No Snowflake in an Avalanche Ever Feels Responsible

Voltaire? George Burns? Paul Harvey? Stanisław Jerzy Lec? Percy Bysshe Shelley? Etaislaw Lee? Stanisław Leszczyński? Stanisław Lem? Jacek Galazka?

Dear Quote Investigator: A mob or a mass movement can cause enormous destruction. Also, the inaction of a large apathetic group in a perilous time can lead to ruination. Yet, individuals disavow liability. Here are three versions of a pertinent metaphorical adage:

(1) No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
(2) Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.
(3) In an avalanche, no one snowflake ever feels responsible.

This saying has been attributed to French wit Voltaire, Polish aphorist Stanisław Jerzy Lec, U.S. comedian George Burns, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1964 Polish book “Myśli Nieuczesane Nowe” (“More Unkempt Thoughts”) by Stanisław Jerzy Lec which contained many short humorous remarks.[1]Website: Wikiquote, Person: Stanisław Jerzy Lec, A Wikimedia Project of Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (Accessed wikiquote.org on April 26, 2022; Polish version of the quotation was obtained from … Continue reading The work was translated into English by Jacek Galazka and published in 1968. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[2] 1968 Copyright, More Unkempt Thoughts by Stanisław J. Lec, Translated by Jacek Galazka, Quote Page 9, Funk & Wagnalls, New York. (Verified with scans)

Żaden płatek śniegu nie czuje się odpowiedzialny za lawinę.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1837 “The Birmingham Journal” of England published a piece by a political activist who employed an analogy depicting individuals as snowflakes able to unite to form a powerful avalanche:[3] 1837 May 13, The Birmingham Journal, To the Wealth Producers of Birmingham and of the Midland Counties by Jack Steadfast, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Warwickshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

The avalanche of the Alps, which carries destruction in its gathering force, and whelms whole districts in its frozen shroud, acquired its tremendous force by UNION—the vast mass of cold destruction was accumulated flake by flake. Compare this figure yourselves—ye are the snow-flakes; gather then instruction from nature, single flakes form the avalanche, single grains of sand form mountains, single drops form the mighty ocean, and supply its resistless power!

In 1820 English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley published “Prometheus Unbound”. He employed a splendid simile connecting snowflakes and thoughts:[4] 1820, Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts with Other Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Act II, Quote Page 78, C. and J. Ollier, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Awful as silence. Hark! the rushing snow!
The sun-awakened avalanche! whose mass,
Thrice sifted by the storm, had gathered there
Flake after flake, in heaven-defying minds
As thought by thought is piled, till some great truth
Is loosened, and the nations echo round,
Shaken to their roots, as do the mountains now.

In 1880 “The Illustrated London News” printed an anonymous statement that echoed Shelley’s verses:[5] 1880 December 15, The Illustrated London News, (Epigraph at top of page), Quote Page 35, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

“Thoughts, like snow-flakes on some far-off mountain-side, go on accumulating till some great truth is loosened, and falls like an avalanche on the waiting world.”

In 1964 Stanisław Jerzy Lec published “Myśli Nieuczesane Nowe” (“More Unkempt Thoughts”) which included the Polish rendition of the saying under examination as mentioned previously.

In January 1964 popular radio broadcaster and newspaper columnist Paul Harvey published an instance of the saying in English:[6] 1964 January 9, Greenwood Commonwealth, An Old Flame Flickers by Paul Harvey, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Greenwood, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)

In an avalanche, no one snowflake ever feels responsible.

In February 1964 the saying appeared in a Chillicothe, Missouri newspaper within a collection of quotations compiled by students at the local high school. The odd attribution might be a garbled version of the name “Stanislaw Lec”:[7] 1964 February 21, The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, Chilli Chatter by Chillicothe High School Student Council, Quotes, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Chillicothe, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
—Etaislaw Lee.

In 1968 the English translation of Stanisław Jerzy Lec’s “Myśli Nieuczesane Nowe” (“More Unkempt Thoughts”) appeared, and it contained the following three items:[8] 1968 Copyright, More Unkempt Thoughts by Stanisław J. Lec, Translated by Jacek Galazka, Quote Page 9, Funk & Wagnalls, New York. (Verified with scans)

It is the high priests that make demands—not the gods they serve.

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.

Do not trust people. They are capable of greatness.

