Quote Origin: If I Told You That You Have a Gorgeous Figure Would You Hold It Against Me?

Groucho Marx? David Bellamy? Max Miller? Monty Python? George Little? Barney Horrigan? Anonymous?

Picture of Auguste Rodin’s 1882 sculpture “The Kiss”

Question for Quote Investigator: In 1979 the Bellamy Brothers released a popular country music song with a humorous title:

If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me?

This line has been attributed to the famous comedian Groucho Marx, but I have not been able to find a solid citation. Also, I have heard the following variant based on the same word play:

Person 01: What would you do if someone criticized your figure?
Person 02: Oh, I wouldn’t hold it against them.

Would you please explore the provenance of this family of jokes?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Petroleum Engineer” magazine of Dallas, Texas in 1935. A miscellaneous collection of humorous items appeared together on a page under the title “Laugh With Barney” including the following dialog. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

He: What would you do if a fellow criticized your figure?
She: Oh, I wouldn’t hold it against him.

The compiler of the humor page was Barney Horrigan, but the creator of this specific wordplay was anonymous. QI hypothesizes that the one-liner which appeared by 1945 evolved from the dialog version of the jest.

Groucho Marx died in 1977, and QI has found no direct evidence that he employed a joke in this family. An instance was tentatively attributed to him in 1979.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1938 a newspaper in Sydney, Australia published a single-panel comic by George Little which depicted a man and a woman in bathing suits at the beach. The man addressed the woman, and she replied:2

“What would you do if I criticised your figure?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t hold it against you.”

In 1941 the English comedian Max Miller published a column in a London newspaper, and he included the quip:3

That girl was smart. I remember I said to her once, “What would you think if any chap criticised your figure.” “Well,” she said, “I wouldn’t hold it against him.”

In 1945 the students of Central Collegiate Institute in Calgary, Alberta published the yearbook “Analecta” which included a one-line version of the joke as a filler item:4

Oh! Hoh! — “Honey, if I told you that you had a lovely shape, would you hold it against me?”

In 1948 the widely distributed periodical “Reader’s Digest” printed an instance:5

Boy to beautiful girl, “If I told you that you have a gorgeous figure, would you hold it against me?”

In 1954 the dialog continued to circulate in the joke book “Extra Sextra Special”. The name Dr. Sinzee was wordplay on Dr. Kinsey:6

Dr. Sinzee: “What would you do if I criticized your figure?”
Model: “Oh, I wouldn’t hold it against you.”

In 1962 “The Berkshire Eagle” of Pittsfield, Massachusetts printed the following within an article about Valentine’s Day messages:7

If I said you have a beautiful figure would you hold it against me?

In 1970 a columnist in the “Detroit Free Press” of Michigan published a collection of graffiti recorded by correspondents which included these three items:8

Going Insane Is All In Your Mind.
If I Told You You Had A Good Body, Would You Hold It Against Me?
I Wish I Were Different Like Everyone Else.

The comedy troupe Monty Python’s Flying Circus used the line during a sketch about a transgressive Hungarian phrasebook within episode 25 which was broadcast by the BBC in 1970. A U.S. television listing in 1975 mentioned the line:9

Tonight’s weird doings involve the trial of Alexander Yahlt, who has published an English/Hungarian phrase-book which provides translations like “If I told you that you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me” for a simple request for matches.

In 1977 the “Encyclopedia of Ad-Libs, Crazy Jokes, Insults, and Wisecracks” printed instances of both versions of the joke:10

What would you do if I criticized your figure?
I would hold it against you.

If I ever told you you have a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?

In 1979 an article in “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania attributed the quip to Groucho Marx:11

In the grand tradition of the late Groucho Marx — who used to ask young women, “If I told you you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?” — we bring you Christopher Harris, who hugs total strangers for a living.

