The Next Best Thing To Being Witty One’s Self, Is To Be Able To Quote Another’s Wit

Christian Nestell Bovee? Evan Esar? Laurence J. Peter?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once heard an observation that cogently explained the popularity of quotations. I do not recall the precise phrasing, but it was something like this:

If you are unable to be witty yourself, the next best thing is being able to quote another’s wit.

Would you please determine the name of the originator and the correct phrasing?

Quote Investigator: In 1862 Christian Nestell Bovee published a two volume compilation titled “Intuitions and Summaries of Thought”. Bovee worked hard throughout his life to construct epigrams and memorable passages. His work included a section about the benefits of employing quotations. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At all events, the next best thing to being witty one’s self, is to be able to quote another’s wit. He presents me with what is always an acceptable gift who brings me news of a great thought before unknown. He enriches me without impoverishing himself.

The judicious quoter, too, helps on what is much needed in the world, a freer circulation of good thoughts, pure feelings, and pleasant fancies. Luminous quotations, also, atone, by their interest, for the dulness of an inferior book, and add to the value of a superior work by the variety which they lend to its style and treatment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Next Best Thing To Being Witty One’s Self, Is To Be Able To Quote Another’s Wit

Notes:

  1. 1862, Intuitions and Summaries of Thought by C. N. Bovee (Christian Nestell Bovee), Volume 2 of 2, Chapter: Questions and Answers: Quoters and Quoting, Quote Page 124 and 125, William Veazie, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Education Is What You Get from Reading the Small Print in a Contract. Experience Is What You Get from Not Reading It

Pete Seeger? Vesta M. Kelly? Mr. Minnick the Cynic? Old Timer? Bill Gold? Evan Esar? Saul Lavisky? Laurence J. Peter? Sydney J. Harris? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comprehending the details of a complex legal contract is a daunting task. Yet, entrapment by an unnoticed provision of an agreement is a terrible experience. Here is a pertinent saying:

Education is what you get from reading the small print. Experience is what you get from not reading it.

This saying has been attributed to folk singer activist Pete Seeger. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip can be expressed in many ways; hence, it is difficult to trace. The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Wall Street Journal” within the long-running humor column called “Pepper and Salt” in February 1961. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Candid Comment
People may get an education from reading the fine print, but what they get from not reading it is usually experience.— Vesta M. Kelly.

Currently, Vesta M. Kelly is the leading candidate for originator of this joke. Pete Seeger did use the expression during an interview published in October 1979. See the citation given further below:

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Education Is What You Get from Reading the Small Print in a Contract. Experience Is What You Get from Not Reading It

Notes:

  1. 1961 February 14, The Wall Street Journal, Pepper and Salt, Quote Page 12, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)

Success Comes In Cans. I Can, You Can, We Can

A. K. Karlson? High School Motto? Evan Esar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The word “can” designates the ability to accomplish a task. “Can” also specifies a container. I recall the following wordplay-based inspirational maxims:

  • Success comes in cans, failure in can’ts.
  • Success comes in cans—I can, you can, we can.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut in 1907. No attribution was specified for this anonymous adage: 1

MAXIM
For November 2nd.
SUCCESS COMES IN CANS. FAILURE IN CAN’TS.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Success Comes In Cans. I Can, You Can, We Can

Notes:

  1. 1907 November 2, The Hartford Courant, (Advertisement for insurance from The Mutual Benefit Company), Quote Page 08, Column 7, Hartford, Connecticut. (Newspapers_com)

You Cannot Control the Length of Your Life, But You Can Control Its Width and Depth.

Evan Esar? H. L. Mencken? Exchange? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The key to achieving equanimity and contentment in life is accurately assessing what is within your control and what is beyond your control. The following figurative adage is instructive:

You can’t do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth.

These words have been ascribed to quotation collector Evan Esar and acerbic pundit H. L. Mencken. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Evan Esar did include this saying in a collection he published in 1968, but it was already in circulation, and he did not craft it. H. L. Mencken did receive credit for the statement by the 1980s, but he died in 1956, and there is no substantive evidence that he coined it.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in a California newspaper in 1924 which acknowledged the journal “Exchange”. The elaborate saying contained ten parts. The first nine parts were implicitly prefaced with the phrase “You cannot control”. Below are the first three parts together with the final part. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

YOU CANNOT CONTROL
The length of your life, but you can control its width and depth.
The contour of your countenance, but you can control its expression.
The other fellow’s opportunities, but you can grasp your own.
. . .
Why worry about things you can’t control? Get busy controlling the things that you can.—Exchange.