Also, in 1968 Evan Esar printed a different phrasing in his compilation “20,000 Quips and Quotes”:[9] 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Snow, Quote Page 748, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)

Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.
—Stanislaw J. Lec

In 1970 widely syndicated columnist Earl Wilson printed the saying with an ascription containing a slight misspelling:[10] 1970 March 25, The State Journal, Groucho Plugs Show About Mommy by Earl Wilson (Syndicated), Today’s Laughs, Quote Page A11, Column 4, Lansing, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)

REMEMBERED QUOTE: “Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty.”—Stanislaw J. Lee.

In 1973 the saying appeared within a jewelry advertisement in an Allentown, Pennsylvania newspaper. Stanisław Leszczyński who was an 18th century King of Poland received credit:[11] 1973 February 13, The Morning Call, (Advertisement for Thornton Jewelers), Quote Page 1, Column 2, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
—Stanislaus Leszczynski

In 1997 “Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations” attributed the saying to a prominent Polish science fiction author. This error was probably due to a misspelling:[12]1997, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations: The Most Notable Quotes Since 1950, Revised Edition, Edited by James B. Simpson, Section: Humankind, Topic: Wisdom, Philosophy, and Other Musings, … Continue reading

Stanislaw Lem essayist
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
More Unkempt Thoughts Funk & Wagnalls 69

In 2004 Mike George published the compilation “1,001 Meditations” which attributed the saying to a famous French author:[13] 2004, 1,001 Meditations, Compiled by Mike George Chapter: Choice and Responsibility, Quote Page 64, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans)

The snowflake “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” Voltaire (1694-1778)

In 2006 the Reader’s Digest Association published “Treasury of Wit & Wisdom” which attributed the saying to a well-known actor and comedian:[14]2006, Treasury of Wit & Wisdom: 4,000 of the Funniest, Cleverest, Most Insightful Things Ever Said, Compiled by Jeff Bredenberg, Topic: The Human Condition, Quote Page 258, The Reader’s … Continue reading

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. — George Burns

In conclusion, the saying should be credited to Stanisław Jerzy Lec. The earliest citations in Polish and English appeared in 1964. The ascriptions to Voltaire and Stanisław Leszczyński are unsupported. The attribution to George Burns occurred after the saying was in circulation.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of snowflakes from “The Century Dictionary” of 1895. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to the anonymous friend whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

References

References
1 Website: Wikiquote, Person: Stanisław Jerzy Lec, A Wikimedia Project of Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. (Accessed wikiquote.org on April 26, 2022; Polish version of the quotation was obtained from Wikiquote; QI has not yet verified the Polish quotation directly in “Myśli Nieuczesane Nowe”) link
2, 8 1968 Copyright, More Unkempt Thoughts by Stanisław J. Lec, Translated by Jacek Galazka, Quote Page 9, Funk & Wagnalls, New York. (Verified with scans)
3 1837 May 13, The Birmingham Journal, To the Wealth Producers of Birmingham and of the Midland Counties by Jack Steadfast, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Warwickshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
4 1820, Prometheus Unbound: A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts with Other Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Act II, Quote Page 78, C. and J. Ollier, London. (Google Books Full View) link
5 1880 December 15, The Illustrated London News, (Epigraph at top of page), Quote Page 35, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
6 1964 January 9, Greenwood Commonwealth, An Old Flame Flickers by Paul Harvey, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Greenwood, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
7 1964 February 21, The Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune, Chilli Chatter by Chillicothe High School Student Council, Quotes, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Chillicothe, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
9 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Snow, Quote Page 748, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
10 1970 March 25, The State Journal, Groucho Plugs Show About Mommy by Earl Wilson (Syndicated), Today’s Laughs, Quote Page A11, Column 4, Lansing, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
11 1973 February 13, The Morning Call, (Advertisement for Thornton Jewelers), Quote Page 1, Column 2, Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
12 1997, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations: The Most Notable Quotes Since 1950, Revised Edition, Edited by James B. Simpson, Section: Humankind, Topic: Wisdom, Philosophy, and Other Musings, Person: Stanislaw Lem (essayist), Quote Page 376, Column 2, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)
13 2004, 1,001 Meditations, Compiled by Mike George Chapter: Choice and Responsibility, Quote Page 64, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans)
14 2006, Treasury of Wit & Wisdom: 4,000 of the Funniest, Cleverest, Most Insightful Things Ever Said, Compiled by Jeff Bredenberg, Topic: The Human Condition, Quote Page 258, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)