Thomas Friedman? Lawrence Summers? Jack Kemp? Bill Creech? Aircraft Maintenance Chief? Thomas Peters? Nancy Austin?
Dear Quote Investigator: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has used the following catch phrase several times:
No one washes a rented car.
I think this saying encapsulates an important idea. There is little incentive to wash or maintain a car that one does not own. For example, the renter does not benefit from the resale of the rental car. In fact, the renter may never see the car again. However, a person who owns something has a strong incentive to take care of it.
I searched through the New York Times archive and found that Thomas Friedman attributes the phrase to Lawrence Summers, an economist and former President of Harvard. Currently, Summers is Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council. But I think I originally heard the aphorism from a conservative, Jack Kemp who was a Congressman from New York. Could you investigate this quote?
Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that the originator of this adage was not an economist, politician, or businessman. The saying comes from an aircraft-maintenance crew chief, and it was popularized in a bestselling book in 1985.
Continue reading No One Washes a Rental Car
John Adams? Tobias Smollett? Alain-René Lesage?
Dear Quote Investigator: In class last year we studied the Boston Massacre and our history book said that John Adams, who later became the second President of the United States, defended the soldiers who shot and killed the protesters. During the defense Adams used the famous phrase:
Facts are stubborn things.
But when I looked up this phrase in an old copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations I found that someone named Tobias Smollett was credited. Further, Smollett used the phrase when he was translating a book that was written even earlier by a Frenchman. Can you investigate this?
Quote Investigator: The evidence indicates that John Adams did use the phrase; however, before he used it Tobias Smollett employed it. Further, the French author Alain-René Lesage wrote the book that Smollett translated. Intriguingly, QI has located an instance of the proverb that predates the usage by each of these three gentlemen.
Continue reading Facts Are Stubborn Things
Omar Bradley? Albert Einstein? Young Army Lieutenant? Walter Winchell? Joe Laitin? James W. Fulbright?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a great quotation about the type of weapons that will be used in World War IV. The words are both funny and chilling, and every time I have seen the saying it has been attributed to Albert Einstein. But while I was researching five-star generals I found a newspaper story from 1949 that gives credit to a famous World War II general [OMB]:
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Omar Bradley recently got involved in a discussion with the big shots of a midwestern city where he was making a speech. The group was arguing about future wars and how they would be fought.
One of the men said: “General, the newspapers tell us that World War III will be fought with atomic bombs, supersonic planes and a lot of new weapons. These are great strides, but how about World War IV? Is it possible to get any newer and fancier weapons than these?” “I can give you the exact answer to that question,” said General Bradley, “If we have World War III, then World War IV will be fought with bows and arrows.”
Do you think that Bradley is responsible for this sobering insight instead of Einstein?
Quote Investigator: A quotation on this theme is attributed to Albert Einstein in 1948 and 1949, and his words are listed further below. However, it is unlikely that Bradley or Einstein originated this compelling motif concerning World War 4 weapons. The evidence that QI has collected points to a Bikini origin.
Continue reading The Futuristic Weapons of WW3 Are Unknown, But WW4 Will Be Fought With Stones and Spears
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. An advertisement in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine grandly proclaimed that “Phrynette” was “The Most Talked-About Book in London Today” in July 1911.
In the following excerpt from “Phrynette Married” a character is reproved for wasting the time and energy of others:
“… 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
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
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
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
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”?
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
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
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. 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:
… 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