You Yourself May Serve To Show It, That Every Fool Is Not a Poet

Jonathan Swift? Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Alexander Pope? Théophile de Viau? Matthew Prior? Pierre de Ronsard? Scévole de Sainte-Marthe? Anonymous?

pope08Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a famous literary figure was accosted by a philistine who exclaimed that all poets were fools. The adroit spontaneous response provided a humorous comeuppance:

Sir, I admit your general rule,
That every poet is a fool,
But you yourself may prove to show it,
That every fool is not a poet.

These words have been credited to Jonathan Swift who wrote “Gulliver’s Travels”, Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote “Kubla Khan”, and Alexander Pope who write “The Dunciad”. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match in English known to QI appeared in the third volume of a collection called “Miscellanies” published in 1733. The preface was dated May 27, 1727 and signed by Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) and Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744). The following piece was labeled “Epigram from the French”: 1

SIR, I admit your gen’ral Rule
That every Poet is a Fool:
But you yourself may serve to show it,
That every Fool is not a Poet.

Top modern references such as “The Yale Book of Quotations” 2 and the “Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” have credited Alexander Pope, 3 but these references also presented the label which suggested that Pope was translating a pre-existing French verse. Indeed, QI has located an earlier French citation as shown further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Yourself May Serve To Show It, That Every Fool Is Not a Poet


  1. 1733, Miscellanies: the Last Volume, (Preface by Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope dated May 27, 1727), Epigram from the French, Quote Page 57, Printed for Benjamin Motte, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Alexander Pope, Quote Page 599, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, 8th Edition, Editor Elizabeth Knowles, Entry: Alexander Pope 1688–1744, Oxford Reference Online, Print Publication Date: 2014, Oxford University Press. (Accessed November 21, 2016)

You Cannot Reason People Out of Something They Were Not Reasoned Into

Jonathan Swift? Fisher Ames? Lyman Beecher? Jonathan Farr? Samuel Hanson Cox? Sydney Smith? Sidney Smith? Ben Goldacre?

maze09Dear Quote Investigator: Jonathan Swift was a prominent literary figure who authored “Gulliver’s Travels” and “A Modest Proposal”. He has been credited with an elegant thought about the limitations of persuasion via logical argument:

You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.

I have not found a convincing citation for the words above, and similar expressions have been ascribed to Sydney Smith, Fisher Ames, and many others. For example, a recent book titled “Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks” by Ben Goldacre presented this version: 1

You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1721 a slim volume titled “A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality” was published. The author was Jonathan Swift, and the following salient phrase was included: 2

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired

QI conjectures that Swift’s words initiated an efflorescence of related expressions with varying ascriptions such as:

1786: Men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion that they have not reasoned themselves into. (Fisher Ames)

1795: Reasoning will never make a man correct an opinion, which by reasoning he never acquired. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1804: As they were not reasoned up, they cannot be reasoned down. (Fisher Ames)

1823: How little ground there can be to hope that men may be reasoned out of their errours, when in fact they were never reasoned into them. (Lyman Beecher)

1831: What is not reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out. (Jonathan Farr)

1833: He cannot be reasoned out of error, if he was not at first reasoned into it! (Samuel Hanson Cox)

1838: What men are not reasoned into they will not be reasoned out of.

1852: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he never was reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1852: We may never reason a man out of an opinion which he was never reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1865: You cannot reason a man out of what he never reasoned himself into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

1869: What has not been reasoned in, cannot be reasoned out. (Attributed to Sydney Smith)

1881: Never try to reason the prejudice out of a man. It was never reasoned into him and it never can be reasoned out of him. (Attributed to Sidney Smith)

1885: It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of anything he was never reasoned into. (Attributed to Jonathan Swift)

The evolution of the expression has continued up to modern times. QI believes that most of the statements ascribed to Jonathan Swift over the decades have been inaccurate. The correct version appeared in the key 1721 citation which was identified by top researcher Stephen Goranson.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Cannot Reason People Out of Something They Were Not Reasoned Into


  1. 2010, Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre, Section: Preface, Quote Page xii, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto, Ontario. (Google Books Preview)
  2. 1721, A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality (Jonathan Swift), Second Edition, (Letter Dated January 9, 1720), Quote Page 27, Printed for J. Roberts at the Oxford Arms in Warwick Lane, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Government Is Like Fire, a Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master

George Washington? John Tillotson? Jonathan Swift? James Fenimore Cooper? Frederick Uttley Laycock? Robert Heinlein? Apocryphal?

washing10Dear Quote Investigator: A cautionary statement about statecraft has often been attributed to George Washington. Here are three versions:

1) Government is like fire, a dangerous servant and a fearful master.
2) Government, like fire, is a troublesome servant and a terrible master.
3) A government is like fire, a handy servant, but a dangerous master.

