“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] 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)

“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”

References

References
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)

Kiss: A Trick of Nature to Stop Speech When Words Are Superfluous

Ingrid Bergman? Evan Esar? Paul H. Gilbert? Hal Boyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of my favorite websites recently presented a collection of “Ten Favorite Quotations about Words”. Number one was about osculation:

A kiss is a lovely trick, designed by nature, to stop speech when words become superfluous.

These words were attributed to the lovely Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman, but no citation was given. Oddly, most of the other ten quotes incorporated precise citations. Can you tell me when and where this was said?

Quote Investigator: This statement was credited to Bergman in a syndicated newspaper column written by Hal Boyle in 1970, and this was the earliest connection to Bergman located by QI. The actress lived until 1982, so it was possible that she did speak or write this line.

However, the clever definition was in circulation a few decades earlier. In 1943 Evan Esar, the inveterate phrase collector, published “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” which included the following meaning for the word kiss [EECD]:

kiss. A trick of nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.

Esar did not list credits for any of the definitions in his book proclaiming that the contents were “of popular origin and therefore unattributed”. He also complained about the ubiquity of false attributions in his Foreword [EECF]:

Now more than ever is it a wise crack that knows its own father, for the general practice of apocryphal ascription has been aggravated by the rise of radio.

Yet, Esar also admitted that some of the jokes in his book should have been ascribed:

Some of the unattributed items in this work doubtless derive from present-day humorists and men of letters, and for their inadvertent inclusion the writer wishes to apologize in advance.

The humorous remark about kissing was reprinted without ascription for many years until a version was finally assigned to Bergman by 1970.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Kiss: A Trick of Nature to Stop Speech When Words Are Superfluous

Definition: Anecdote – A Revealing Account of an Incident That Never Occurred in the Life of Some Famous Person

Evan Esar? Jan Harold Brunvand? Bennett Cerf?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was speaking with a friend about all the misinformation and misattributions in the world of quotations, and he said that he was familiar with this phenomenon of unreliability because he enjoys reading about urban-legends. He also gave his own quotation on this theme which he thinks might be from the urban-legend specialist Jan Harold Brunvand. The quote is a facetious definition:

Anecdote: A revealing account of an incident that never occurred in the life of some celebrity.

We both would like you to investigate this funny saying.

Quote Investigator: QI will be happy to try and trace this humorous description for you. Jan Harold Brunvand did include a variant of this quote in an article he wrote in 1991, but he did not take credit for it. The words are sometimes attributed to the humorist and quotation collector Evan Esar.

QI could weave an entertaining story about the precise circumstances that caused Esar to create this jest. But he won’t because the tale would just be another imagined anecdote of the type mentioned above since Esar did not craft the quotation nor did he claim to have done so. The earliest instance of this remark that QI has found is dated 1912, and the words have no attribution. Here are selected citations in reverse-chronological order.

Continue reading Definition: Anecdote – A Revealing Account of an Incident That Never Occurred in the Life of Some Famous Person