Always Forgive Your Enemies; Nothing Annoys Them So Much

Oscar Wilde? Walter Winchell? Reader’s Digest? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A well-known moral injunction states that one should forgive one’s enemies. A humorous twist suggests that one should grant forgiveness because it produces annoyance in one’s adversaries. This notion has been attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and QI has found no substantive evidence that he originated this quip. It is not listed in researcher Ralph Keyes’s important compilation “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”. 1 Also, the joke does not occur in the 2006 compendium “Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms”. 2

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated column of Walter Winchell in 1954, and he pointed to the mass-circulation magazine “Reader’s Digest”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 3

Reader’s Digest recalls O. Wilde’s: “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

QI has not yet located a precise citation within an issue of “Reader’s Digest”. In addition, quotations with attributions appearing in that magazine were often provided by readers who were compensated. The information was not carefully vetted for accuracy; hence, faulty data was sometimes submitted and propagated.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A thematic precursor is contained in the Epistle to the Romans within the Bible which states: 4

Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

The “burning coals” symbolically refer to the feelings of shame and remorse experienced by your enemies. The text between quotation marks is from the Proverbs of Solomon. 5

Another thematically related remark about forgiveness appeared in “The Mirror” journal of London in 1824: 6

The greatest and noblest revenge is forgiveness. Werdermann.

Oscar Wilde’s play “An Ideal Husband” was performed in London in 1895. It included a remark that was tangentially related to the saying under examination. A character delivered a line about philanthropy with a spin. Philanthropy (like forgiveness) is normally depicted positively, but Wilde connected it to annoyance: 7

MRS. CHEVELEY. And philanthropy seems to me to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow-creatures. I prefer politics.

In 1934 a newspaper in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania published a filler item that was thematically pertinent: 8

Nothing annoys an enemy more than kindness.

Walter Winchell’s column containing the statement appeared in many newspapers in May 1954:

Reader’s Digest recalls O. Wilde’s: “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

In September 1954 the saying appeared in a “Sunday School Lesson” printed in a Batavia, Ohio newspaper: 9

Oscar Wilde said, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” A Christian, however, doesn’t forgive his enemies to annoy them, but because of a genuine concern for them.

In March 1955 a newspaper in Mississippi printed a slightly different phrasing: 10

Always forgive your enemies—nothing else will annoy them so much—Oscar Wilde.

In December 1955 a newspaper in Alabama printed a variant quip as the caption of a single-panel cartoon: 11

THERE ARE TWO GOOD REASONS WHY YOU SHOULD ALWAYS FORGIVE YOUR ENEMIES, ONE IS BECAUSE THE BIBLE TELLS US TO, AND THE OTHER IS BECAUSE NOTHING ELSE ANNOYS THEM AS MUCH AS TO BE FORGIVEN BY SOMEONE THEY DISLIKE.

In 1987 the saying appeared in “The Portable Curmudgeon” compiled by Jon Winokur: 12

Always forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them so much. Oscar Wilde

In conclusion, the earliest known match for this expression occurred in 1954 which was many years after the death of Oscar Wilde in 1900. The linkage to Wilde appears to be spurious. The true originator of the quotation remains unknown.

(Great thanks to Andrew Crowther whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks also to twitter discussants June Russell, Colin Fine, and The Oscar Wilde Society. Russell found the quotation on the cover of a modern edition Wilde’s “A Florentine Tragedy” although the quotation is absent form this work. The Oscar Wilde Society @OscarWildeUK tweeted that a committee member had checked the complete works of Wilde and did not find the quotation. Thanks to Peter Stanford who pointed to the pertinent passages in the Bible.)

Update History: On June 17, 2021 the Biblical citations were added.

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, (Note: Search indicated that quotation was absent), HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 2006, Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms, Topically Arranged with Attributions, Compiled and edited by Tweed Conrad, (Note: Search indicated that quotation was absent), McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1954 May 27, , Courier-Post, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Camden, New Jersey. (ProQuest)
  4. Website: BibleHub, Second Epistle of Peter, Romans 12. Lines 17, 20, and 21, Translation: New International Version (NIV), Website description: Online Bible Study Suite; Bible Hub is a production of the Online Parallel Bible Project. (Accessed BibleHub.com on June 17, 2021) link
  5. Website: BibleHub, More Proverbs of Solomon, Proverbs 25. Lines 21 and 22, Translation: New International Version (NIV), Website description: Online Bible Study Suite; Bible Hub is a production of the Online Parallel Bible Project. (Accessed BibleHub.com on June 17, 2021) link
  6. 1824 September 4, The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Quote Page 179, Column 2, Printed and Published by J. Limbird, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1905, The Plays of Oscar Wilde, Volume 2, An Ideal Husband, (Performance Note: Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, January 3, 1895), (Pages numbers are reinitialized at 1 for each play), Start Page 1, Quote Page 9, Published by John W. Luce & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1934 August 10, The Daily Notes, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1954 September 16, The Clermont Sun, International Uniform: Sunday School Lesson, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Batavia, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  10. 1955 March 17, The Newton Record, This ‘N’ That by Harold T. Gallaspy, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Newton, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1955 December 1, Sand Mountain Reporter, Hettie Hatcher Says (single-panel comic), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Albertville, Alabama. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1987, The Portable Curmudgeon, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Quote Page 101, New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)