Lewis Carroll? Charles L. Dodgson? Alice in Wonderland? White Rabbit? March Hare? Emmaleta Hicks? Gene Meihsner? Ed Sussdorff? Milton Berle? Truck Driver Named Bill? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of statements about the difficulty of keeping up with a heavy workload. Here are four instances:
- The harder I work, the behinder I get.
- The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.
- The hurrieder I work, the behinder I get.
- The faster I run, the behinder I get.
This saying has often been credited to Lewis Carroll (pen name of Charles L. Dodgson) who wrote the famous fantasy works “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass”. Yet, I have searched Carroll’s books and have not found this expression; therefore, I doubt this attribution. Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Lewis Carroll penned this saying; it does not appear in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” or “Through the Looking-Glass”. It has been difficult to trace. QI believes the expression evolved over time, and the originator remains uncertain. The saying was deemed Carrollian by some careless wordsmiths, and it was eventually incorrectly reassigned to the popular fantasist.
The earliest match located by QI containing the keyword “behinder” appeared in “The Detroit Free Press” of Michigan in January 1943. The saying was spoken by a truck driver with the common first name of “Bill”: 1
BEHINDER—Emmaleta Hicks clerical worker at the Michigan Central Terminal, reports this scrap of conversation between two truck drivers in the middle of the daily parcel blitz:
“Ya gettin’ caught up with your work, Bill?”
“Naw,” replied Bill, dejectedly, “the harder I work the behinder I get.”
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In December 1943 the women’s fraternity publication “The Arrow of Pi Beta Phi” printed the following: 2
The shoemaker in Gatlinburg is a resourceful soul. With some fine cowhide he has been making belts and he has also invented a new kind of sandal which requires no ration points. His comment is “The harder I work, the behinder I get.”
In 1958 “The Indianapolis Star” of Indiana printed an instance using “hurrier” and “behinder”. The collector of this slogan was identified but not the creator: 3
GENE MEIHSNER, production man for Caldwell, Larkin, et al., collects slogans. His latest: “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”
In 1959 the “Chattanooga Daily Times” of Tennessee printed a variant instance using “hurrieder”: 4
City Editor Ed Sussdorff says I misquoted him. He claims he did not say anything so goofy as “The faster I work the behinder I get.” What he really said, he claims, was “The hurrieder I work the behinder I get.” So the record’s now straight and my work is behinder than it’s been in some time.
In 1965 the quotation collector and prominent publisher Bennett Cerf authored “Laugh Day: A New Treasury of Over 1000 Humorous Stories and Anecdotes”. Cerf linked the expression to the Pennsylvania Dutch community: 5
Collecting the quaint expressions of the Pennsylvania Dutch is a favorite diversion of many Philadelphians. A few that pop up on most lists are: 1. The sign on a door where the bell was out of order: “Button don’t bell. Bump.” 2. The sound tip: “Better it is to single live than to the wife the britches give.” 3. The housewife’s complaint: “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”
In 1971 sportswriter Don Milliken of Newport News, Virginia presented a dialog during which a character named “Alice” used the saying. The ellipsis below was in the original newspaper text: 6
“The faster I run, the behinder I get . . .” exclaimed Alice.
“Of course,” replied the Queen.” “You have to run as fast as you can to stay in one place. To get anywhere, you have to run twice as fast.”
The two lines above evoked a scene from Lewis Carroll’s 1872 book “Through the Looking Glass”; however, Alice did not use the saying in Carroll’s book as shown in the excerpt below: 7
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”
“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
In 1973 a columnist in a Fort Lauderdale, Florida newspaper connected the saying to Lewis Carroll, but the journalist did not directly ascribe the words to Carroll: 8
The lament of Lewis Carroll’s 1800s was having to run as hard as you can to stay in the same place.
The lament today is not-so-comically told by the Sad Sack sign seen on an occasional desk: The Faster I Go, The Behinder I Get.
In 1975 “Treasury of Great American Sayings” contained the following entry: 9
The hurrieder I go the behinder I get.
Anonymous Pennsylvania Dutch saying.
In 1976 a columnist in a Traverse City, Michigan wrote a column titled “School finances as seen ‘through the looking glass’” and attributed the saying to a “March Hare”: 10
. . . the March Hare, whispered in this reporter’s ear, “The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get.”
In 1984 a columnist in an Elmira, New York newspaper attributed the saying to Carroll’s “White Rabbit” character: 11
Like the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” the faster New York goes, the behinder it gets.
