A Baby Learns To Speak in Two Years, But It Takes a Lifetime To Learn To Keep Quiet

Ernest Hemingway? Mark Twain? Luke McLuke? Lydia DeVilbiss? Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Frederick B. Wilcox? Abigail Van Buren? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While searching the twitter database I encountered the following two similar jokes:

(1) Humans need two years to learn to speak and sixty years to learn to shut up.

(2) It takes two years to learn to talk, and the rest of your life to control your mouth.

Ernest Hemingway received credit for the first, and Mark Twain received credit for the second. I am skeptical of both of these ascriptions. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that either of these famous quotation magnets employed this quip. The expression is highly variable which makes this large family of quips difficult to trace, and this article will only present a snapshot of current research.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1909 editorial published in a Wenatchee, Washington newspaper. The context indicated that the quip was already in circulation; hence, the ascription was anonymous. The word “exuberance” was misspelled as “exhuberance”: 1

It is unfortunate that Charles R. Crane, who was recently designated as minister to China should have been led by an exhuberance of enthusiasm and interest in Oriental affairs to make remarks which might prove embarrassing to the administration. His indiscretion gives emphasis to the remark that it takes a person two years to learn how to talk and all the rest of his life to learn to keep from talking too much.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Baby Learns To Speak in Two Years, But It Takes a Lifetime To Learn To Keep Quiet

Notes:

  1. 1909 October 13, The Wenatchee Daily World, A Diplomat Must Be Discreet, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Wenatchee, Washington. (Newspapers_com)

The Difference Between the Almost Right Word and the Right Word Is Really a Large Matter—’Tis the Difference Between the Lightning Bug and the Lightning

Mark Twain? Josh Billings? Henry Wheeler Shaw? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Writing well requires the selection of properly expressive words. There is an enormous difference between selecting ‘lightning bug’ versus ‘lightning’. Apparently, Mark Twain said something similar to this, but I was surprised to discover that Twain credited his friend Josh Billings with crafting the wordplay of this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In the 1880s George Bainton contacted numerous successful authors requesting advice for beginning writers about effective work methods. Mark Twain sent a reply in 1888 that appeared in the resultant compilation titled “The Art of Authorship” in 1890.

Twain used the pronoun “he” while referring to himself as a neophyte author within his description of the writing process. Twain stated that he preferred short sentences: 1

Unconsciously he accustoms himself to writing short sentences as a rule. At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure that there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole.

Twain presented a vividly comical contrast while discussing word selection. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

Well, also he will notice in the course of time, as his reading goes on, that the difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning.

Yet, Twain willingly acknowledged that a comparable joke had been made by his friend and fellow humorist Josh Billings (pen name of Henry Wheeler Shaw) a couple decades earlier.

In 1869 several U.S. newspapers published a collection of sayings from Billings which included the following four items. Billings employed dialectical spelling: 3

The greater the man, the less his virteus appear, and the larger hiz faults.

The man who hain’t got an enemy, iz really poor.

Don’t mistake vivacity for wit, thare iz just az mutch difference az thare iz between lightning and a lightning bug.

No man ever yet undertook tew alter his natur by substituting sum invenshun ov his own, but what made a botch job ov it.

Here is Billings’ wordplay quip in standard spelling:

Don’t mistake vivacity for wit, there is just as much difference as there is between lightning and a lightning bug.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Difference Between the Almost Right Word and the Right Word Is Really a Large Matter—’Tis the Difference Between the Lightning Bug and the Lightning

Notes:

  1. 1890, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners, Compiled and edited by George Bainton, Section: Mark Twain, Start Page 85, Quote Page 87, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  2. 1890, The Art of Authorship: Literary Reminiscences, Methods of Work, and Advice to Young Beginners, Compiled and edited by George Bainton, Section: Mark Twain, Start Page 85, Quote Page 87 and 88, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link
  3. 1869 October 12, Daily Evening Herald, The Josh Billings Papers, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Stockton, California. (Newspapers_com)

Time Is What Keeps Everything From Happening At Once

Albert Einstein? Ray Cummings? Mark Twain? Arthur C. Clarke? John Archibald Wheeler? Arthur Power Dudden? Susan Sontag?

Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein has received credit for a humorous remark about time:

The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.

Would you please explore the provenance of this quip?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke the statement above. It is listed within a section called “Probably Not By Einstein” in the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

The earliest match known to QI appeared in 1919 within a story titled “The Girl in the Golden Atom” by Ray Cummings in the magazine “All-Story Weekly”: 2

“How would you describe time?”
The Big Business Man smiled. “Time,” he said, “is what keeps everything from happening at once.”
“Very clever,” said the Chemist, laughing.