Also, in 1979 a newspaper in Florida published an article about the Bellamy Brothers. The songwriter David Bellamy tentatively credited the line to Groucho Marx:12

The most recent song, which played both popular and country-music stations, became a No. 1 single. Its title and hook was a line David had heard for years, perhaps a Groucho Marx line; David can’t remember — If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me?

In conclusion, this family of jokes has an anonymous origin. The earliest instance found by QI appeared in dialog form in 1935. The cartoonist George Little used the dialog in a one-panel comic in 1938. The English comedian used the dialog in an article in 1941. The one-liner appeared by 1945 without attribution. The ascription to Groucho appeared after his death and is unsupported.

Image Notes: Picture of Auguste Rodin’s 1882 marble sculpture “The Kiss”. This image is in the public domain. The image has been cropped and resized.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to linguist Ben Zimmer, quotation expert Nigel Rees, and music critic Tom Breihan whose writings on this topic led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Breihan mentioned the song by the Bellamy Brothers and the attribution to Groucho Marx. Zimmer located key early citations in 1945, 1948, and more. He also found the attribution to Groucho in 1979. Rees mentioned the dialog version of the joke, and he noted the attribution to Max Miller.

  1. 1935 July, The Petroleum Engineer, Volume 6, Number 11, Laugh With Barney, Edited by Barney Horrigan, Quote Page 91, The Petroleum Engineer Publishing Company, Dallas, Texas. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  2. 1938 February 7, The Daily Telegraph, Supplement: Daily Telegraph Home Magazine, Single-Panel Comic by George Little, Quote Page 16, Column 5, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  3. 1941 March 23, Sunday Dispatch, Max Miller by Max Miller, Quote Page 4, Column 7, London, England. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  4. 1945 June, Analecta, Volume 30, Number 1, Section: Advertisers, (Filler item), Quote Page 136, Column 2, Published by the students of Central Collegiate Institute, Calgary, Alberta. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  5. 1948 April, Reader’s Digest, Volume 52, Number 312, Spiced Tongue, Quote Page 128, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩︎
  6. 1954 Copyright, Extra Sextra Special: A Sintillating Sexcapade, At Arms Length, Unnumbered Page, Scylla Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  7. 1962 February 5, The Berkshire Eagle, Sentimental Valentines Making Comeback by Arthur Myers, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  8. 1970 June 1, Detroit Free Press, For Fire Prevention Week, Marry the Boss’ Daughter by Bob Talbert, Quote Page 9A, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  9. 1975 July 5, Streator Daily Times-Press, Section: TV Day, TV Listing for July 6th at 10:30PM, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Streator, Illinois. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  10. 1977, Encyclopedia of Ad-Libs, Crazy Jokes, Insults, and Wisecracks, Compiled by Leopold Fechtner, Part 2: Crazy Jokes, Topic: Zany Jokes, Quote Page 81 and 240, Parker Publishing Company, West Nyack, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  11. 1979 February 10, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Scene: In the nation and the world, Americana: Squeeze me, ma’am, Quote Page 3A, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  12. 1979 December 14, St. Petersburg Times, Singers pick farm over fast lanes by Robert Ely, Quote Page 3D, Column 1, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎

Quote Origin: Annihilation Has No Terrors For Me, Because I Have Already Tried It Before I Was Born

Mark Twain? Isaac Asimov? Vincent van Gogh? Harold S. Kushner? Harold S. Kushner? Apocryphal?

Illustration of a person who is searching from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A famous author once commented on the anxiety induced by the contemplation of mortality. Here are two versions:

(1) Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born—a hundred million years—and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life.

(2) I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

U.S. humorist Mark Twain has received credit for this remark. Would you please help me to locate a citation which presents the correct phrasing?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Mark Twain died in 1910, and his two volume autobiography appeared in 1924.1 The editor was Twain’s friend and literary executor Albert Bigelow Paine who followed the deceased man’s wishes by withholding material that might cause unhappiness or pain to surviving friends and family members.  

