Ideas, Like Ghosts . . . Must Be Spoken To a Little Before They Will Explain Themselves

Charles Dickens? Henry Southgate? Frank J. Wilstach? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular writer Charles Dickens vividly depicted the neighborhoods, lives, and habits of the disparate social classes of Victorian England. His rich language employed clever similes such as:

An idea, like a ghost, must be spoken to a little before it will explain itself.

In other words, an idea must be interrogated and pondered before it is understood. I have searched the writings of Dickens and cannot find this precise phrasing, but I am confident he wrote something similar. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Between 1846 and 1848 Charles Dickens published installments of the novel “Dealing’s with the Firm of Dombey and Son Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation”. Dickens portrayed the friendly character Mr. Toots as a person of limited intellect. The simile under examination was used by Dickens to signal that Toots was unable to understand the thoughts and motivations of the character Paul Dombey. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Ideas, like ghosts (according to the common notion of ghosts), must be spoken to a little before they will explain themselves; and Toots had long left off asking any questions of his own mind.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Ideas, Like Ghosts . . . Must Be Spoken To a Little Before They Will Explain Themselves


  1. 1847, Dealing’s with the Firm of Dombey and Son Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation, Volume 1 of 3, Chapter 12: Paul’s Education, Quote Page 207, Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link

There Are Hopes the Bloom of Whose Beauty Would Be Spoiled by the Trammels of Description

Charles Dickens? Ellen Pickering? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous English writer Charles Dickens has received credit for a high-flown expression that compares a person’s hopes to a beautiful bloom that should not be spoiled. I have been unable to find this saying in any of his novels, and I have begun to doubt that he crafted it. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1836 the popular English novelist Ellen Pickering published “The Merchant’s Daughter”. Within the book two characters, Lord Clanellon and Florence Lyle, engage in a complex layered dialog. The statement below from Clanellon suggests that he loves Lyle, but he hopes that she will signal her reciprocal feelings before he confirms his love. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“There are hopes the bloom of whose beauty would be spoiled by the trammels of description: too lovely, too delicate, too sacred for words, they should be only known through the sympathy of hearts!”

Florence looked silent amaze, though a faint glow came on her cheek, perhaps from his fixed gaze and a flickering consciousness.

Clanellon resumed.

“You do not ask me to explain this hope;—may I not then indulge in the delightful flattery that you understand it without words? that you feel it without explanation? that a sympathy with that hope has revealed its meaning?”

Eventually, Lyle makes clear that Clanellon’s amorous feelings would be unwelcome, and he pivots by indicating that he is not feeling love. Instead, he is simply experiencing happiness and hope; he knows she is also in a wild happy mood:

“I too felt in that same light and happy mood, and that to ask the cause of such a mood would be to mar its beauty.”

The first statement above written by Ellen Pickering has incorrectly been reassigned to Charles Dickens for many years. QI is uncertain how this reassignment occurred, but the discussion accompanying the 1884 citation given further below presents one speculation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Hopes the Bloom of Whose Beauty Would Be Spoiled by the Trammels of Description


  1. 1836, The Merchant’s Daughter by Ellen Pickering, Volume 1 of 3, Chapter 9, Quote Page 298, Richard Bentley, London, England. (HathiTrust) link

Life Is Just One Damn Thing After Another

Mark Twain? Lilian Bell? Elbert Hubbard? Frank Ward O’Malley? Bruce Calvert? H. L. Mencken? Charles Dickens? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement of exasperation and resignation has been attributed to the luminary Mark Twain, the aphorist Elbert Hubbard, and the journalist Frank Ward O’Malley:

Life is just one damn thing after another.

This situation is confusing. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong evidence appeared in 1909 when several instances were published in periodicals. In addition, a book titled “The Concentrations of Bee” by Lilian Bell included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Bob has a motto on his wall which says ‘Life is just one damned thing after another!'” said Jimmie. But I refused to smile. I was too distinctly annoyed.

The lead time for publishing a book has traditionally been lengthy; hence, Lilian Bell may have written her novel before 1909. Bell stated within the text that the adage was already being posted on walls.

On March 5, 1909 “The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader” of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania printed the small filler item shown below. 2 This was the earliest instance known to QI with a complete date; it was located by top researcher Bill Mullins, and it was included in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”: 3

During the following weeks, months, and years the popular saying was widely disseminated. In December 1909 Elbert Hubbard printed the expression without attribution in a journal he was editing called “The Philistine”. In March 1910 a man named Bruce Calvert was credited with the saying. In 1919 the prominent cultural commentator H. L. Mencken ascribed the phrase to Mark Twain. After the death of Frank Ward O’Malley in 1932 some obituary notices credited him with the saying. In 1942 Mencken reconsidered his judgement and linked the saying to both O’Malley and Hubbard. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Life Is Just One Damn Thing After Another


  1. 1909, The Concentrations of Bee by Lilian Bell, Quote Page 241, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1909 March 5, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 144, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

Electric Communication Will Never Be a Substitute for the Face of Someone Who with Their Soul Encourages

Charles Dickens? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: In a book on corporate communications I read a quote that supposedly was said by Dickens: 1

Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.
Charles Dickens

I find this quote hard to believe. Naturally,  email and twitter did not exist in the time of Dickens, but even the telephone wasn’t deployed. Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone in 1876 and Dickens died in 1870.

Quote Investigator: Your skepticism is understandable and the quotation you provide has been modified; however, it is based on a passage in a work by Charles Dickens entitled “The Wreck of the Golden Mary”. A character in the story is commenting on communication via electric telegraph within a ship during a time of great peril and says the following. Boldface has been added: 2

O! what a thing it is, in a time of danger, and in the presence of death, the shining of a face upon a face!  I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph.  I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us.  But, it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true.  Never try it for that.  It will break down like a straw.

This quotation has been altered to obtain the shorter version that you give. Only one sentence from the story has been extracted for the quote. The pronoun referring to the telegraph has been removed, and the generic term “electric communication” has been substituted. Also, the male referents have been changed to genderless referents.

In conclusion, substantial changes have been made to the original text to yield the widely-distributed single sentence quotation in its modern form. The dramatic life-or-death context has been excised.

Yet, it is true that the words of Dickens did reflect skepticism toward substituting the telegraph for face-to-face contact in crucial situations.

Update History: On April 8, 2014 the style of the bibliographic notes was updated to numerical form.


  1. 2007, Essentials of Corporate Communication by C. B. M. van Riel and Charles J. Fombrun, Page 181, Routledge. (Google Books limited view) link
  2. 1856 December 6, Household Words (Extra Christmas Number), The Wreck of the Golden Mary, Page 10, Column 2, Bradley and Evans. (Google Books full view) link