Washington died in 1799, but I have seen no citations in the 1700s or 1800s; therefore, I am suspicious. Would you please examine the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: Several researchers have attempted to trace this saying, and no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to George Washington has yet been located. The earliest linkage to Washington appeared in “The Christian Science Journal” in 1902 which was more than one hundred years after his death. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The first President of the United States said: “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence,—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant, and a fearful master; never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”

The master-servant metaphorical framework has a very long history. In 1562 water was described as a good servant but a cruel master. The spelling of the period was not standardized as shown by this excerpt: 2

Rayne water is bynding and stopping of nature, water is a very good seruaunt, but it is a cruell mayster.

In 1637 the report of a great conflagration led a writer to state that fire and water were both good servants but evil masters. Indeed, the context suggested that this assertion was already considered proverbial. The word “evil” was spelled “evill”: 3

… the Temple St Marke was almost all burnt, and the Dukes Palace was preserved with great difficulty; which verifies, that fire and water are good servants but evill masters.

A sermon in 1674 employed the master-servant figurative language by embedding it within a simile about fancy. Here “fancy” meant imagination with a strong connotation of desire: 4

Fancy is like fire, a good Servant but a bad Master; if it march under the conduct of faith it may be highly serviceable, and by putting lively colours upon divine truth may steal away our affections to it.

The words attributed to George Washington followed the same template, but “government” was substituted for “fancy”. Examples presented below will show that over time each of the following terms has been placed into the simile template: “zeal”, “the passions”, “love”, and “the press”. In addition, the following terms have replaced “fire and water” within the proverb: “the bank”, “the press”, and “opium”. These examples are not meant to be exhaustive; instead, they illustrate the variability of the expressions.

Interestingly, the instances ascribed to Washington have shifted the semantics of the phrase about fire. Traditionally, fire was described as a good servant, but the revised remark used words such as dangerous and troublesome. Hence, the connotations of fire were negative as both a servant and a master.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Government Is Like Fire, a Dangerous Servant and a Fearful Master


  1. 1902 November, The Christian Science Journal, Volume 20, Number 8, Liberty and Government by W. M., Start Page 465, Quote Page 465, Published by the Christian Science Publishing Society, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  2. Year: Imprint date 1579 (Date on document 1562), Title: Bulleins bulwarke of defence against all sicknesse, soarenesse, and woundes that doe dayly assaulte mankinde: which bulwarke is kept with Hilarius the gardener, [and] Health the phisicion by William Bullein, Doctor of Phisicke. 1562. Author: William Bullein (Died 1576), Publisher: Imprinted at London: By Thomas Marshe, dwellinge in Fleetestreate neare vnto Saincte Dunstanes Church. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 1) link
  3. Year: 1637, Title: Monro his expedition with the worthy Scots Regiment (called Mac-Keyes Regiment) levied in August 1626 by Sr. Donald Mac-Key Lord Rhees, colonell for his Majesties service of Denmark, and reduced after the Battaile of Nerling, to one company in September 1634. Collected and gathered together at spare-houres, by 1634, Author: Robert Monro, Publisher: Printed by William Iones in Red-Crosse streete, London, 1637. (Early English Books Online EEBO-TCP Phase 1) link
  4. 1674, A Supplement to the Morning-exercise at Cripple-gate Or Several More Cases of Conscience Practically, Resolved by Sundry Ministers, Sermon 19: The Sinfulness and Cure of Thoughts by Mr. S. C., Quote Page 422, Printed for Thomas Cockerill, London. (Google Books Full View) link

A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes

Mark Twain? Jonathan Swift? Thomas Francklin? Fisher Ames? Thomas Jefferson? John Randolph? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? Winston Churchill? Terry Pratchett? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: An insightful remark about the rapid transmission of lies is often attributed to Mark Twain. Here are two versions:

(1) A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.

