William Dean Howells? James Howell? Red Auerbach? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Promises are easy to make and easy to break. Only actual conduct and achievements produce a reliable record of behavior. A popular figurative statement succinctly expresses this idea:
An acre of performance is worth a whole world of promise.
These words have been attributed to the prominent literary figure William Dean Howells and the famous basketball coach Red Auerbach. Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match located by QI appeared long before William Dean Howells and Red Auerbach were born. The British historian James Howell employed the saying in a letter he sent to a correspondent in Antwerp that was published in a 1655 collection. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
An acre of performance is worth the whole Land of promise; Besides, as the Italian hath it, Deeds are men, and words women: you pleas’d to promise me when you shook hands with England to barter Letters with me; But wheras I writ to you a good while since by Mr. Simons, I have not receiv’d syllable from you ever since.
Howell used the poetically resonant phrase “Land of promise” instead of the prosaic “world of promise”. He also included a sexist adage.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1655, Epistolae Ho-Elianae: A Fourth Volume of Familiar Letters Upon Various Emergent Occasions Partly Philosophical, Political, Historical by James Howell (Clerk of the Councell to his late Majestie, Letter: 33, From: James Howell, To: Mr. R. Lee in Antwerp, Location: London, Date: November 9, Quote Page 75, Printed for Humphrey Moseley, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