In 1958 Charles Neider who was working on a new edition of Twain’s autobiography published an article in “Harper’s Magazine” titled “Mark Twain Speaks Out”. The article contained controversial opinions that had been deliberately omitted from the 1924 edition of the autobiography. The material came from lengthy sessions of dictation Twain had engaged in during 1906 and 1907 when he was 72 years old. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:2

But I have long ago lost my belief in immortality—also my interest in it. I can say now what I could not say while alive—things which it would shock people to hear; things which I could not say when alive because I should be aware of that shock and would certainly spare myself the personal pain of inflicting it.

Twain offered an explanation for his lack of trepidation regarding his approaching demise:

Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born—a hundred million years—and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together.

There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume, when the opportunity comes.

In 1959 Charles Neider completed his editing of “The Autobiography of Mark Twain”, and he published the revised and expanded edition which included the material from the “Harper’s Magazine” article.3 Thus, Twain’s comments achieved further distribution.

The inquiry above contained two versions of the quotation; however, QI has only found evidence supporting the first version. The second version was attributed to Twain in a 2006 book by Richard Dawkins. QI conjectures that the second version was derived from a paraphrase of the first version, and it was not spoken or written by Twain.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Quote Origin: Books Are Made Out of Books

Cormac McCarthy? Richard B. Woodward? Henry Holland? Paul Valéry? Anonymous?

Illustration of books and flowers from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent literary figure was asked to name other influential writers. The sharp reply emphasized the interconnectedness of all cultural text:

The ugly fact is books are made out of books.

This statement has been ascribed to Cormac McCarthy who penned the novels “All the Pretty Horses”, “No Country for Old Men”, and “The Road”. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1992 “The New York Times” published a profile of Cormac McCarthy by critic and essayist Richard B. Woodward. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

McCarthy’s style owes much to Faulkner’s — in its recondite vocabulary, punctuation, portentous rhetoric, use of dialect and concrete sense of the world — a debt McCarthy doesn’t dispute. “The ugly fact is books are made out of books,” he says. “The novel depends for its life on the novels that have been written.”

His list of those whom he calls the “good writers” — Melville, Dostoyevsky, Faulkner — precludes anyone who doesn’t “deal with issues of life and death.”

The notion that some books are constructed out of other books has a long history. For example, in 1844 an article in “The Spectator” depicted the derivative nature of books negatively while extolling the value of empirical exploration:2

The practice discarded by philosophy is still continued in literature, more especially by versifiers and novelists. Most of their books are made out of books or brains, instead of by a close and repeated observation of nature, such as even the tyro in natural science undertakes, to verify received truth.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Quote Origin: There Is a Thin Line Between Genius and Insanity. I Have Erased That Line

Oscar Levant? Zsa Zsa Gabor? John Dryden? Colin Wilson? Apocryphal?

Illustration of thin lines from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A self-deprecating comedian once delivered an acerbic remark about insanity. Here are two versions:

(1) There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line.
(2) There is a fine line between sanity and insanity. I’ve managed to cross that line.

The concert pianist and game show panelist Oscar Levant has received credit for these statements. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match found by QI appeared in the 1959 book “International Celebrity Register” which contained hundreds of short biographical sketches of popular figures. The profile of Oscar Levant contained the following. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

If he is in rare moments loathsome, it may well be because there is some truth in his own theory: “There is a thin line between genius and insanity. I have erased that line.”

The second version of the quotation appeared in Oscar Levant’s 1965 book “The Memoirs of an Amnesiac” as detailed further below. Hence, there is evidence that he used both versions of the quip.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Quote Origin: The Cat Sat On the Mat Is Not a Story; the Cat Sat On the Dog’s Mat is the Beginning of an Exciting Story

John le Carré? Michael Dean? Austin Kleon? James Scott Bell? Apocryphal?