The text above is from the 1970 reprint collection “Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of ‘The Scientific Romance'”. QI has not yet verified the quotation by directly examining the 1919 issue of All-Story Weekly”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Time Is What Keeps Everything From Happening At Once

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Quote Page 481, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1970, Under the Moons of Mars: A History and Anthology of “The Scientific Romance” in the Munsey Magazines: 1912-1920, Edited by Sam Moskowitz, The Girl in the Golden Atom by Ray Cummings (All-Story Weekly, March 15, 1919), Start Page 175, Quote Page 205, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified with scans)

Fame Is a Vapor; Popularity an Accident; Riches Take Wings

Mark Twain? Horace Greeley? N. D. Hillis?

Dear Quote Investigator: Two interesting quotations begin with the same phrases but diverge to emphasize different ideas of impermanence:

Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion.

Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident, riches take wings, those who cheer today will curse tomorrow, only one thing endures–character.

These remarks have been credited to the well-known humorist Mark Twain and the prominent newspaper editor Horace Greeley. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Horace Greeley achieved his greatest fame as the founder and editor of the popular “New-York Tribune” of New York City. In his later years he published an autobiography titled “Recollections of a Busy Life” which was serialized in several newspapers. On December 4, 1867 the “Nashville Union and Dispatch” of Tennessee printed a section of Greeley’s book about the founding of the “Tribune” which included a discussion of the evanescence of fame. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; riches take wings; the only earthly certainty is oblivion—no man can foresee what a day may bring forth; and those who cheer to-day will often curse to-morrow; and yet I cherish the hope that the journal I projected and established will live and flourish long after I shall have moldered into forgotten dust, being guided by a larger wisdom, a more unerring sagacity to discern the right, though not by a more unfaltering readiness to embrace and defend it at whatever personal cost; and that the stone which covers my ashes may bear to future eyes the still intelligible inscription, “Founder of The New York Tribune.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Fame Is a Vapor; Popularity an Accident; Riches Take Wings

Notes:

  1. 1867 December 4, Nashville Union and Dispatch, Horace Greeley and His Paper: Recollections of a Busy Life, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Nashville, Tennessee. (Newspapers_com)

My Idea of a Gentleman Is He Who Can Play a Cornet and Won’t

Oscar Wilde? Mark Twain? Frank Fiest? Will Rogers? Walter Armstrong? Herman Lindauer? William M. Lewis? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: What do the following musical instruments have in common: cornet, ukulele, saxophone, bagpipes, accordion, and banjo? Each of these instruments has a distinctive sound that is unpleasant to some listeners providing inspiration for a family of comical insults. Here are three typical barbs:

(1) A true gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes, and doesn’t.

(2) A considerate person is one who could play a saxophone but doesn’t wish to.

(3) A man who can play the accordion but won’t, is a good neighbor.

The well-known wits Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have received credit for this kind of quip, but I have been unable to find any supporting citations. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in January 1917 within the pages of “The Atchison Weekly Globe” of Atchison, Kansas. A mellow brass instrument was disparaged by a joke ascribed to a local man named Frank Fiest. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Frank Fiest: “My idea of a gentleman is he who can play a cornet and won’t.” Well said, Mr. Fiest.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading My Idea of a Gentleman Is He Who Can Play a Cornet and Won’t

Notes:

  1. 1917 January 25, The Atchison Weekly Globe, Half Minute Interviews, Quote Page 1, Column 7, Atchison, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)

If There Is a God, He Is a Malign Thug

Mark Twain? Clara Clemens? Justin Kaplan? Harlan Ellison? Darrell Schweitzer? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Famous author Mark Twain was grief-stricken when his daughter Susy died at age 24. The following expression of bitter despair has been ascribed to him:

If there is a God, he is a malign thug.

Oddly, no one has presented a good citation, and I have become skeptical of this attribution. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find this precise statement in the writings, dictations, or speeches of Mark Twain. It does not appear on the Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2 Further, it does not appear in the specialized volume “The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood” edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough. 3

QI conjectures that this statement was incorrectly derived from the 1966 book “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography” by Justin Kaplan. The distinctive phrase “malign thug” occurred when Kaplan was attempting to depict the thoughts of Mark Twain. Kaplan was not directly quoting Twain. Details are given further below.

Twain’s thoughts about religion were complex, contradictory, and heterodox. He did not want some of his controversial opinions to be published until many years after his death which occurred in 1910. Yet, the 1912 book “Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens” by Albert Bigelow Paine did contain some previously unpublished theological material written by Twain. Paine estimated that the following text was written in the early 1880s: 4

I do not believe in special providences. I believe that the universe is governed by strict and immutable laws. If one man’s family is swept away by a pestilence and another man’s spared it is only the law working: God is not interfering in that small matter, either against the one man or in favor of the other.

