curse”. Yet, the 1915 citation with this modified saying also pointed to a Japanese origin.
Image Notes: Picture of cemetery stones covered with moss from Paul_Henri at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Joseph Esposito whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the participants on a discussion thread at the Language Log blog on this topic. The thread was initiated by Victor Mair, and Janet provided valuable citations for William Elliot Griffis in 1876 and for “A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese” in 1889. Many thanks to Benjamin Barrett for pointing to the Language Log blog thread and for his comments on Chinese and Japanese. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)
- YouTube video, Title: Jeff Bezos vs. Peter Thiel and Donald Trump | Jeff Bezos, CEO Amazon | Code Conference 2016, Uploaded on May 31, 2016, Uploaded by Recode, (Quotation starts at 24 minute 13 seconds of 1 hour 20 minutes 27 seconds) Description: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks with The Verge’s Walt Mossberg, (Accessed on youtube.com on June 1, 2016) link ↩
- 1876, The Mikado’s Empire, Book I: History of Japan From 660 B.C. to 1872 A.D., Book II: Personal Experiences, Observations, and Studies in Japan: 1870-1874 by William Elliot Griffis (Late of the Imperial University of Tokio, Japan), Chapter XIV: Japanese Proverbs, Start Page 504, Quote Page 511, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1885 March 1, The Sun, Japanese Wise Sayings, Quote Page 3, Column 6, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1888, A Handbook of Colloquial Japanese by Basil Hall Chamberlain (Professor of Japanese and Philology in the Imperial University of Japan), Quote Page 299, Trübner & Company, Ludgate Hill, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1915, Peloubet’s Select Notes on the International Lessons for 1915 by Rev. F. N. Peloubet and Prof. Amos. R. Wells, Volume 41, Second Quarter, Lesson VII: May 16, David Spares Saul: 1 Samuel 26, Start Page 159, Quote Page 165, Published by W. A. Wilde Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1951 May 12, Beckley Post-Herald, Waking ‘Em Up by Eugene L. Scott, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Beckley, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1955 May 5, The Augusta Chronicle, Walter Winchell: Broadway, the street of dreams, Quote Page 4A, Column 7, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1957 December 14, Albany Democrat-Herald, Bible in the classroom (Letter to the Editor from A. W. Birky), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Albany, Oregon. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1968 April 10, Anderson Daily Bulletin, Winchell Everywhere by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Anderson, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1987 Copyright, Pearls of Wisdom: A Harvest of Quotations from All Ages, Compiled by Jerome Agel and Walter D. Glanze, Quote Page 37, Perennial Library: Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