A cat and a dog look warily at one another from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A popular story requires tension, danger, and conflict. A top-selling author once summarized this viewpoint with an entertaining statement about animals:

“The cat sat on the mat” is not a story. “The cat sat on the dog’s mat” is a story.

This adage has been credited to John le Carré, the famous author of espionage thrillers. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: In 1974 Michael Dean of the BBC interviewed John le Carré (pen name of David Cornwell). The transcript appeared in “The Listener” magazine. Le Carré discussed his method for constructing plots. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

There is the other kind of book where you take one character, you take another character and you put them into collision, and the collision arrives because they have different appetites, and you begin to get the essence of drama.

The cat sat on the mat is not a story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat is the beginning of an exciting story, and out of that collision, perhaps, there comes a sense of retribution.

Le Carré made similar statements in multiple interviews during the ensuing years.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Quote Origin: Hell Begins On the Day When God Grants Us a Clear Vision of All That We Might Have Achieved

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Gian Carlo Menotti? John Greenleaf Whittier? Adelaide Anne Procter? Norman Cousins? Anonymous?

Illustration of an incomplete puzzle from Pixabay

Question for Quote Investigator: Looking back on one’s life sometimes produces a surge of regret for lost opportunities. Here are two versions of a statement expressing this feeling:

(1) Hell begins the day God grants you the vision to see all that you could have done, should have done, and would have done, but did not do.

(2) Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved . . . of all that we might have done which we did not do.

This notion has been attributed to the major German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but I have never seen a solid citation, and I am skeptical. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: QI has found no evidence that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe crafted this saying.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Saturday Review of Literature” which printed remarks delivered by Italian composer Gian Carlo Menotti at New York City’s Town Hall in March 1950. Menotti spoke about his conception of Hell. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all that we might have achieved, of all the gifts which we have wasted, of all that we might have done which we did not do.

The poet shall forever scream the poems which he never wrote; the painter will be forever obsessed by visions of the pictures which he did not paint . . .

Menotti summarized his viewpoint with the following line:

For me the conception of hell lies in two words: TOO LATE.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Quote Origin: Activism – It Pays the Rent on Being Alive and Being Here On the Planet

Alice Walker? Claudia Dreifus? Michael Franti? Alex Walker? Peter Noonan? Apocryphal?

Picture of a rental sign from Unsplash

Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent social activist was asked to explain the rationale underlying her sustained efforts. Here are two versions of the response:

(1) Activism is my rent for living on this planet.
(2) My activism pays the rent on being here on the planet.

This reply is usually attributed to Alice Walker who won the Pulitzer Prize for penning the novel “The Color Purple”. I do not know the precise phrasing. Would you please help me to find a solid citation.

Reply from Quote Investigator: In August 1989 Alice Walker was interviewed by Claudia Dreifus in “The Progressive” magazine. Dreifus asked Walker about her history of activism. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

Q: More than many writers, you are known as a political activist. What do you get from activism?

Walker: Well, it pays the rent on being alive and being here on the planet. There are things that you really owe, I feel. I think if I weren’t active politically, I would feel as if I were sitting back eating at the banquet without washing the dishes or preparing the food. It wouldn’t feel right to me.

The question and answer format made it difficult to present Walker’s statement as a self-contained quotation. Strictly speaking, the word “activism” was spoken by Dreifus and not by Walker. Nevertheless, “The Progressive” magazine credited Alice Walker with a streamlined version of her remarks on the page showing the table of contents:2

‘My activism pays the rent on being alive and being here on the planet. If I weren’t active politically, I would feel as if I were sitting back eating at the banquet without washing the dishes or preparing the food.’

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Quote Origin: They Said It Couldn’t Be Done, But the Fool Didn’t Know It, So the Fool Went Ahead and Did It

Albert Einstein? Mary O’Hara? Raymond S. Tompkins? B. P. Fullerton? E. V. Allen? Anonymous?

