Josh Billings? Josh Weathersby? Cal Stewart? Ring Lardner? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Individuals who complain often receive the most attention. There is a popular analogy about squeaky wheels that I think has been incorrectly attributed to the humorist Josh Billings who was a famous lecturer in the 1800s. (Billings was the pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw.) Here are three versions of the maxim:
The wheel that squeaks the loudest is the one that gets the grease.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
The squeaky wheel gets the oil.
Some reference works credit Josh Billings, but none of these works present a solid citation. Would you please attempt to uncover the truth about the provenance of this adage?
Quote Investigator: Some books have suggested that the maxim appeared in a poem called “The Kicker” that was supposedly composed by Josh Billings circa 1870. But the careful and scholarly reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” remarked that the existence of “The Kicker” by Billings has never been verified. 1 Indeed, QI believes that the attribution to Billings is unsupported.
The earliest appearance of this expression located by QI occurred in a collection of stories published in 1903. The author Cal Stewart constructed a colorful raconteur character that he called Uncle Josh Weathersby. The saying under investigation was contained in an epigraph that was ascribed to this character: 2
“I don’t believe in kickin’,
It aint apt to bring one peace;
But the wheel what squeaks the loudest
is the one what gets the grease.”
The word “kickin” was a slang term that referred to complaining or causing a disturbance..
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Josh Billings, Quote Page 85, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1903, Uncle Josh Weathersby’s “Punkin Centre” stories by Cal Stewart, Page 6, Regan Printing House, Chicago. (Google Books full view; also HathiTrust) link ↩