Gertrude Stein? Herb Caen? Ben J. Wattenberg? William Gibson? Apocryphal?
Question for Quote Investigator: A prominent literary figure attempted to return home after a long absence and found that the location was unfamiliar because the home had been demolished. Fond memories of youth were no longer attached to a physical location. The feeling of disconnection inspired a popular saying:
There is no there there.
Nowadays, the meaning of this phrase has shifted. The statement typically refers to something which is diffuse, unsubstantial, or unimportant. It has also been used to explicate virtual reality. Would you please help me to find a citation.
Reply from Quote Investigator: Author and art connoisseur Gertrude Stein employed an idiosyncratic writing style. Her infrequently punctuated stream of consciousness was sometimes difficult to parse. Her 1937 book “Everybody’s Autobiography” included a passage about traveling to the locale of her childhood:
. . . we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.
Stein described the feelings of estrangement produced by the visit to her former neighborhood:
Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and over-grown the houses were certainly some of them those that had been and there were not bigger buildings and they were neglected and, lots of grass and bushes growing yes it might have been the Thirteenth Avenue when I had been.
Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not any longer existing, what was the use, if I had been I then my little dog would know me but if I had not been I then that place would not be the place that I could see, I did not like the feeling . . .
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading There Is No There There
Fran Lebowitz? Herb Caen? Don Bleu? Rob Morse? Rebecca Blagrave? Liz Smith? William Deresiewicz?
Dear Quote Investigator: The probability that you will purchase a lottery ticket worth millions of dollars is miniscule. Here are two comically exaggerated quips based on this observation:
I figure your odds of winning the lottery are the same, whether you buy a ticket or whether you don’t.
I’ve done the calculation and your chances of winning the lottery are identical whether you play or not.
Commentator Fran Lebowitz has received credit for this saying. Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI occurs in a video segment dated September 18, 1985 from the television show “Late Night with David Letterman” during which Fran Lebowitz spoke about gambling to the host Letterman. The segment is available via YouTube. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:
We have a lottery here in New York. I feel you have the same chance of winning a lottery whether you play or not.
Currently, Lebowitz is the leading candidate for originator of this humorous observation. The statement’s phrasing is highly variable which makes it difficult to trace. QI has not independently verified the date of the video segment.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading You Have the Same Chance of Winning a Lottery Whether You Play Or Not
Naval Officer? Voltaire? William Pitt Lennox? Herb Caen? Howard Jacobs? Norman R. Augustine? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: When an organization encounters difficulties, and its members experience low morale, it is counterproductive to enforce harsh discipline. This notion can be captured with the following sarcastic remark:
The beatings will continue until morale improves.
Close variants of this statement replace the word “beatings” with “whippings” or “floggings”. Would you please explore the provenance of this family of remarks?
Quote Investigator: There are many comical statements containing the phrase “until morale improves”. Some researchers have asserted that instances were circulating during World War II, but QI has found no evidence to support that claim. The saying is difficult to trace because of its mutability. Here is a sampling together with years of occurrence that provides an overview:
- 1961: . . . all liberty is canceled until morale improves
- 1964: Layoffs will continue until morale improves
- 1965: No Beer, Card Playing, Mail Call, . . . until morale improves
- 1967: . . . no leave until morale improves
- 1977: Firing will continue until morale improves
- 1986: . . . cancel all vacations until morale improved
- 1988: Restructuring will continue until morale improves
- 1988: The floggings will continue until morale improves
- 1989: The beatings will continue, until morale improves
- 1992: The Whippings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
Below are selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading The Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
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:
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
Thomas Friedman? Dan Montano? Arthur M. Blank? Sue Tabor? Herb Caen? Christopher McDougall? Roger Bannister? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Last year I saw a motivational poster with a portrait of a lion. The text was a fable about lions and gazelles, and the title was something like the “The Key to Survival.” Paraphrasing: To survive the lion must catch the gazelle and the gazelle must outrun the lion. Do you recognize this saying, and do you know who created it?
Quote Investigator: Thomas Friedman helped to popularize the proverb about the lion and the gazelle by including it in his 2005 bestseller “The World is Flat” . He said that a sign written in Mandarin on the factory floor of an auto parts manufacturer in China recounted the tale. Friedman labeled the passage an “African proverb” and did not attempt to determine its origin. The quotation was disseminated via multiple avenues including his book and a motivational poster with the title “The Essence of Survival” that reprinted the text.
The earliest instance located by QI appeared in the Economist magazine in 1985 in an article titled “Lions or gazelles?” where the words were credited to a securities analyst named Dan Montano:
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.
Stockbrokers and bankers at a recent London conference on financial technology* laughed appreciatively at this sally from Mr. Dan Montano of Montano Securities, an American equities dealer. They chuckled, perhaps, a touch indulgently at predictable American excess.
* The Stock Exchange: Deregulation and New Technology: Oyez International Business Communications. London June 5th and 6th.
Montano may have constructed this proverb himself, or he may have relayed words that he heard or read elsewhere. The Economist gave no other ascription. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading The Fable of the Lion and the Gazelle