The Next Best Thing To Being Witty One’s Self, Is To Be Able To Quote Another’s Wit

Christian Nestell Bovee? Evan Esar? Laurence J. Peter?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once heard an observation that cogently explained the popularity of quotations. I do not recall the precise phrasing, but it was something like this:

If you are unable to be witty yourself, the next best thing is being able to quote another’s wit.

Would you please determine the name of the originator and the correct phrasing?

Quote Investigator: In 1862 Christian Nestell Bovee published a two volume compilation titled “Intuitions and Summaries of Thought”. Bovee worked hard throughout his life to construct epigrams and memorable passages. His work included a section about the benefits of employing quotations. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At all events, the next best thing to being witty one’s self, is to be able to quote another’s wit. He presents me with what is always an acceptable gift who brings me news of a great thought before unknown. He enriches me without impoverishing himself.

The judicious quoter, too, helps on what is much needed in the world, a freer circulation of good thoughts, pure feelings, and pleasant fancies. Luminous quotations, also, atone, by their interest, for the dulness of an inferior book, and add to the value of a superior work by the variety which they lend to its style and treatment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A comical precursor appeared within an unsigned article printed in “The Sydney Morning Herald” of Australia in 1854: 2

Now, next to being witty one’s self, it is well to be able to cause wit in others.

In 1862 Christian Nestell Bovee published the quotation in “Intuitions and Summaries of Thought” as mentioned previously. The statement caught the eye of the editors of the 1882 reference work “The Cyclopædia of Practical Quotations” which included this entry: 3

WIT
The next best thing to being witty one’s self, is to be able to quote another’s wit.
BOVEE—Summaries of Thought. Quoters and Quoting.

In 1897 the quotation appeared in “The Philadelphia Times” of Pennsylvania in a banner at the top of a newspaper page without attribution. There was a subtle alteration. The phrase “one’s self” was changed to “oneself”: 4

The next best thing to being witty oneself is to be able to quote another’s wit

In 1902 “The Janesville Daily Gazette” of Wisconsin printed the statement with a humorous addendum within an article titled “Old Saws Re-Set”: 5

“The next best thing to being witty is to be able to quote another’s wit,” as if it were one’s own.

In 1949 the joke collector Evan Esar included the saying in the foreword to his book “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”. He credited Bovee while rephrasing the remark: 6

. . . I am reminded of Bovee: “Next to being witty yourself, the best thing to do is to be able to quote another’s wit.”

In 1977 “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter included these two items: 7

Quoting: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. —Ambrose Bierce

Next to being witty yourself, the best thing is being able to quote another’s wit. —Christian N. Bovee

A separate Quote Investigator article about the remark attributed to Bierce is available here.

In 1992 “The Wit and Wisdom of Politics” included another rephrased instance: 8

Next to being witty yourself, the best thing is being able to quote others.
Christian N. Bovee

In conclusion, Christian Nestell Bovee deserves credit for the statement he published in 1862. The phrasing in circulation has evolved over time.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a writing hand from “The Book of Knowledge” (1912) edited by Mee and Thompson.

(Thanks to the anonymous person who asked about several quotations about quotations. Their inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1862, Intuitions and Summaries of Thought by C. N. Bovee (Christian Nestell Bovee), Volume 2 of 2, Chapter: Questions and Answers: Quoters and Quoting, Quote Page 124 and 125, William Veazie, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1854 April 28, The Sydney Morning Herald, City Election Ward Meetings, Quote Page 5, Column 3, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1882, The Cyclopædia of Practical Quotations: English and Latin by J. K. Hoyt and Anna L. Ward, Topic: Wit, Quote Page 471, Column 1, I. K. Funk & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1897 April 4, The Philadelphia Times, (Banner across top of page), Quote Page 29, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1902 April 5, The Janesville Daily Gazette, Old Saws Re-Set, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Janesville, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Foreword, Quote Page 12, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  7. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Quotations, Quote Page 418, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1992, The Wit and Wisdom of Politics, Compiled by Charles Henning, Expanded Edition, Section: Introduction, Quote Page xiii, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado. (Verified with scans)