(2) A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on

I have not found this statement in any of the books written by Twain; hence, I am skeptical of this ascription. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: A version of this adage was attributed to Mark Twain in 1919, but Twain died in 1910. QI believes that this evidence of a linkage was not substantive. Details of the 1919 citation are given further below.

Metaphorical maxims about the speedy dissemination of lies and the much slower propagation of corrective truths have a very long history. The major literary figure Jonathan Swift wrote on this topic in “The Examiner” in 1710 although he did not mention shoes or boots. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…

The phrasing and figurative language used in these sayings have been evolving for more than three hundred years. In 1787 “falsehood” was reaching “every corner of the earth”. In 1820 a colorful version was circulating with lies flying from “Maine to Georgia” while truth was “pulling her boots on”. By 1834 “error” was running “half over the world” while truth was “putting on his boots”. In 1924 a lie was circling the globe while a truth was “lacing its shoes on”.

Top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake identified the passage by Swift listed above and several other important items covered in this article.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes


  1. 1710 November 2 to November 9, The Examiner, Number 15, (Article by Jonathan Swift), Quote Page 2, Column 1, Printed for John Morphew, near Stationers-Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link

He Who Would Pun Would Pick a Pocket

Alexander Pope? Samuel Johnson? Jonathan Swift? John Dennis? Anonymous?

popepocket06Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard several versions of a quotation that is beloved by people who dislike puns:

(1) He who would make a pun would pick a pocket.
(2) A man who will pun, will pick a pocket.
(3) A man who could make so vile a pun would not scruple to pick a pocket.
(4) Any man who would make such an execrable pun would not scruple to pick my pocket.

This saying has been attributed to the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson and the eminent poet Alexander Pope. Could you tell me who said it and what circumstance provoked the remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this quotation known to QI was published in a 1722 epistle by Benjamin Victor which told of a meeting in a tavern. Daniel Purcell employed a pun that caused the dramatist and critic John Dennis to react with anger and deliver a reproach. The name Dennis was partially disguised as “D—-s”; four letters were replaced with four hyphens.

To understand the pun one must know that in 1720s England the waiter in a tavern was called a “drawer”. The 1722 document adhered to a style in which nouns were capitalized. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

“Mr. Purcell and Mr. Congreve going into a Tavern, by chance met D—-s, who went in with ’em. After a Glass or two had pass’d, Mr. Purcell, having some private Business with Mr. Congreve, wanted D—-s out of the Room, and not knowing a more certain Way than Punning, (for you are to understand, Sir, Mr. D—-s is as much surpriz’d at Pun as at a Bailiff) he proceeded after the following Manner:

He pull’d the Bell, and call’d two or three Times, but no One answering, he put his Hand under the Table, and looking full at D—-s, he said, I think this Table is like the Tavern; says D—-s, with his usual prophane Phrase) God’s death, Sir, How is this Table like the Tavern? Why, says Mr. Purcell, because here’s ne’er a Drawer in it.

Says D—-s, (starting up) God’s death, Sir, the Man that will make such an execrable Pun as that in my Company, will pick my Pocket, and so left the Room.

In this tale John Dennis sharply criticized one particular pun, and he did not attack all puns. Nevertheless, the popular modern instances of the saying are universal in condemnation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading He Who Would Pun Would Pick a Pocket


  1. Year: 1722, Title: An epistle to Sir Richard Steele, on his play, call’d, The conscious lovers. By B. Victor, Author: Benjamin Victor (died 1778), Imprint: London: Printed for W. Chetwood at Cato’s-Head in Russel-Street, Covent-Garden; S. Chapman at the Angel in Pall-Mall; J. Stagg, Westminster-Hall; J. Brotherton at the Bible in Cornhill; M. Smith in Russel-Court, Red-Lyon-Square; Tho. Edlin, over-against Exeter Exchange in the Strand, Source Library: British Library. (Database: EECO: Eighteenth Century Collections Online; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake)