I’m Not Young Enough To Know Everything

James Matthew Barrie? Oscar Wilde? Benjamin Disraeli? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Young people often reject the teachings of their elders. They believe that their understanding is superior. An older individual constructed the following ironic barb:

I am not young enough to know everything.

This statement has often been attributed to the famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde. It has also been credited to the playwright J. M. Barrie who is best known for the creation of Peter Pan. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: J. M. Barrie wrote the comic play “The Admirable Crichton” which was first produced in 1902. Barrie published the script by 1918. A character named Ernest delivered the line, and he repeated it when its humor was not fully understood: 1

LADY MARY (speaking without looking up). You impertinent boy.

ERNEST (eagerly plucking another epigram from his quiver). I knew that was it, though I don’t know everything. Agatha, I’m not young enough to know everything.
(He looks hopefully from one to another, but though they try to grasp this, his brilliance baffles them.)

AGATHA (his secret admirer) Young enough?

ERNEST (encouragingly) Don’t you see? I’m not young enough to know everything.

AGATHA I’m sure it’s awfully clever, but it’s so puzzling.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde crafted this quip. In 1894 he did publish a pertinent humorous statement about young people in the journal “The Chameleon”: 2

The old believe everything: the middle-aged suspect everything: the young know everything.

Wilde’s joke was distinct from Barrie’s statement, but the shared subject matter may have facilitated later confusion. A QI article about the Wilde quotation is available here.

In 1955 “The Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms” by Herbert V. Prochnow included a section listing quotations about “Youth”. The following three items occurred in sequence. The second item was given no attribution: 3

The Youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years. Oscar Wilde

To refuse to grow old is the unmistakable sign of youth.

I am not young enough to know everything. James M. Barrie

Prochnow credited Barrie with the third expression, but Oscar Wilde’s name was printed nearby within the text. Sometimes an inattentive reader will ignore one name and attribute a saying to a different name appearing nearby. Thus, a careless reader of Prochnow’s book may have shifted the attribution from Barrie to Wilde.

In 1986 quotation collector Robert Byrne published “The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said”, and he incorrectly ascribed the saying to Wilde: 4

I am not young enough to know everything.
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

In 1993 “The Harper Book of Quotations” included a section with quotations about “Knowledge”. Wilde received credit for the quotation: 5

Knowledge
All men by nature desire to know. Aristotle
I am not young enough to know everything. Oscar Wilde

In 1994 “The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes, Wisecracks, Quips, and Quotes” printed an instance of the quip without attribution: 6

It’s not easy arguing with my kids. My trouble is, I’m not young enough to know everything.

In 1996 “Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit” expressed uncertainty by presenting three different ascriptions: 7

I am not young enough to know everything.
—James Barrie/Oscar Wilde/Benjamin Disraeli

In conclusion, J. M. Barrie should receive credit for this quotation which appeared in his play “The Admirable Crichton”. The ascription to Oscar Wilde is unsupported.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. This anonymous individual wondered if J. M. Barrie had lifted the line from Oscar Wilde.)

Notes:

  1. 1918, The Plays of J. M. Barrie: The Admirable Crichton: A Comedy, Act I, Quote Page 12 and 13, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1894, The Chameleon, Volume 1, Number 1, Edited by John Francis Bloxam, Article: Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young by Oscar Wilde, Start Page 1, Quote Page 2 and 3, Gay and Bird, London. (British Library website; accessed bl.uk on October 28, 2020) link
  3. 1955, The Speaker’s Handbook of Epigrams and Witticisms by Herbert V. Prochnow, Topic: Youth, Quote Page 332, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1986, The Third and Possibly the Best 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said, Compiled by Robert Byrne, Quotation Number 214, Atheneum, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1993, The Harper Book of Quotations, Third Edition, Edited by Robert I. Fitzhenry, Topic: Knowledge, Quote Page 241, HarperPerennial: A Division of HarperCollins, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1994, The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes, Wisecracks, Quips, and Quotes, Compiled by Fred Metcalf, Topic: Teenagers, Quote Page 210, Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1996 (1994 Copyright), Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit From Aristotle to Woody Allen, Compiled by Leo Rosten, Topic: Youth, Quote Page 536, Plume: Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)