It’s Easier To Ask Forgiveness Than To Get Permission

Grace Hopper? Cardinal Barberini? Earl of Peterborough? David Hernandez? Helen Pajama? St. Benedict? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: People who are eager to initiate a task often cite the following guidance. Here are two versions:

  • It’s easier to ask forgiveness than to get permission.
  • It’s easier to apologize than to get permission.

This notion has been credited to Grace Murray Hopper who was a U.S. Navy Rear Admiral and pioneering computer scientist. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Grace Hopper did employ and help to popularize the expression by 1982, but it was already in circulation.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1846 within a multivolume work called “Lives of the Queens of England” by Agnes Strickland. The ninth volume discussed marriage advice offered by a powerful church official. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But, in truth, the cardinal Barberini … did frankly advise the duchess of Modena to conclude the marriage at once; it being less difficult to obtain forgiveness for it after it was done, than permission for doing it.

A footnote listed the source of the passage above as “Earl of Peterborough, in the Mordaunt Genealogies”. Strictly speaking, the statement was not presented as a proverb; instead, it was guidance tailored to one particular circumstance.

In 1894 a newspaper in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania printed a thematically related adage within a story about mischievous children: 2

The boys, let me add, every one had respectable parents and who would not, for an instant, have allowed such a prank had they known of its existence; but it is easier to beg forgiveness after the deed is performed.

Another match occurred in the 1903 novel “A Professional Rider” by Mrs. Edward Kennard, but the form was not proverbial: 3

Once married, it would be infinitely easier to ask her father’s forgiveness, than to beg his permission beforehand.

In 1966 “Southern Education Report” printed an instance of the proverb spoken by David Hernandez who was a project director working for the U.S. government program Head Start: 4

Hernandez began advertising for bids on the mobile classrooms even before the money to pay for them had been approved. ‘It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission,’ he explained.

The above citation appeared in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It’s Easier To Ask Forgiveness Than To Get Permission

Notes:

  1. 1846, Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest with Anecdotes of Their Courts by Agnes Strickland, Volume 9, Chapter 1: Mary Beatrice of Modena, Quote Page 39, Henry Colburn Publisher, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1894 February 4, The Pittsburgh Press, Section: Press Young Folks League, The Boys’ Surprise Party, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1903, A Professional Rider by Mrs. Edward Kennard, Chapter 2: “As You Make Your Bed, So Must You Lie”, Quote Page 31, Anthony Treherne & Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 85, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Citation provided for quotation – Date: August 29, 1966, Title: Southern Education Report 2, Number: 1, Article title: Panzer Division in the Poverty War, Article author: Keith Coulbourn)(QI has verified the text in the “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” but has not directly examined the 1966 citation)

A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But that Is Not What Ships Are Built For

John A. Shedd? Grace Hopper? Albert Einstein? Anonymous?

harbor01Dear Quote Investigator: On December 9, 2013 the Google Doodle honored the pioneering computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. Here are two versions of a quotation that is often attributed to her:

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.
A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for.

This saying has also been credited to Albert Einstein and John A. Shedd. Can you tell me who said it?

Quote Investigator: In 1928 John A. Shedd released a collection of sayings titled “Salt from My Attic”, and the following popular aphorism was included:

A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.

This citation appeared in the important reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Fred R. Shapiro. 1

Grace Hopper also employed a version of this expression on multiple occasions. For example, in 1981 Hopper spoke an instance of the adage with “port” instead of “harbor”. The ascription to Albert Einstein is unsupported. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Ship in Harbor Is Safe, But that Is Not What Ships Are Built For

Notes:

  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: John A. Shedd, Page 705, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)