A Verbal Contract Isn’t Worth the Paper It’s Written On

Samuel Goldwyn? Bryan O’Loghlen? Boyle Roche? Ed Wynn? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A contract that is written and signed is easier to comprehend and enforce. But many people rely on unwritten promises. The following cautionary humorous remark is attributed to the famous movie producer Samuel Goldwyn:

A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Similar expressions replace “verbal” with “oral”. Also, some instances use “agreement” instead of “contract”. Here is an example:

An oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.

Is this an authentic Goldwynism?

Quote Investigator: The use of the word “verbal” in this quotation may be confusing to some readers. Strictly speaking a “verbal contract” would simply be a contract expressed in words, but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recorded another common meaning for “verbal”:

Verbal adj. Sense 4 a: Expressed or conveyed by speech instead of writing; stated or delivered by word of mouth; oral.

The OED presented a first citation dated 1617 indicating that this sense has been present in English for a very long time.

In 1937 the short biography “The Great Goldwyn” attributed this saying to Samuel Goldwyn, and in 1956 a denial from Goldwyn was printed. These two citations are detailed further below. Interestingly, the quip was already in circulation decades before the 1937 volume was published.

In June 1890 “The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal” printed an instance of the joke ascribed to an Australian/Irish politician named Bryan O’Loghlen. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In the adjoining colony of Victoria, Sir Bryan O’Loghlen, M.P., who has a national right to indulge in this sort of thing, gravely told the Supreme Court that “a verbal agreement is not worth the paper it’s written on.”

In September 1890 the “Rocky Mountain News” of Denver, Colorado published a version of the quip credited to “Pat”. The archetypal name and dialectical speech signaled that the speaker was Irish. In the following passage “indade” was “indeed”, “wid” was “with”, and “razon” was “reason”. The periodical “Texas Siftings” was acknowledged: 2

It was verbal: Lawyer—Have you got a verbal contract with him? Pat:—Indade I have, but I didn’t bring it wid me, for the razon that I don’t believe it’s worth the paper it’s written on.—Texas Siftings.

The text immediately above was reprinted in other newspapers. For example, in 1893 it appeared in a section called “Smiles” of the “Northern Christian Advocate” newspaper of Syracuse, New York. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1890 June 14, The Irish Law Times and Solicitors’ Journal, (Untitled short note), Quote Page 320, Column 1, John Falconer, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1890 September 12, Rocky Mountain News, Random Selections, Quote Page 5, Column 4, Denver, Colorado. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1893 December 6, Northern Christian Advocate, Smiles, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Syracuse, New York. (GenealogyBank)

I Don’t Want To Be the Richest Man in the Cemetery

Steve Jobs? Colonel Harland Sanders? Ed Wynn? The Sportsmen? Skeets Gallagher? Clifford Odets?

Dear Quote Investigator: Steve Jobs was the most fascinating entrepreneur and business leader of modern times in my opinion. Several of his quotations were reprinted in articles after his death at the early age of 56. This one captured my interest [SJWJ]:

Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.

Did Jobs originate the expression in the first sentence or have other wealthy people used this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this general expression located by QI was published in an interview in January 1932 with Ed Wynn who was a very popular comedian. He became wealthy performing in multiple venues: vaudeville, Broadway, radio, and films. He also lost most of his money in a business reversal before his earnings made him prosperous again. In 1932 he spoke of his life philosophy [EWBG]:

“I have no ambition to be the wealthiest man in the cemetery,” he said. “And that, my boy, is the most brilliant thing I ever said. It is worthy of a greater brain than mine.”

“I made and lost four million before I found I needed only one to be happy.”

This turn of phrase impressed the Boston Globe headline writer who incorporated it in the article title “Ed Wynn Doesn’t Yearn to Be Wealthiest Man in Cemetery”. Note, Wynn used the word “wealthiest”, but he was later quoted using the synonym “richest” that is more common in the modern versions of the saying.

The phrase was used by silent film star Douglas MacLean, playwright Clifford Odets, actor Skeets Gallagher, KFC entrepreneur Colonel Harland Sanders, and others in later years. It even appeared in the title of a song in 1948 according to Billboard magazine. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Don’t Want To Be the Richest Man in the Cemetery

Quiz Question: Who Is Buried in Grant’s Tomb? Answer: Grant!

Groucho Marx? Ed Wynn? Jimtown Weekly? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx was the host of a quiz show called “You Bet Your Life” during the 1940s and 50s. Sometimes when a contestant did poorly Groucho would ask an easy question so that the person could win a prize or some money. For example:

Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

This question refers to the mausoleum in New York City that contains the remains of Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. The simple answer that Groucho expected to hear was “Grant”, and this allowed him to award a prize. Was Groucho the original creator of this absurdist question?

Quote Investigator: This query was explored by the New York Times journalist Michael Pollak in an article that was part of an ongoing series answering questions about the megacity New York [NYGT]. Top researcher Barry Popik and QI were able to help Pollak respond successfully to this query, and he kindly acknowledged our aid.

The earliest evidence of this humorous question appeared in a syndicated newspaper column by the comedian and actor Ed Wynn who often used the persona of “The Perfect Fool”. In September 1925 the column “Ed Wynn’s Question Box: He Knows All – He Sees All” printed several interrogatives with a comic edge. Here are three of them [EWGT]:

Do you know that a female “moth” is called a “myth?”

Do you know where your lap goes to when you stand up?

Do you know the name of the general who is buried in Grant’s tomb? If you don’t know, ask me.

This version of the Grant query even includes a hint that the answer is a general. The show “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho started broadcasting in the 1940s, so the joke was not constructed for that show. Here are additional selected citations.

Continue reading Quiz Question: Who Is Buried in Grant’s Tomb? Answer: Grant!