Of Two Evils, Choose the Prettier

Carolyn Wells? Bruce Porter? Gelett Burgess? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following well-known adage concisely states a controversial moral principle:

Of two evils, choose the lesser.

I’ve heard these cynical variants:

  • Of two evils, choose the one you haven’t tried before.
  • Of two evils, a journalist will write about the one that gets the most clicks.
  • Of two evils, choose the prettier.

Would you please explore the history of the last statement?

Quote Investigator: In 1904 the popular and prolific writer and poet Carolyn Wells published a collection of short pieces called “Folly for the Wise”. A section titled “Maxioms” included these items. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Reward is its own virtue.
The wages of sin is alimony.
A penny saved spoils the broth.
Of two evils, choose the prettier.
Nonsense makes the heart grow fonder.
A word to the wise is a dangerous thing.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1904, Folly for the Wise by Carolyn Wells, Maxioms, Quote Page 50, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link

Every Dogma Has Its Day

Anthony Burgess? Israel Zangwill? Carolyn Wells? Merry-Andrew? Abraham Rotstein? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The proverb “Every dog has his day” is familiar to many, but recently I came across an amusing twist:

Every dogma has its day.

These words were credited to the English author Anthony Burgess who is probably best known for the novel “A Clockwork Orange”. Can you tell me when he said this?

Quote Investigator: Burgess did write about dogmas, but QI has not located this punning aphorism in the corpus of his works. As the questioner notes the wordplay is based on modifying the idiom “Every dog has its day” or “Every dog has his day”. This basic expression dates back to the 1500s according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it typically denotes that each person has a period of influence, success, power, opportunity, or good luck during his or her life.

Carolyn Wells, the author and composer of light verse, used a version of the saying by 1898. Israel Zangwill, the British playwright and humorist, also used the saying by 1898. Each of these individuals sometimes receives credit for the comical aphorism in modern times.

But the earliest evidence located by QI is dated 1865. The wording in the following passage from the London Review was different but the idea was nascent [LRPA]:

Mesmerism, electro-biology, clairvoyance, spirit-rapping, and the séances of those ingenious jugglers the brothers Davenport, have all been ostensibly based on some occult principle in physics of which the existence has been emphatically declared, but which no one has been able to explain. But every dog—not to say every dogma—has its day, and one by one the exponents of these mysterious doctrines, as well as the doctrines themselves pass into oblivion.

In 1873 an exact match for the phrase was printed in a newspaper and the words were attributed to an anonymous “merry-andrew”, i.e., a clown or comedian [DDMA]:

The manifest decadence of belief in certain “articles of faith” promulgated by churches has instigated a local merry-andrew to improve an old saying into “every dogma has its day.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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