Time You Enjoy Wasting is Not Wasted Time

John Lennon? Bertrand Russell? Laurence J. Peter? Marthe Troly-Curtin?

Dear Quote Investigator: I like to enjoy life and sometimes I am criticized for spending too much time on amusements and diversions. My favorite response is attributed to the legendary free-spirit John Lennon:

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

An acquaintance told me recently that the saying is actually from the brilliant philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell. It is clear that you enjoy tracing quotations, so could you please look into this one? I am certain you will not be wasting your time.

Quote Investigator: In addition to John Lennon and Bertrand Russell, the saying has been attributed to T. S. Elliot, Soren Kierkegaard, Laurence J. Peter, and others. The attribution to Russell was a mistake that was caused by the misreading of an entry in a quotation book compiled by Peter. The details of this error are given further below in this post.

The first instance of the phrase located by QI was published in 1912, a year that occurred before Laurence J. Peter and John Lennon were born. The expression appeared in the book “Phrynette Married” by Marthe Troly-Curtin. This novel was part of a series by Troly-Curtin that began with “Phrynette” in 1911. The image to the left is the frontispiece of this earlier novel. 1 An advertisement in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine grandly proclaimed that “Phrynette” was “The Most Talked-About Book in London Today” in July 1911. 2

In the following excerpt from “Phrynette Married” a character is reproved for wasting the time and energy of others: 3 4

“… Your father, for instance, don’t you think he would have done three times as much work if it had not been for your—what shall I say—’bringing up’?”
“He liked it—time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
“Oh, but it was in his case—wasted for him and for many lovers of art.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Time You Enjoy Wasting is Not Wasted Time

Notes:

  1. 1911, Phrynette‎ by Marthe Troly-Curtin, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. July 1911, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Section: Lippincott’s Magazine Advertiser: [Advertisement for Phrynette by Marthe Troly-Curtin], Page not numbered, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. (HathiTrust) link  link
  3. 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Grant Richards Ltd, London; Riverside Press, Edinburgh. (Google Books snippet view) (Thanks to Eric at the Stanford University Information Center for verification of the text on paper) link
  4. 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Published by The Macmillan Company of Canada, Toronto, Canada. (Note that a flaw is present in the digital image of the microfilm image of page 256; some words are repeated)(Internet Archive archive.org; digitized from University of Alberta Libraries Microfilm; accessed December 3, 2013) link

Three Weeks to Prepare a Good Impromptu Speech

Mark Twain? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have to present a speech soon, and I would like to use a quotation attributed to Mark Twain:

It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.

The intended audience has the background to know that impromptu means without planning or preparation, and the quip should cause a chuckle. But reading this blog makes me wonder if Twain really invented this joke. It is listed on several of the quotation websites. Could you investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no evidence that the exact quote you gave above is authentic; however, Twain did make several similar pertinent remarks. For example, in 1879 Twain said the following. Details are given further below.

I … never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.

Continue reading Three Weeks to Prepare a Good Impromptu Speech

Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Abraham Lincoln? Ambrose Burnside? Charles Fair?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the worst military strategists in history was a Civil War general named Ambrose Burnside (sideburns are named after his whiskers). After a military fiasco called the Battle of the Crater, Abraham Lincoln relieved him of command and supposedly said:

Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.

The phrase “defeat from the jaws of victory” might be a cliché now, but I think Lincoln was one of the first to use it in this powerful quotation. Unfortunately, I am having trouble finding any solid references to this quote from before the 1970s. Can you tell me where I can find it in a Civil War newspaper, or a diary, or some other document from the era?

Quote Investigator: You have stumbled upon a Lincoln legend based on a false quotation. A fascinating newspaper article from 1971 states that the saying began as a mistake on the cover of the book “From the Jaws of Victory” by Charles Fair [LCF]:

Continue reading Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

All Creative-Writing Programs Ought to be Abolished by Law

Kay Boyle? John Barth? Cormac McCarthy? Louis Menand?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been reading about creative writing programs because I am seriously considering attending one. Recently, I encountered a quotation from the writer and educator Kay Boyle which stunned me. Her comment appeared in an article in The New Yorker magazine titled “Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught?” by Louis Menand. Boyle’s remark was extravagantly, almost comically, negative [KBNY1]:

Kay Boyle once published a piece arguing that “all creative-writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” She taught creative writing for sixteen years at San Francisco State.

I was disappointed to see someone who was long-time teacher of writing harshly attack the discipline. I tried to locate this quotation, so I could learn more about her perspective, but I could not find it. Is this quote accurate? Could you help me locate it if it exists?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI can help you. Kay Boyle did not say the words between the quotation marks. Hence, tracing this quote is problematic. Despite obstacles QI did succeed in this investigation. Proponents of creative-writing programs will not be pleased with the comment that Boyle actually did make because it is very similar.

Continue reading All Creative-Writing Programs Ought to be Abolished by Law

The Politics of Personal Destruction

Bill Clinton? John Quincy Adams?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reading the news and blogs of today emphasizes the fact that political discourse can be extremely brutal. I was reminded of Bill Clinton’s lament when he discussed his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and said there was a harsh new form of politics based on personal destruction. I know that politics has always been rough, but the politics of recent decades seems different. Was Clinton the first to mention the politics of “personal destruction”?
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Quote Investigator: No, Clinton was not the first. That exact term was used more than two-hundred years ago about the arduous ordeal of another politician.