QI has not yet determined the issue of “Exchange” containing this saying. Nor has QI determined the identity of the creator. Thus, for now, the quotation remains anonymous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Cannot Control the Length of Your Life, But You Can Control Its Width and Depth.

Notes:

  1. 1924 August 14, Visalia Morning Delta, Contemporaneous Opinions: You Cannot Control, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Visalia, California. (Newspapers_com)

A Dramatic Critic Is a Guy Who Surprises the Playwright by Informing Him What He Meant

Creator: Wilson Mizner, playwright, entrepreneur, adventurer

Context: Mizner died in 1933. A biography of his colorful life appeared in 1935 called “The Fabulous Wilson Mizner” by Edward Dean Sullivan. The chapter “Miznerisms” was dedicated to his witticisms. Here were three. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

I am a stylist—and the most beautiful sentence I have ever heard is: “Have one on the house.”

A dramatic critic is a guy who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.

I’ve known countless people who were reservoirs of learning yet never had a thought.

In 1949 Evan Esar, the industrious collector of sayings, placed a slightly modified version in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”. The words “dramatic” and “guy” were changed to “drama” and “person”: 2

MIZNER, Wilson, 1876-1933, American dramatist, bon vivant, and wit.
A drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.

In 1989 “Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter” printed another version of the quip: 3

Critic: A person who surprises an author by informing him what he meant.
Wilson Mizner

Nowadays, it is commonplace to find critics who claim superior knowledge or insight when disagreeing with the creator of an artwork.

Notes:

  1. 1935, The Fabulous Wilson Mizner by Edward Dean Sullivan, Chapter 17: Miznerisms, Quote Page 270, The Henkle Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Wilson Mizner, Quote Page 145, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on hardcopy in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  3. 1989, Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter: The greatest jokes, one-liners, bloopers, and stories for everyone who loves to laugh by Leo Rosten (Leo Calvin Rosten), Topic: Criticism, Quote Page 124, Bonanza Books, New York. (Verified with scans)

I Don’t Believe in Astrology; I’m a Sagittarian and We’re Skeptical

Arthur C. Clarke? Bob Thaves? Evan Esar? Jonah Peretti? Paul Heskett? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was once asked whether he believed in astrology, and he gave a facetious self-contradictory answer. I have not been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence linking the quip to Clarke known to QI appeared in the April 1997 issue of the U.K. magazine “Astronomy Now”. A letter from Paul Heskett of Somerset, England sympathetically suggested that astrology addressed social needs that were not treated by astronomy. Heskett stated that he heard the remark from Clarke. The variant spelling “sceptical” for “skeptical” was used in the magazine. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

This is a point that all of us would do well to bear in mind; as perhaps, is that made by Arthur Clarke when he told me “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarian and we’re sceptical.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading I Don’t Believe in Astrology; I’m a Sagittarian and We’re Skeptical

Notes:

  1. 1997 April, Astronomy Now, Volume 11, Number 4, Section: Your Views, (Letter from Paul Heskett, Somerset, England), Quote Page 10, Column 1, Intra Press, London. (Now published by Pole Star, Tonbridge, Kent) (Verified with scans; thanks to Space Telescope Science Institute Library, Baltimore, Maryland)

What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?

Napoléon Bonaparte? Voltaire? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Claude Adrien Helvétius? Wendell Phillips? Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular skeptical viewpoint about history can be expressed in a few different ways:

1) What is history but a fable agreed upon?
2) History is a set of lies agreed upon.
3) History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.

These cynical adages have been linked to several major figures including: the military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte, the French philosopher and firebrand Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet), and the author and wit Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI appeared in a 1724 essay about historiography titled “L’Origine des Fables” (“Of the Origin of Fables”) by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. The French excerpt below from a 1728 collection is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added: 1 2

A quel dessein nous l’auroit-on donné pour faux? Quel auroit été cet amour des hommes pour des faussetés manifestes & ridicules, & pourquoi ne dureroit-il plus? Car les Fables des Grecs n’étoient pas comme nos Romans qu’on nous donne pour ce qu’ils sont, & non pas pour des Histoires; il n’y a point d’autres Histoires anciennes que les Fables.

Why would they have bequeathed us a mass of falsehoods? What could this love of men for manifest and ridiculous falsehood, have been, and why did it not last longer? For the Greek fables were not like our novels, which are intended as stories and not as histories; there are no ancient histories other than these fables.

Fontenelle’s comment above provided only a partial match to the saying under examination. He was referring to ancient history and not all history. Nevertheless, prominent figures such as the French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius and Voltaire ascribed the adage to Fontenelle. Perhaps Fontenelle wrote or spoke an expression that provided a closer match elsewhere, but QI has not yet located it.

