Death Is Nature’s Way of Telling You to Slow Down

Madison Avenue? Doctor’s Advice? Graffito? Dick Sharples? Anonymous?

tortoise08Dear Quote Investigator: When I strained a muscle recently a friend told me that the injury was nature’s way of telling me to slow down. Another friend quipped:

Death is nature’s way of telling you to slow down.

Would you please explore this adage?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the popular syndicated column of Leonard Lyons in April 1960, Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Madison Avenue’s definition of Death: “Nature’s way of telling you to slow up”.

“Madison Avenue” is a street in New York City which for many years has been used as a metonym for the U.S. advertising industry. The instance presented by Lyons differed from the more common modern variant by using the phrase “slow up” instead of “slow down” although the meaning was congruent.

QI hypothesizes that the parodic guidance propounded by the expression evolved from similar pieces of health advice and statements in advertisements.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Death Is Nature’s Way of Telling You to Slow Down


  1. 1960 April 8, Grand Prairie Daily News, The Lyons Den: Owls May View Hitchcock Movie by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 2, Column 5, Grand Prairie, Texas. (Newspapers_com)

Even If You Win the Rat Race, You’re Still a Rat

Lily Tomlin? Jackie Gleason? Bill Cunningham? William Sloane Coffin? Russell Baker? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular quip about the competitive daily grind of the working world. Here are two versions:

1) Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat
2) So you’ve won the rat race. You’re still a rat.

The influential comedian Lily Tomlin employed a version of this joke. Would you please explore its origin?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Lily Tomlin used this gag by the 1970s, and a citation is given further below. Yet, the earliest appearance known to QI occurred in a book about the life of another famous comedian.

In 1956 “The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason” by Jim Bishop was published. Gleason wrote a letter to his estranged wife Genevieve that was reprinted in the volume. He used a version of the witticism particularized to the television broadcasting industry. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Television is a rat race, and remember this, even if you win you are still a rat.

In August 1956 a sports columnist named Bill Cunningham writing in “The Boston Herald” employed an instance of the joke, but he did not claim coinage; instead, he credited an anonymous “fellow”. The topic of the column was the perennial baseball conflict between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees: 2

It’s still a job lot pitching staff—like the fellow said, “You can win the rat race, but you’re still a rat”—but, oooooh, that Yankee hitting, especially in the clutch!

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located the two citations above and other valuable citations. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Even If You Win the Rat Race, You’re Still a Rat


  1. 1956, The Golden Ham: A Candid Biography of Jackie Gleason by Jim Bishop, (Undated letter from Jackie Gleason to Gen (Genevieve, estranged wife Gleason)), Quote Page 258, Published by Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1956 August 11, Boston Herald, Section: Sports, Bill Taking Off for Conventions: Leaves Sox, But He Saw Them Hit Second Place by Bill Cunningham, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  3. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win you’re still a rat”, Date on website: November 05, 2012, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed on October 1, 2014) link

“To Be Is To Do” “To Do Is To Be” “Do Be Do Be Do”

Kurt Vonnegut? Frank Sinatra? Jean-Paul Sartre? Dale Carnegie? Bud Crew? Socrates? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The 1982 novel “Deadeye Dick” by the popular author Kurt Vonnegut mentioned the following piece of graffiti:

“To be is to do”—Socrates.
“To do is to be”—Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do”—Frank Sinatra.

I think this tripartite list first appeared in bathroom stalls in the 1960s or 1970s, but sometimes different authors were specified. Could you explore the history of this humorous scrawled message?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published description located by QI of a graffito that conformed to this template appeared in the “Dallas Morning News” of Dallas, Texas in January 1968. According to the columnist Paul Crume the graffito was created in an incremental process by three different people. The initiator was a local businessman in Richardson, Texas: 1

Bud Crew says that a month ago he wrote this on the warehouse wall at Bud’s Tool Cribs in Richardson: “‘The way to do is to be.’—Leo-tzu, Chinese philosopher.”

A few days later, a salesman wrote under that: “‘The way to be is to do.’—Dale Carnegie,”

Recently, says Crew, an anonymous sage has added still another axiom: “‘Do be, do be, do.’ — Frank Sinatra.”

The phrase ascribed to the famous vocalist Sinatra was derived from his version of the song “Strangers in the Night” which was a number-one hit in 1966. Near the end of the track Sinatra sang a sequence of nonsense syllables that could be transcribed as “do de do be do” or “do be do be do”. This distinctive and memorable stylization has sometimes been parodied. 2

In July 1968 this graffito tale was included in a syndicated series called “Weekend Chuckles” from General Features Corporation; hence, it achieved wide dissemination. Some details were omitted, e.g., Bud Crew’s name was not given, but the graffito was nearly identical. The spelling of “Leo-tzu” was changed to “Lao-tse”: 3

One fellow was inspired to write on a warehouse wall: “The way to do is to be.—Lao-tse, Chinese philosopher.”

