Oscar Wilde? Felix Grendon? Percy Colson? 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”.[ref] 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) [/ref] Also, the joke does not occur in the 2006 compendium “Oscar Wilde in Quotation: 3,100 Insults, Anecdotes, and Aphorisms”.[ref] 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) [/ref]
The earliest close match known to QI appeared in a collection of precepts for the young constructed by septuagenarian U.K. author Percy Colson which were printed in “The Sketch” newspaper of London in April 1949. Here were three items from the set. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1949 April 13, The Sketch, Sketch-Book by Beverly Baxter, Quote Page 239 (5), Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]
“It is only the very dull who enjoy practical jokes.”
“Where there is universal equality, there can be no quality.”
“Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so intensely.”
QI tentatively credits Percy Colson with this saying. “The Sketch” newspaper mentioned that Colson was the co-author of a forthcoming book titled “Oscar Wilde and the Black Douglas”. Perhaps Colson’s authorship of this book about Wilde caused confusion. A few years later, in June 1954, credit for the quotation was reassigned to Wilde in the pages of the “Reader’s Digest”.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A thematic precursor is contained in the Epistle to the Romans within the Bible which states:[ref] 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 [/ref]
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.[ref] 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 [/ref]
Another thematically related remark about forgiveness appeared in “The Mirror” journal of London in 1824:[ref] 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 [/ref]
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:[ref] 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 [/ref]
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 1911 another precursor occurred in “The International” journal of New York within a piece titled “The Cool Philosopher” by Felix Grendon. This instance used “enrages” instead of “annoys”:[ref] 1911 November, The International, Volumes 3, Number 6, The Cool Philosopher by Felix Grendon, Start Page 88, Quote Page 90, Column 1, The Moods Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
“Forgive him, of course,” said the Professor. “I always forgive my enemies; nothing enrages them more.”
In 1922 Felix Grendon published the statement containing “enrages” again within a novel titled “The Love Chase”:[ref] 1922, The Love Chase by Felix Grendon, Chapter 8, Quote Page 109, Small, Maynard & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]
“Oh, no, I always forgive my enemies. Nothing enrages them more. I left Hutchins stunned. But I’ve no doubt he recovered in time to appoint the successor that I sent him.”
In 1934 a newspaper in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania published a filler item that was thematically pertinent:[ref] 1934 August 10, The Daily Notes, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
Nothing annoys an enemy more than kindness.
In 1949 “The Sketch” of London printed an instance of the quip provided by Percy Colson as mentioned previously:[ref] 1949 April 13, The Sketch, Sketch-Book by Beverly Baxter, Quote Page 239 (5), Column 2, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive) [/ref]
“Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so intensely.”
In June 1954 mass-circulation magazine “Reader’s Digest” printed an instance ascribed to Oscar Wilde. The magazine was available to readers during the last week of May 1954:[ref] June 1954, Reader’s Digest, Volume 64, Number 386, (Filler item), Quote Page 134, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
— Oscar Wilde
The magazine did not provide a supporting citation. Quotations printed in “Reader’s Digest” were often provided by readers who were compensated. The information was not carefully vetted for accuracy; hence, faulty data was sometimes submitted and propagated.
Popular syndicated columnist Walter Winchell noticed the quotation in “Reader’s Digest”, and he mentioned it on May 27, 1954:[ref] 1954 May 27, , Courier-Post, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 21, Column 1, Camden, New Jersey. (ProQuest) [/ref]
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:[ref] 1954 September 16, The Clermont Sun, International Uniform: Sunday School Lesson, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Batavia, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive) [/ref]
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:[ref] 1955 March 17, The Newton Record, This ‘N’ That by Harold T. Gallaspy, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Newton, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
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:[ref] 1955 December 1, Sand Mountain Reporter, Hettie Hatcher Says (single-panel comic), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Albertville, Alabama. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]
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:[ref] 1987, The Portable Curmudgeon, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Quote Page 101, New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]
Always forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them so much. Oscar Wilde
In conclusion, a precursor with “enrages” instead of “annoys” appeared in 1911. The first close match with “annoys” appeared in “The Sketch” of London in 1949 which was many years after the death of Oscar Wilde in 1900. The humorous remark was part of a collection that was given by Percy Colson to a columnist at “The Sketch”. Thus, Percy Colson is currently the leading candidate for creator. The attribution to Oscar Wilde occurred by 1954, and that linkage is unsupported. Future researchers may discover new illuminating citations.
Acknowledgements: 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. Many thanks to twitter user @DissBugBear who located the important 1949 citation, and thanks to twitter user @fakehistoryhunt who notified QI of this discovery. Special thanks to Farley Katz who located the important 1911 citation.
Update History: On June 17, 2021 the Biblical citations were added. On August 29, 2022 the June 1954 “Reader’s Digest” citation was added to the article. On October 17, 2022 the 1949 citation was added to the article, and the conclusion was rewritten. On June 16, 2023 the 1911 and 1922 citations were added to the article, and the article was partially rewritten.