Light Travels Faster Than Sound. That’s Why Some Folks Appear Bright Until They Speak

Albert Einstein? Steven Wright? Earl Wilson? Robert Orben? Gary Apple? Bo McLeod? Brian Williams? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The speed of light is a crucial value in the theory of relativity. Perhaps that is why the following joke has been credited to Albert Einstein:

Light travels faster than sound. That’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.

I am very skeptical that Einstein ever made this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this quip. The most comprehensive reference about the physicist’s pronouncements is the 2010 book “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press, and the expression is absent.

A precursor appeared in Earl Wilson’s popular gossip column in 1959. The attribution was anonymous. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

EARL’S PEARLS: Someone described a second-rate singer: “Luckily light travels faster than sound — because she looks better than she sounds.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The earliest close match appeared in 1989 within the pages of “The News Journal” of Wilmington, Delaware. An article described a transition occurring at a semimonthly newsletter containing topical quips prepared for speechmakers. For many years the principal author and editor of the material in the periodical had been humorist Robert Orben. The newly installed editor responsible for supplying gags to orators was Gary Apple. The newsletter name changed from “Orben’s Current Comedy” to “Current Comedy for Speakers”. The newspaper article reprinted some one-liners from the newsletter: 2

When you’re following another speaker to the podium who has gone on too long: “I keep having this terrible nightmare that I’m late for a plane and [person’s name] is wishing me goodbye.”

Another comment about a previous speaker: “Light travels faster than sound. That’s why some folks appear bright until they speak.”

The article stated that the reprinted quips were selected from multiple issues of the newsletter. Hence the joke under examination may have been crafted by Robert Orben or Gary Apple. In addition, some jokes in the newsletter were purchased from other unidentified gag writers.

In 1990 “The Kaplan Herald” of Kaplan, Louisiana printed the remark in a humor column while crediting Gary Apple: 3

IT’S TRUE–Light travels faster than sound. That’s why some folks appear bright until they speak-GARY APPLE.

In 1997 a columnist in Augusta, Georgia ascribed the one-liner as follows: 4

Light travels faster than sound. That’s why some folks appear bright until they speak.
— Bo McLeod

In 1998 U.S. professional basketball player Brian Williams aimed the barb at a commentator: 5

Detroit center Brian Williams is a little sore at former Pistons captain and Toronto Raptors general manager Isaiah Thomas, who was part of the NBC broadcasting team at Detroit’s game Feb. 15 with the Chicago Bulls. Thomas made some critical comments about Williams during the game.

“You know what I say about that? Light travels faster than sound, so some people appear to be bright – until you hear them speak,” Williams said.

In 1999 an advice columnist credited an instance to comedian Steven Wright: 6

Quote of the Day: Since light travels faster than sound, isn’t that why some people appear bright until you hear them speak? Steven Wright

In 2009 a tweet from Mike Folsom credited an instance to the famous physicist Albert Einstein: 7

“Light travels faster than sound. That’s why certain people appear bright until you hear them speak.”
~ Albert Einstein

In 2015 a newspaper in Idaho credited the jest to Albert Einstein: 8

Other paraprosdokians convey a clever double meaning:

“We all know that light travels faster than sound. That’s why some people appear bright until you hear them speak.” (Albert Einstein)

In conclusion, a precursor with an anonymous ascription appeared in a newspaper column in 1959. A close match appeared in a newsletter by 1989. It was probably crafted by Gary Apple or Robert Orben who were editors of the newsletter. The attribution to Albert Einstein is unsupported.

Image Notes: Illustration of laser show from LoggaWiggler at Pixabay. Image has been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Victor Arias Jr. whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1959 April 20, The Raleigh Register, Ingrid In Maternity ‘Ward’—By Mistake by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 4, Column 6 and 7, Beckley, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1989 March 03, The News Journal, Comedy Center manufactures mirth by Edward L. Kenney (Staff reporter), Page D1, Sidebar: Wit from the old and new proprietors, Quote Page D4, Column 4, Wilmington, Delaware. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1990 January 10, The Kaplan Herald, Sauce Piquante, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Kaplan, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1997 January 22, The Augusta Chronicle, Clinton’s no Astaire at dancing by Bill Kirby (Deputy Metro Editor), (Article epigraph), Quote Page C5, Column 1, Augusta, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1998 February 20, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Section: Sports, Above the Rim, Quote Page B5, Seattle, Washington. (NewsBank Access World News)
  6. 1999 November 1, Times Colonist, Ask Rhona: Effect of divorce on kids worries unsatisfied wife (Article epigraph), Quote Page D2, Column 1, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  7. Tweet, From: Mike Folsom @MikeF_says, Time: 8:02 PM, Date: September 2, 2009, Text: “Light travels faster than sound. That’s why certain people appear bright until you hear them speak.” (Accessed on twitter.com on September 6, 2019) link
  8. 2015 January 29, The Coeur d’Alene Press, MLP: Contrary to expectation, Quote Page C1, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. (Newsbank Access World News)