The Wright Flyer together with Orville and Wilbur Wright

Question for Quote Investigator: Persistent incorrect beliefs can be a major barrier to discovery and invention. A humorous adage reflects this viewpoint. Here are two versions:

(1) Everyone knew it was impossible, until a fool who didn’t know came along and did it.

(1) People said it couldn’t be done; but the fool didn’t know it, so he went ahead and did it.

This notion has been attributed to the famous physicist Albert Einstein and the popular novelist Mary O’Hara; however, I have never seen a proper citation, and I am skeptical. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Albert Einstein wrote or spoke this statement. It is not listed in the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press.1

Mary O’Hara did employ the saying in her 1941 novel “My Friend Flicka”, but the saying was already in circulation.

This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest match located by QI appeared in February 1919 as a banner on the top of the front page of “The McClain County News” of Blanchard, Oklahoma. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:2

They said it couldn’t be done, but the poor fool didn’t know it, so he went ahead and did it.–Co-op

QI believes that the saying was probably already in circulation, and the original creator remains anonymous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Quote Origin: Three Stages of Discovery: First, They Deny It Is True; Second, They Deny It Is Important; Third, They Deny It Is New

Alexander von Humboldt? Voltaire? Samuel Eliot Morison? Timothy Ferris? Bill Bryson? Apocryphal?

Depiction of Earth as seen from the moon

Question for Quote Investigator: Time is required for a society to fully comprehend and accept a major discovery. Resistance to a breakthrough occurs in a series of phases. Here are two versions of a cogent saying:

Three degrees of doubt: First, deny the discovery itself; Second, deny the importance; third, deny the novelty.

Three stages of discovery: first, people doubt its existence; second, they deny its importance; third, they credit someone else.

This saying has been attributed to German geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in an 1836 book by Alexander von Humboldt titled “Examen Critique de L’Histoire de La Géographie du Nouveau Continent” (“Critical Examination of the History of Geography of the New Continent”). This passage in French is followed by an English translation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

A toutes les époques d’une civilisation avancée, il en a été des découvertes géographiques comme des inventions dans les arts, et de ces grandes conceptions dans les lettres et les sciences, par lesquelles l’esprit humain tente de se frayer une route nouvelle; on nie d’abord la découverte même ou la justesse de la conception; plus tard on nie leur importance, enfin, leur nouveauté. Ce sont trois degrés d’un doute qui adoucit, du moins pour quelque temps, les chagrins causés par l’envie . . .

In all periods of an advanced civilization, there have been geographical discoveries as well as inventions in the arts, and these great conceptions in letters and sciences, by which the human mind attempts to forge a new path; we first deny the discovery itself or the accuracy of the conception; later we deny the importance, finally we deny the novelty. These are three degrees of doubt which soften, at least for a while, the sorrows caused by envy . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Quote Origin: Your Room Is Not Your Prison. You Are

Sylvia Plath? Karen V. Kukil? Ronald Hayman? Apocryphal?

Public domain illustration of a bell jar

Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent literary figure who was experiencing bouts of intense anxiety wrote about feelings of restriction. Here are two versions:

(1) Your room is not your prison. You are.
(2) It isn’t your room that’s a prison, it’s yourself.

This notion has been attributed to acclaimed U.S. poet and novelist Sylvia Plath. Are either of these statements genuine? Would you please help me to determine the correct phrasing and a citation?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Sylvia Plath kept journals for many years which she filled with her private thoughts. She recorded the fact that she had both contemplated and attempted suicide.

Plath attended Smith College from 1951 to 1955. The following passage from 1953 employed a tone of self-reproach. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

Stop thinking selfishly of razors & self-wounds & going out and ending it all. Your room is not your prison. You are. And Smith cannot cure you; no one has the power to cure you but yourself.

The excerpt above appeared in “The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962” edited by Karen V. Kukil published in 2000. The entry was written between June 19, 1953 and July 14, 1953.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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