Category Archives: Gelett Burgess

Of Two Evils, Choose the Prettier

Carolyn Wells? Bruce Porter? Gelett Burgess? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following well-known adage concisely states a controversial moral principle:

Of two evils, choose the lesser.

I’ve heard these cynical variants:

  • Of two evils, choose the one you haven’t tried before.
  • Of two evils, a journalist will write about the one that gets the most clicks.
  • Of two evils, choose the prettier.

Would you please explore the history of the last statement?

Quote Investigator: In 1904 the popular and prolific writer and poet Carolyn Wells published a collection of short pieces called “Folly for the Wise”. A section titled “Maxioms” included these items. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Reward is its own virtue.
The wages of sin is alimony.
A penny saved spoils the broth.
Of two evils, choose the prettier.
Nonsense makes the heart grow fonder.
A word to the wise is a dangerous thing.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1904, Folly for the Wise by Carolyn Wells, Maxioms, Quote Page 50, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link

If In the Last Few Years You Haven’t Discarded a Major Opinion or Acquired a New One, Check Your Pulse. You May Be Dead

Gelett Burgess? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

pulse09Dear Quote Investigator: Anyone who wishes to remain intellectually vital must be willing to challenge his or her own opinions. Viewpoints should evolve and flawed notions should be replaced. I came across the following cogent expression:

If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse. You may be dead.

These words have been credited to a humorist, editor, and art critic named Gelett Burgess. Today, Burgess’s quirky fame rests on the word “blurb” which he coined and on a nonsense verse about a “purple cow” which he crafted.

I have not been able to find a citation for the above quotation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1937 Gelett Burgess published a playful book of advice titled “Look Eleven Years Younger” which included a partial match for the expression. The volume actually contained two versions of the saying. The second instance was printed in a summary section at the end of a chapter. Numbers have been added to this excerpt: 1

1) When you find you haven’t discarded a major opinion for years, or acquired a new one, you should stop and investigate to see if you’re not growing senile.

2) If in the last few years you haven’t discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one investigate and see if you’re not growing senile.

The first part of quotation number two above was a close match to the saying under investigation, but the second part suggested that inflexible individuals might be facing senility instead of death. QI has not found a superior match in the writings of Burgess although future researchers may discover such a match.

Burgess died in 1951, and QI believes that the modern “pulse” saying evolved from his words. The earliest instance appeared in 1977 in the pages of “Forbes” magazine where it was ascribed to Burgess. QI does not know where “Forbes” found this variant.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1937, Look Eleven Years Younger by Gelett Burgess, Quote Page 206 and 208, Simon and Schuster, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link link