The Fellow Who Thinks He Knows It All Is Especially Annoying To Those of Us Who Do

Isaac Asimov? Harold Coffin? Unitarian Church Bulletin? Robert Reisner? Joey Adams? Milton Berle? Robert K. Mueller? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Know-it-alls are eager to assert their expertise on all subjects. I love the following comical reaction to grandiose egotism:

Those who believe they know everything are a great nuisance to those of us who do.

The science fiction grandmaster Isaac Asimov has received credit for this line, but I have been unable to find any solid evidence. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip is difficult to trace because it has been expressed in many different ways, and it has evolved over time. Here is a sampling:

  • The fellow who thinks he knows it all is especially annoying to those of us who do.
  • People who think they know everything are terribly irritating to those of us who do.
  • Those who think they know it all upset those of us who do.
  • Those who think they know it all are very annoying to those who do.
  • People who think they know everything always annoy those of us who do.
  • People who think they know it all always bug people who do.
  • People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.

The earliest match located by QI appeared as a filler item in “The Saturday Evening Post” in 1961. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The fellow who thinks he knows it all is especially annoying to those of us who do.
HAROLD COFFIN

Coffin was a humor columnist with the Associated Press (AP) news service in the 1960s and 1970s. He wrote a feature called “Coffin’s Needle” although QI has not found the joke in Coffin’s AP writings. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Barbs aimed at know-it-alls have a long history. For example, a newspaper in Staunton, Virginia printed the following in 1867: 3

Blessed are they that know nothing, for they are happy to think that they know everything.

In 1961 Coffin’s entertaining jibe was noticed by others. The “Minneapolis Morning Tribune” of Minnesota reprinted the remark while crediting him: 4

The fellow who thinks he knows it all is especially annoying to those of us who do.—Harold Coffin in the Saturday Evening Post.

In 1965 this precise saying continued to circulate in a Cambridge City, Indiana newspaper where it appeared in a column titled “Smiles and Chuckles” without attribution: 5

In 1967 a variant appeared in a religion column published in the “Los Angeles Times” of California: 6

Benediction: “Let us remember that people who think they know everything are terribly irritating to those of us who do.”
—Emerson Unitarian Church Bulletin.

In 1971 Robert Reisner published “Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing”, and a version of the jest was included: 7

Those who think they know it all upset those of us who do.
(Univ. of Michigan, Ann Arbor.)

Two instances appeared in the 1979 collection “1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles” compiled by John Peers: 8

Sheetz’s Ruminations:
Those who think they know it all are very annoying to those who do.

Thoughts for the Day:
Those who think they know it all upset those of us who do.

In 1986 comedian Joey Adams included a version in his book “Roast of the Town”: 9

People who think they know everything always annoy those of us who do.

In 1989 “Milton Berle’s Private Joke File” included yet another variant of the quip: 10

People who think they know it all always bug people who do!

In 1992 the collection “And I Quote” presented the remark together with an ascription: 11

Those who think they know it all are very annoying to those of us who do.
—Robert K. Mueller

In 2000 a message sent to the Usenet newsgroup alt.books.dean-koontz included the saying with an anonymous attribution: 12

People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.
(Anonymous)

In 2001 a very similar remark appeared in another Usenet message, but now the words were ascribed to Isaac Asimov who had died in 1992: 13

“Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.” – Asimov

In 2006 “Treasury of Wit & Wisdom” from the Reader’s Digest Association included the statement immediately above and credited Asimov. 14

In conclusion, Harold Coffin is the leading candidate for creator of the quip in 1961 which over time evolved into a family of variants. Prominent comedians such as Joey Adams and Milton Berle employed the joke. Currently, there is no substantive evidence supporting the attribution to Isaac Asimov.

Image Notes: Illustration of a brain with many cogs from TheDigitalArtist at Pixabay. Image has been resized.

(Great thanks to Desvelando Oriente and Ecléctikus whose discussion inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1961 May 6, The Saturday Evening Post, (Filler item), Quote Page 93, Column 2, Curtis Publishing Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (EBSCO MasterFILE Premier)
  2. 1981 September 18, The New York Times, Harold Coffin (Obituary), Quote Page D15, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1867 March 26, Staunton Spectator, Castings and Machinery, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Staunton, Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1961 May 6, Minneapolis Morning Tribune, Real Jerk, Quote Page 6, Column 8, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1965 June 10, National Road Traveler, Smiles and Chuckles, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Cambridge City, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1967 July 29, The Los Angeles Times, Southland Parish by Dan L. Thrapp, Section 3, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1971, Graffiti: Two Thousand Years of Wall Writing, Edited by Robert Reisner, Topic: Sarcasm and Cynicism, Quote Page 179, Cowles Book Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Topic: Quotes for Offices, No Matter What the Business, Quote Page 119 and 124, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1986, Roast of the Town Joey Adams, Topic: Sayings, Quote Page 203, Prentice Hall Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1989, Milton Berle’s Private Joke File: Over 10,000 of His Best Gags, Anecdotes, and One-Liners by Milton Berle, Edited by Milt Rosen, Section: Philosophy and Philosophers, Quote Page 464, Column 2, Crown Publishers, New York (Verified with scans)
  11. 1992, And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings, and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker by Ashton Applewhite, William R. Evans III, and Andrew Frothingham, Topic: Egotism, Quote Page 76, A Thomas Dunne Book: St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2000 April 3, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.books.dean-koontz, From: Lelia Taylor @home.com, Subject: Re: Strangers. (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 12, 2019) link
  13. 2001 October 6, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.flight-sim, From: 185-MadDogMcQ @jfa.org.uk, Subject: Re: Btinternet (how to complain to watchdog). (Google Groups Search; Accessed July 12, 2019) link
  14. 2006, Treasury of Wit & Wisdom: 4,000 of the Funniest, Cleverest, Most Insightful Things Ever Said, Compiled by Jeff Bredenberg, Topic: Education, Quote Page 16, Column 1, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)