In 1989 a well-known comedian included two versions of the saying in his book titled “Milton Berle’s Private Joke File”: 12
An efficiency expert is a man, according to a smart country boy, who can explain why “the furtherer you go, the behinder you get!”
We had a cameraman who could tell you what speed wasn’t. He did everything at a snail’s pace. His favorite statement was, “The faster I go, the behinder I get!”
In 1993 a columnist for Knight-Ridder newspapers published the following: 13
“The faster I go, the behinder I get,” said the Rabbit in “Through the Looking Glass.”
In 2021 “The Guardian” of London published a piece titled “Off with their heads! Why are Lewis Carroll misquotes so common online?” which reported that some coins issued by the Westminster Collection featured two incorrect quotations: 14
The White Rabbit never says, “The hurrier I go, the behinder I get,” nor does the Mad Hatter say, “I am under no obligation to make sense to you.”
In conclusion, this family of sayings began to circulate by 1943 when an instance with “behinder” was attributed to a truck driver named Bill. Thus, the origin was largely anonymous. A version with “hurrier” and “behinder” was in use by 1958. Lewis Carroll (Charles L. Dodgson) died in 1898. He was implausibly linked to the expression by 1971.
Image Notes: Public domain illustration by John Tenniel depicting Alice stepping through the looking-glass from the 1872 edition of “Through the Looking Glass: And What Alice Found There” by Lewis Carroll.
(The article in “The Guardian” was mentioned on the mailing list of the American Dialect Society which inspired QI to tackle this topic. Thanks to discussants Bill Mullins, Geoffrey Nathan, Andy Bach, David Daniel, and Laurence Horn. In addition, thanks to quotation expert Nigel Rees who referred to the article in “The Guardian” and explored this topic in his April 2021 “Quote… Unquote” newsletter.)
- 1943 January 30, The Detroit Free Press, Behind the Front Page by FP Staff, Quote Page 15, Column 1, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1943 December, The Arrow of Pi Beta Phi, Volume 60, Number 2, Gazings and Gleanings at Gatlinburg, Start Page 189, Quote Page 190, Column 1, Official Organ of the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity, Decatur, Illinois. (Verified with scans; accessed via history.pibetaphi.org) ↩
- 1958 November 23, The Indianapolis Star, The Things I Hear! by Lowell Nussbaum, Section 2, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1959 March 2, Chattanooga Daily Times, Down The Lane – Not So Goofy by Mouzon Peters, Quote Page 15, Column 3, Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1965, Laugh Day: A New Treasury of Over 1000 Humorous Stories and Anecdotes by Bennett Cerf, Chapter 23: Roundup, Quote Page 488 and 489, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1971 February 4, Daily Press, Pack Tops Terps, 71-61: N.C. State’s Coder Shines In Victory Over Maryland by Don Milliken (Daily Press Sports Writer), Quote Page 18, Column 7, Newport News, Virginia. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1872, Through the Looking Glass: And What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll, Chapter 2: The Garden of Live Flowers, Quote Page 42, Macmillan and Company. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1973 April 1, Fort Lauderdale News, Inflation Causes A Stomach ‘Ache’ by Brian Howland (Staff writer), (Continuation title) Inflation May Be Hazardous To Your Stomach, Start Page 1E, Quote Page 8E, Column 4, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1975 Copyright, Treasury of Great American Sayings by Leonard Spinrad and Thelma Spinrad, Topic: Speed, Quote Page 215, Parker Publishing Company, West Nyack, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1976 December 31, Traverse City Record-Eagle, School finances as seen ‘through the looking glass’ by Marilyn Wright (Record-Eagle Staff Writer), Quote Page 3, Column 1 and 2, Traverse City, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1984 April 15, Star-Gazette Sunday Telegram, NY’s spring outrage must be reined in by John Omicinski, Quote Page 4A, Column 1, Elmira, New York. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 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, Topic: Efficiency, Quote Page 218, Column 2, Topic: Speed, Quote Page 537, Column 2, Crown Publishers, New York (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1993 December 20, Tallahassee Democrat, Make quality time a priority by Tim O’Brien (Knight-Ridder Newspapers), Quote Page 5D, Column 1, Tallahassee, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- Website: The Guardian, Article title: Off with their heads! Why are Lewis Carroll misquotes so common online?, Article author: Alison Flood, Date on website: March 1, 2021, Website description: Newspaper in London England. (Accessed theguardian.com on April 4, 2021) link ↩