Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterson? Richard G. Moulton? Coulson Kernahan? William Thomas Stead? Richard Le Gallienne? C. Ranger Gull? Leonard Cresswell Ingleby? Guy Thorne? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The contemplation of a seemingly self-contradictory statement can help to illuminate a larger truth. This notion may be expressed with figurative language:
Paradox is merely truth standing on its head to attract attention.
The famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde and the English literary figure G. K. Chesterton have received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in April 1898 within the London periodical “The Review of Reviews” edited by William Thomas Stead. A piece titled “The Jubilee of the Awakening of 1848” that was probably written by the editor began with the following discussion. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
“Success is a bad word!” said Victor Hugo once in his magnificently paradoxical fashion. “Success is a bad word. Its false resemblance to merit deceives mankind.” Richard Le Gallienne, who has recently been airing his ambrosial locks in the heated air of American lecture-rooms, once told his audience that “a paradox was a truth standing on its head in order to attract attention.” Victor Hugo’s paradox is a truth that hardly needs to be stood on its head to command attention.
QI believes that English author Richard Le Gallienne is the leading candidate for crafter of this expression. Le Gallienne was a close friend of Oscar Wilde. Further below in this article QI presents a 1923 citation in which Le Gallienne took credit for this saying, and he applied it to Oscar Wilde.
The attribution of this saying to Wilde may have occurred due to the following known misquotation mechanism: A well-known name appears near a vivid statement, and a careless reader incorrectly reassigns the statement to the prominent person.
G. K. Chesterton employed an instance of this saying in a 1935 short story. Chesterton’s story narrator disclaimed credit for the remark. Details are given further below.
The attribution to Chesterton may have occurred due to the following known misquotation mechanism: A famous person uses a quotation which is already in circulation. A cavalier reader reassigns the quotation to the famous person.
Here are additional selected citations and comments.
- 1898 April, The Review of Reviews, Volume 17, Edited by W. T. Stead (William Thomas Stead), Section: The Topic of the Month, Article: The Jubilee of the Awakening of 1848, Start Page 339, Quote Page 339, Column 1, Published at the Office of the Review of Reviews, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