James Thurber? Jane Austen? Charles Caleb Colton? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Many are familiar with the following adage which encourages aggregation:
There is safety in numbers.
Yet, I recall reading a short acerbic tale that presented an inverted moral of this type:
There is no safety in numbers, or anything else.
Would you please help me to find this story?
Quote Investigator: In 1939 “The New Yorker” published a set of four short tales by humorist James Thurber under the title “Fables for Our Time – II”. The first story was about a “fairly intelligent fly” who avoided being caught in an empty spider web. Unfortunately, when the fly later encountered a large group of flies together on a surface he decided to settle down among them. A bee warned the fly that the group were trapped on flypaper. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
“Don’t be silly,” said the fly, “they’re dancing.” So he settled down and became stuck to the flypaper with all the other flies.
Moral: There is no safety in numbers, or in anything else.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The conventional phrase “seek safety in numbers” appeared in the 1816 novel “Emma” by prominent literary figure Jane Austen: 2
They were just approaching the house where lived Mrs. and Miss Bates. She determined to call upon them and seek safety in numbers. There was always sufficient reason for such an attention; Mrs. and Miss Bates loved to be called on …
In 1820 Reverend Charles Caleb Colton published “Lacon, Or Many Things In Few Words: Addressed To Those Who Think” which included two divergent Latin maxims: 3
“Defendit numerus” is the maxim of the foolish;
“Deperdit numerus,” of the wise.
The 1832 edition of Colton’s work included the following translations: 4
There is safety in numbers.—Pub.
There is ruin in numbers.—Pub.
In 1939 “The New Yorker” published James Thurber’s fable containing the twisted adage.
In 1979 the collection “1,001 Logical Laws” included the saying together with an ascription: 5
Thurber’s Law: There is no safety in numbers, or anything else.
In conclusion, James Thurber should receive credit for the statement he published in 1939. Skepticism about the adage “There is safety in numbers” had been expressed many years earlier by Charles Caleb Colton in 1820.
Image Notes: Illustration of many overlapping numbers from geralt at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.
- 1939 February 4, The New Yorker, Fables for Our Time – II by James Thurber, Start Page 20, Quote Page 20, Column 1, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) ↩
- 1816, Emma: A Novel by Jane Austen, Volume 2 of 3, Chapter 1, Quote Page 1 and 2, Printed for John Murray, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1820, Lacon, Or Many Things In Few Words: Addressed To Those Who Think by The Rev. C. C. Colton (Charles Caleb Colton), Fourth Edition, Section: XXXIV, Quote Page 31, Published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (HathiTrust Books Full View) link ↩
- 1832, Lacon, Or Many Things In Few Words: Addressed To Those Who Think by The Rev. C. C. Colton (Charles Caleb Colton), Quote Page 30, Published by C. P. Fessenden, New York. (HathiTrust Books Full View) link ↩
- 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 121, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