What Has Posterity Ever Done for Us?

Groucho Marx? John Stuart Mill? Joseph Addison? Thomas Stafford? Boyle Roche? Adam Neale? Samuel Goldwyn? Bill Nye?

Dear Quote Investigator: Making sacrifices now for the people and environment of the future is difficult. This challenge has been encapsulated with a humorous remark. Here are two versions:

  • Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?
  • Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?

Groucho Marx often receives credit for this quip, but I have been unable to find a proper citation. Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx died in 1977, and an instance of this jest was ascribed to him near the end of his life in 1975, but the quip can be traced back to the 1700s.

A close variant appeared in “The Spectator” magazine in 1714. Joseph Addison and Richard Steele founded and operated the magazine, and both were significant literary and political figures. The passage below was reprinted in the works of Addison. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I know when a man talks of posterity in matters of this nature he is looked upon with an eye of ridicule by the cunning and selfish part of mankind. Most people are of the humour of an old fellow of a colledge, who when he was pressed by the society to come into something that might redound to the good of their successors, grew very peevish, We are always doing, says he, something for posterity, but I would fain see posterity do something for us.

Addison disclaimed credit for the joke which he attributed to an “old fellow of a colledge”. The most likely candidate is Oxford scholar Thomas Stafford.

The Oxford Historical Society has published material from the papers of Thomas Hearne, an English diarist and antiquarian. An entry dated February 27, 1722/3 stated that on that day a great bell was sounded at Magdalen College, Oxford to honor Thomas Stafford, Fellow of the College, who had died that morning. Hearne then presented an anecdote from Stafford’s past: 2

He was a Man that lov’d to get Money, but was, however, very kind to his poor Relations. There is this Story going of him, that some of the College talking once of doing something by way of Benevolence or Generosity, upon some publick Account, & he asking for what reason, it was answered, to do good to Posterity. Posterity, says the Dr., What good will Posterity do for us?

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What Has Posterity Ever Done for Us?

Notes:

  1. 1721, The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq; Volume 4 of 4, The Spectator, Number 583, Issue Year: 1714, Issue Date: “Friday, August 20”, Start Page 105, Quote Page 107, Printed for Jacob Tonson at Shakespear’s-Head, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907, Oxford Historical Society, Volume 50, Hearne’s Remarks and Collections: September 23, 1722 to August 9. 1725, Volume 8, Entry Date: February 27, 1722/3, Quote Page 50, Oxford Historical Society, Printed for the Society at Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Wagner’s Music Is Really Much Better Than It Sounds

Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Ambrose Bierce? Punch Magazine?

orchestra09Dear Quote Investigator: Richard Wagner was prominent German composer who created the landmark four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). A comically incongruous remark about his efforts has been attributed to two famous American humorists Mark Twain and Bill Nye:

Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.

Do you know who crafted this jibe?

Quote Investigator: The earliest partial match known to QI appeared in August 1887. Several newspapers such as “The Wichita Daily Beacon” 1 of Wichita, Kansas and “The Jackson Citizen Patriot” 2 of Jackson, Michigan printed a column called “Bill Nye’s Information Bureau”. The Wichita paper acknowledged “The New York World” as the initial source. The column began with a letter from “Truth Seeker” who posed several questions for Nye including the following:

What is the peculiarity of classical music, and how can one distinguish it?

Nye responded with a version of the quip that targeted a class of music instead of an individual composer. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

The peculiar characteristic of classical music is that it is really so much better than it sounds.

In November 1889 “The Indianapolis News” of Indianapolis, Indiana pointed to an unnamed Philadelphia paper while crediting Nye with a version of the joke targeting Wagner: 3

Says a Philadelphia newspaper: “Bill Nye on his recent visit to this city to lecture called upon a well-known music lover, and while there was asked to write in an autograph album. He did so, and among other things wrote the following: ‘Wagner’s music, I have been informed, is really much better than it sounds.'”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Wagner’s Music Is Really Much Better Than It Sounds

Notes:

  1. 1887 August 4, The Wichita Daily Beacon, His Information Bureau: Bill Nye Takes a Man into His Confidence and Educates Him (From the New York World), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Wichita, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1887 August 11, The Jackson Citizen Patriot, Bill Nye’s Bureau: He Takes a Stranger in and Educates Him, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Jackson, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1889 November 22, The Indianapolis News, “SCRAPS”, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

A Gold Mine Is a Hole in the Ground with a Liar at the Top

Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Mr. Walkup? Eli Perkin? Anonymous?

gold10Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, a business website published an article about investing in gold and mining equities. The columnist began with a very funny and facetious remark attributed to Mark Twain: 1

A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing on top of it.

The ascription was “unverified” according to the writer, and I have not been able find a convincing citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: For more than 130 years numerous variants of this quip have been circulating which makes it difficult to trace. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The Detroit Free Press” of Detroit, Michigan in 1881, and the text was rapidly disseminated via reprinting in several other newspapers such as the “New Haven Evening Register” of New Haven, Connecticut, “The Daily Inter Ocean” of Chicago, Illinois, and “The Wayne County Herald” of Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2 3 4 5

A mine is a hole in the ground. The discoverer of it is a natural liar. The hole in the ground and the liar combine and issue shares and trap fools.—Detroit Free Press.

The earliest instances of this family of jokes did not mention gold specifically; however, the cultural zeitgeist reflected a series of gold rushes that occurred during a multi-decade period.

Mark Twain’s name was not attached to the quip in its initial incarnations, but by 1896 he was being credited. As the phrasing evolved new versions were also ascribed to Twain. Since the famous humorist lived until 1910 it was conceivable that he employed the joke, but QI has found no direct evidence to support this linkage. For example, QI has been unable find an instance in important compilations like “Mark Twain Speaking” edited by Paul Fatout 6 and “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 7

Another prominent humorist named Bill Nye was linked to the quip in 1904, but that ascription was also poorly supported. In addition, a hodgepodge of little-known individuals has been connected to the jest over the years, but QI would label the originator anonymous.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Gold Mine Is a Hole in the Ground with a Liar at the Top

Notes:

  1. Website: Bloomberg View, Article title: Are Shares of Gold Miners a ‘Buy’?, Author: Barry Ritholtz, Date on website: July 16, 2015, Website description: Articles by commentators about business from the Bloomberg organization, (Accessed bloombergview.com on July 19, 2015) link
  2. 1881 November 9, Detroit Free Press, Currency, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1881 November 11, New Haven Evening Register, Don’t Care a Continental, Quote Page 2, Column 3, New Haven, Connecticut. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1881 November 30, The Daily Inter Ocean, Finance and Commerce, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Chicago, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1881 December 8, The Wayne County Herald, The Funny Men, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Honesdale, Pennsylvania. (Old Fulton)
  6. 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)