Many years later Napoléon Bonaparte used an instance of the saying, but he disclaimed credit. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson also used an instance, but he credited Napoléon. The well-known orator Wendell Phillips employed a version with the word “lies” in 1881. Detailed illustrations for these assertions are given in the chronological citations below.

QI thanks previous researchers on this topic including Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, Professor William C. Waterhouse, and Barry Popik.

Continue reading What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?

Notes:

  1. 1728, Oeuvres Diverses by M. De de Fontenelle, (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Volume 1, De L’Origine des Fables, Start Page 329, Quote Page 329, A La Haye, Chez Gosse & Neaulme. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1961, French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, Selected and edited by Leonard M. Marsak (Leonard Mendes Marsak), The Origin of Myths by Bernard de Fontenelle, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Meridian Books: The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (Verified on paper)

Money Can’t Buy Love, But It Improves Your Bargaining Position

Christopher Marlowe? Laurence J. Peter? Evan Esar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Christopher Marlowe was a brilliant poet and dramatist of the 1500s whose works influenced the luminary William Shakespeare. I was astonished to find the following statement attributed to him:

Money can’t buy love, but it improves your bargaining position.

In my opinion, this expression is not from the 1500s and crediting Marlowe is nonsensical. Nevertheless, many websites dedicated to quotations present this dubious ascription. Would you please explore this quotation? Perhaps you could uncover the source of this inanity.

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the twentieth century and not the sixteenth. In 1954 a newspaper in Iowa printed an instance of the saying in a humor column. The phrasing differed somewhat from the common modern expression, and no attribution was given: 1

Money cannot buy love, but it places one in an excellent bargaining position.

QI believes that the flawed attribution to Christopher Marlowe originated with the misreading of an influential book of quotations that was compiled by Laurence J. Peter and published in 1977. The details of this citation are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Money Can’t Buy Love, But It Improves Your Bargaining Position

Notes:

  1. 1954 March 18, The Elgin Echo, Rich’s “Pipe Dreams”, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Elgin, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)

Fanatic: One Who Can’t Change His Mind and Won’t Change the Subject

Winston Churchill? Evan Esar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following humorous definition is often attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill:

A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.

Could you explore the accuracy of this ascription?

Quote Investigator: There is some evidence that Winston Churchill employed this phrase circa 1952 because it is listed in an important compilation of quotations created by Churchill’s friend Kay Halle who was a journalist. Details for this citation are given further below.

Yet, the first evidence of this saying located by QI was printed nearly a decade earlier in the 1943 volume “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” by Evan Esar. Entries in this collection were formatted as definitions; for example, here were two humorous explications listed for the word “fanatic”: 1

fanatic.
A person who redoubles his efforts after having forgotten his aims.
One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.

No attribution was provided by Esar, and the wording was slightly different in this instance: “opinion” was used instead of “mind”.

In 1945 the quip appeared in a column titled “Dizzy Daffynitions” by Paul H. Gilbert published in the “Oakland Tribune” of Oakland, California: 2

FANATIC: One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Fanatic: One Who Can’t Change His Mind and Won’t Change the Subject

Notes:

  1. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 101, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1945 May 23, Oakland Tribune, Dizzy Daffynitions by Paul H. Gilbert, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)

“Did You Lose the Keys Here?” “No, But the Light Is Much Better Here”

Boy’s Life magazine? Mutt and Jeff comic strip? Mulla Nasreddin? Esar’s Joke Dictionary?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a brilliant comical allegory that depicts the biases inherent in many types of scientific research:

A police officer sees a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success then he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.

“No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why look here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds with aplomb.

Some scientific research is shaped by the need to perform replicable measurements. But these measurements do not always accurately reflect the phenomenon that is being investigated. The term “streetlight effect” is sometimes used to name this form of observational bias. Can you determine who crafted this clever story?

Quote Investigator: Trying to find the earliest instance of a tale is very difficult. But QI will make an effort and share the provisional results. On May 24, 1924 a Massachusetts newspaper printed an instance with a Boston setting. A police officer saw a man on his hands and knees “groping about” around midnight and asked him about his unusual behavior: 1

“I lost a $2 bill down on Atlantic avenue,” said the man.

“What’s that?” asked the puzzled officer. “You lost a $2 bill on Atlantic avenue? Then why are you hunting around here in Copley square?”

“Because,” said the man as he turned away and continued his hunt on his hands and knees, “the light’s better up here.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading “Did You Lose the Keys Here?” “No, But the Light Is Much Better Here”

Notes:

  1. 1924 May 24, Boston Herald, Whiting’s Column: Tammany Has Learned That This Is No Time for Political Bosses, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)