A few days later, a salesman wrote under that: “The way to be is to do.—Dale Carnegie.”

Recently an anonymous sage has added still another message: “Do be, do be, do.—Frank Sinatra.”

In January 1969 a real-estate agent named Joe Griffith ran an advertisement in a South Carolina newspaper that included the tripartite message. The first two statements in this instance were shortened and simplified. In addition, one of the attributions was switched to Socrates: 4

Joe Griffith Sez:
“TO BE IS TO DO” Dale Carnegie
“TO DO IS TO BE” Socrates
“DO BE DO BE DO” Frank Sinatra

The message continued to evolve over the decades and many philosophers and authors have been substituted into the template including: Dale Carnegie, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, John Stuart Mill, William James, William Shakespeare, and Bertrand Russell. The punchline ascribed to Frank Sinatra, in some form, is usually preserved though a variety of other lines have been added to the joke as shown in the 1990 citation further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “To Be Is To Do” “To Do Is To Be” “Do Be Do Be Do”


  1. 1968 January 29, Dallas Morning News, Paul Crume’s Big D, Quote Page A1, Column 6, Dallas, Texas. (The spelling “Leo-Tzu” is used in the original text instead of the more common “Lao-Tzu”) (GenealogyBank)
  2. YouTube video, Title: Strangers in The Night – Frank Sinatra, Artist: Frank Sinatra, Uploaded on July 6, 2007, Uploaded by: kumpulanvideo, (Quotation starts at 2 minute 23 seconds of 5 minutes 10 seconds) (Accessed on on October 18, 2013) link
  3. 1968 July 28, Times-Picayune, Section 2, Weekend Chuckles, (Syndicated by General Features Corp.), Quote Page 3, Column 1, New Orleans, Louisiana, (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1969 January 31, The News and Courier (Charleston News and Courier), (Advertisement for Joe Griffith Inc., Realtor), Quote Page 15B, Column 2, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)

Nostalgia Is Not What It Used To Be

Yogi Berra? Simone Signoret? Peter De Vries? Tommy Handley & Ronald Frankau? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Holidays sometimes make me nostalgic. They also remind me of the following clever quip:

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

These words are often attributed to the famed baseball quotemaster Yogi Berra, but recently I learned of an autobiography by the prominent French actress Simone Signoret titled:

Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used To Be.

Could you explore the origin of this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this expression known to QI was published in a 1959 novel titled “The Tents of Wickedness” by Peter De Vries. This citation is given in the key reference work “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” from Yale University Press. De Vries was a popular humorist who worked at “The New Yorker” magazine and published many novels: 1 2

No. Nostalgia, as his Uncle Joshua had said, ain’t what it used to be.
Which made it pretty complete. Nothing was what it used to be — not even nostalgia.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nostalgia Is Not What It Used To Be


  1. 1959, The Tents of Wickedness by Peter De Vries, Quote Page 6, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro Page 179, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

“What Do You Think of Western Civilization?” “I Think It Would Be a Good Idea”

Mohandas Gandhi? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mahatma Gandhi is credited with a brilliantly acerbic remark made in response to a question from a self-satisfied journalist:

Journalist: What do you think of Western civilization?
Gandhi: I think it would be a good idea.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find any solid citations for this sharp exchange. The best I have located is second-hand information in the 1970s. Is there any good support for this quote?

Quote Investigator: Mohandas Gandhi died in 1948, and the earliest evidence QI has located appeared many years later in January 1967. The Seattle Times newspaper stated that the exchange was mentioned in a television documentary on a major U.S. network. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Quote of the week from the superb C.B.S. documentary, “The Italians”: Mahatma Gandhi, on being asked, “What do you think of Western civilization?,” was reported to have answered, “I think it would be a good idea”.

According to the website of the Paley Center for Media the documentary “The Italians” was broadcast as a CBS News Special on January 17, 1967. The program was adapted from a book, and the author acted as the host: 2

A documentary freely adapted from Luigi Barzini’s book “The Italians.” Barzini presides over a selective tour of Italy, discussing the Italian people, their culture, customs, and history.

In September 1967 the dialog was disseminated in the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest. The words were once again connected to a documentary on CBS: 3

MOHANDAS GANDHI was once asked: “What do you think of Western civilization?” “I think it would be a good idea,” he replied.
— CBS News Special, “The Italians”

Here are additional selected citations and commentary.