Continue reading The Politics of Personal Destruction

Go for a Business that Any Idiot Can Run

Warren Buffett? Peter Lynch?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 2008 I read an interview with the super-investor Warren Buffett in which he said you should put your money into a company that can be run by an idiot because eventually it will be run by an idiot. But that advice sounded familiar to me. Did someone offer this recommendation before Buffett?

Quote Investigator: You are correct that similar advice antedates the 2008 comment from Buffett; however, Buffett was not asserting originality. He credited the idea to a generic speaker identified as: “they”.

Continue reading Go for a Business that Any Idiot Can Run

Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled

Mark Twain? William Gladstone? The Allens? Harry Leon Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love to play golf, but sometimes when I am playing poorly I am tempted to simply walk the course and get some exercise. When I mentioned this to a friend he told me that Mark Twain said: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” This sounds like Twain to me, but did he really say it?

Quote Investigator: No, Mark Twain was probably not responsible for this barb. The earliest attribution to Twain located by QI appeared in “The Saturday Evening Post” of August 1948. 1 But Twain died in 1910, so this is a suspiciously late citation with minimal credibility.

The earliest appearance of the quip that QI has discovered was in a 1903 book about lawn tennis. The players of this sport are the traditional adversaries of golfers in the field of recreation. Individual chapters of this book were written by different authors. The author of the second chapter, H. S. Scrivener, attributed the saying to fellow players named the Allens. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

… my good friends the Allens … one of the best of their many excellent dicta is that “to play golf is to spoil an otherwise enjoyable walk.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled

Notes:

  1. 1948 August 28, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 221, Issue 9, Golf’s Own Home Town by Allan A. Michie, Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Ebsco)
  2. 1903, Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad edited by Arthur Wallis Myers (second chapter by H. S. Scrivener), Page 47, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

Albert Einstein? William Bruce Cameron? Hilliard Jason? Stephen Ross? Lord Platt? George Pickering?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained a few quotations that are often attributed to Albert Einstein. I think the following saying is very insightful:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

If I use this quotation should I credit it to Einstein?

Quote Investigator: QI suggests crediting William Bruce Cameron instead of Albert Einstein. Cameron’s 1963 text “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking” contained the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

There are several books that attribute the quote to Cameron and cite this 1963 book. QI was unable to find earlier instances of the saying. Researcher John Baker identified this citation.

This maxim consists of two parallel and contrasting phrases:

Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.

The position of the two key terms “counted” and “counts” is reversed in the two different phrases. This rhetorical technique is referred to as chiasmus or antimetabole. QI hypothesizes that the two phrases were crafted separately and then at a later time combined by Cameron to yield the witty and memorable maxim.

When was the connection with Albert Einstein established? The earliest relevant cite that QI could find was dated 1986, however, this is more than thirty years after the death of Einstein in 1955. Thus, the evidence is weak, and the link to Einstein is not solidly supported. The details for this citation are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

Notes:

  1. 1963, Informal Sociology, a casual introduction to sociological thinking by William Bruce Cameron, Page 13, Random House, New York. (Google Books snippet view) (Checked on paper: Fifth printing, January 1967; Copyright 1963) link

Want a Friend in Washington, Get a Dog

Harry Truman? Samuel Gallu? Gordon Gekko?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love dogs and live near Washington D.C. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to former President Harry Truman who experienced some bruising political battles and said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” Could you please investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: That is an enjoyable quote that appeals to the multitude of dog fanciers. But, it is very unlikely that it was said by Harry Truman. Further below the origin of the saying is discussed, but first a comment about the fate of a dog named Feller is instructive. The dog was given to Truman while he was in the White House and a contemporary newspaper account in 1948 describes what happened [TRD1]:

Continue reading Want a Friend in Washington, Get a Dog

A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic

Joseph Stalin? Leonard Lyons? Beilby Porteus? Kurt Tucholsky? Erich Maria Remarque?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a vivid statement that typifies a heartless attitude toward human mortality:

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

These words are often attributed to the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, but I have not found a precise citation for this harsh expression. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI linking this saying to Joseph Stalin was published in 1947 by the popular syndicated newspaper columnist Leonard Lyons in “The Washington Post”. The ellipsis in the following passage was in the original text. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In the days when Stalin was Commissar of Munitions, a meeting was held of the highest ranking Commissars, and the principal matter for discussion was the famine then prevalent in the Ukraine. One official arose and made a speech about this tragedy — the tragedy of having millions of people dying of hunger. He began to enumerate death figures … Stalin interrupted him to say: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.”

QI does not know what source Lyons used to obtain the details of this noteworthy scene and quotation. Without additional corroborative evidence or an explanation QI believes that this citation provides weak support for the ascription to Stalin. Perhaps future researchers will locate further relevant evidence.

There are several interesting precursors that illustrate the possible evolution of this expression, and additional selected citations are presented below in chronological order. The family of sayings examined here is variegated, and the denotations are often distinct, but QI believes that grouping them together is illuminating.

Continue reading A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic

Notes:

  1. 1947 January 30, Washington Post, Loose-Leaf Notebook by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)