George Bernard Shaw? Abba Eban? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular phrase used to criticize individuals and groups. Here are three examples:
Some politicians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
He never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity.
This group loses no chance to miss an opportunity.
Can you determine who originated this turn of phrase?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1922 when the diary of Sir Algernon West was published. The critical words were attributed to the prominent playwright and social commentator George Bernard Shaw, and they were aimed at Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery who was for a short time the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1
Bernard Shaw, in later years, described him as a man who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity, and W. Johnson, afterwards Cory the Eton master, said in a classical allusion that he wanted the palm without the dust.
The phrase “wanted the palm without the dust” referred to the desire to obtain victory without a major expenditure of effort. The excerpt above assessing Rosebery’s character was part of a section recounting events in 1892 but the date of the remark by Shaw was not precisely specified. Algernon West died in 1921.
When the volume containing the “Private Diaries of the Right Hon. Algernon West” was examined in the New York Times in October 1922 the reviewer found the shrewdly humorous remark about Rosebery distinctive enough to reprint: 2
Bernard Shaw, in later years, described him as a man who never missed an occasion of losing an opportunity…
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1922, Private Diaries of the Rt. Hon. Sir Algernon West, G.C.B. by Sir Algernon West, Edited by Horace G. Hutchinson, Chapter III: 1892: The General Election, Quote Page 35, E.P. Dutton and Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1922 October 1, New York Times, In Gladstone’s Cabinet, (Book Review of “Private Diaries of the Right Hon. Algernon West”), Start Page 50, Quote Page 50, New York. (ProQuest) ↩