Continue reading “What Do You Think of Western Civilization?” “I Think It Would Be a Good Idea”


  1. 1967 January 23, Seattle Times, “Ad Paid Off For Swedish Beauty” by C. J. Skreen, Quote Page 6, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  2. The Paley Center for Media website, Webpage on documentary: CBS News Special: The Italians (TV), Broadcast Date: January 17, 1967 Tuesday 10:00 PM, Running Time: 1:00:00, Color/B&W: Color, Executive Producer: Perry Wolff, Producer: Bernard Birnbaum, Adapted by: Luigi Barzini. (Accessed on April 23, 2013) link
  3. 1967 September, Reader’s Digest, Answer Men, (Set of five miscellaneous quotations), Page 52, Volume 91, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on microfilm)

Denial Is Not a River in Egypt

Florence Kerns? Ray Hallinan? Herb Caen? Pauline Tymon? Larry Pickard? David Crosby? Joe Bob Briggs? Al Franken? Stuart Smalley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Saturday Night Live television program once featured skits with a character named Stuart Smalley who was played by the comedian and former senator Al Franken. Smalley was enamored with self-help programs and often used the following catch phrase:

Denial is not a river in Egypt.

I have also heard a very similar phrase credited to Mark Twain:

Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.

Could you explore the origin of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain used this expression. Al Franken, in the persona of Stuart Smalley, did use this saying, but his satirical character was introduced to the television audience in 1991. Franken was employing a phrase that was already in circulation in the domain of self-help and addiction counseling.

The underlying pun has a long history. The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the “Reading Times” of Reading, Pennsylvania in April 1931. Eighth grade student Florence Kerns won a contest by submitting the following wordplay joke which fit a question-answer template: 1

Question: Do you know how to use “denial” in a sentence?
Answer: Denial river runs through Egypt.

Thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation above and shared it with QI. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Denial Is Not a River in Egypt


  1. 1931 April 11, Reading Times, Section: Junior Times, Florence Takes Prize for Joke, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

To Err is Human; To Really Foul Things Up Requires a Computer

Paul Ehrlich? Alexander Pope? Senator Soaper? Bill Vaughan? Agatha Christie? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am reading your blog and that shows I am not a Luddite, but computers can be very exasperating. One of my favorite quotations on this topic is the following:

To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.

When I tried to find out who said this originally I came across the name of biologist Paul Ehrlich. He wrote an influential and controversial book “The Population Bomb” in 1968. But I cannot figure out where or when Ehrlich said this quotation. Would you delve into this and determine the specifics? I suspect that it is another anonymously authored witty remark.

Quote Investigator: The popularity of this funny maxim is indicated by its appearance in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 1 the Yale Book of Quotations, 2 and the Columbia Dictionary of Quotations. 3 In each of these three references the adage is presented as anonymous. The Yale Book of Quotations gives the earliest cite dated October 3, 1969.

Paul Ehrlich is credited with the quote in some places, e.g., in a listing of “101 Great Computer Programming Quotes”. 4 But the earliest examples of the phrase attributed to Ehrlich were published many years after the words originally appeared in print.

In 1969 a thematically similar remark appeared in the book “Hallowe’en Party” by the famous mystery writer Agatha Christie: 5

I know there’s a proverb which says, ‘To err is human’ but a human error is nothing to what a computer can do if it tries.”

A separate article about the Christie quotation is available here.

The first close match located by QI appeared on April 2, 1969 and was credited to a comical personage named ‘Senator Soaper’ who was the fictional alter ego of the newspaper columnist Bill Vaughan. The words initially appeared under that name in a Virginia paper: 6

To err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer.

Current evidence suggests that William E. Vaughan crafted this phrase although it is possible he was influenced by the Agatha Christie passage.
Continue reading To Err is Human; To Really Foul Things Up Requires a Computer


  1. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, “Sayings 49”, Oxford Reference Online, Oxford University Press. (Accessed 2010 October 6)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Page 670, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1993, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations [Inside title Columbia Book of Quotations], Page 171, Columbia University Press, New York. (Google Books preview) link
  4. 2008 January 1, Website:, DevTopics: Software Development Topics, 101 Great Computer Programming Quotes. (Accessed December 5, 2010) link
  5. 1970 (Copyright 1969), Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie, Quote Page 35, Pocket Books, New York. (First published in 1969; this is 1970 paperback edition) (Verified with scans)
  6. 1969 April 2, Free Lance-Star, Senator Soaper [Free standing quote], Page 1, Column 2, Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Google News archive)