This conception of an aloof God-like being does not really fit the notion of a “malign thug”. Yet, Twain did use the adjectives “malign” and “malignant” when describing the Biblical deity during dictations recorded later in his life in 1906. See the passages from “The Bible According to Mark Twain” presented further below.

Below are additional selected citations.

Continue reading If There Is a God, He Is a Malign Thug

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched February 19, 2019) link
  2. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search)
  3. 1995, The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood, Edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough, (Quotation is absent), University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1912, Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine, Volume 4, Chapter 295: Mark Twain’s Religion, Quote Page 1583, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)

Never Argue With a Fool, Onlookers May Not Be Able To Tell the Difference

Mark Twain? Biblical Proverb? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Conflict on social media is now endemic, but it is not really new. Acrimonious exchanges between participants during the primeval days of online forums were known as “flame wars”.

Famed humorist Mark Twain has received credit for a germane cautionary remark:

Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

Unfortunately, no one has presented a good citation for Twain. Would you please examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find substantive evidence crediting this remark to Mark Twain. It does not appear on the Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2

The Bible contains a thematically related passage in Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5: 3

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.

Statements that were closer to the modern template emerged in the 1800s. Here is a sampling with dates which shows the variation in phrasing and the evolution over time. All of the earliest citations were anonymous.

1878: Don’t argue with a fool, or the listener will say there is a pair of you.

1878: Don’t argue with a fool or listeners will think there are two of you.

1896: Arguing with a fool shows that there are two.

1930: When you argue with a fool, he’s doing the same thing.

1930: When you argue with a fool be sure he isn’t similarly occupied.

1937 Never argue with a fool. But if you must, the safest way is to carry on the debate with yourself.

1938: Never argue with a fool in public lest the public not know which is which.

1943: When you argue with a fool, be sure he isn’t similarly engaged.

1951: It isn’t smart to argue with a fool; listeners can’t tell which is which.

1954: Never argue with a fool. Bystanders can’t tell which is which.

1966: Don’t argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

1999: Never argue with an idiot. You’ll never convince the idiot that you’re correct, and bystanders won’t be able to tell who’s who.

2012: Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Never Argue With a Fool, Onlookers May Not Be Able To Tell the Difference

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched February 19, 2019) link
  2. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search)
  3. Website: BibleHub, Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5, Translation: New American Standard Bible. (Accessed BibleHub.com on February 18, 2019) link

It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So

Mark Twain? Josh Billings? Artemus Ward? Kin Hubbard? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Oscar-winning 2015 film “The Big Short” begins with a display of the following statement:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

The brilliant humorist Mark Twain receives credit, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. This quip is very popular. Would you please investigate?

Quote Investigator: Scholars at the Center for Mark Twain Studies of Elmira College have found no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to Mark Twain. 1

The observation has been attributed to several other prominent humorists including: Josh Billings (pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw), Artemus Ward (pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne), Kin Hubbard (pen name of Frank McKinney Hubbard), and Will Rogers. Yet, it is unlikely then any of them said it. The creator remains anonymous based on current evidence.

The saying is difficult to trace because it falls within an evolving family of remarks concerning faulty knowledge and memory. Three processes operate on members of the family to generate new members and ascriptions incrementally:

  1. Statements are rephrased over time.
  2. Statements are hybridized together to produce new statements.
  3. Attributions are shifted from one prominent humorist to another.

The family contains some comments with genuine ascriptions. For example, in 1874 a compendium of wit and humor from Josh Billings was published. The work employed dialectal spelling which causes headaches for modern researchers who are attempting to find matches using standard spelling. The following pertinent item appeared in a section labeled “Affurisms”, i.e., “Aphorisms”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.

Here is the statement written with standard spelling:

I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.

This remark partially matched the saying under investigation, and it acted as a seed in the evolving family of remarks.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So

Notes:

  1. Website: Center for Mark Twain Studies, Article title: The Apocryphal Twain: “Things We Know That Just Ain’t So.”, Article author: Matt Seybold, Date on website: October 6, 2016, Website description: Center dedicated to fostering and supporting scholarship and pedagogy related to all aspects of Mark Twain based at Elmira College in Elmira, New York. (Accessed marktwainstudies.com on November 18, 2018) link
  2. 1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, Section: Affurisms: Sollum Thoughts, Quote Page 286, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link

They Eked Out a Precarious Livelihood by Taking in Each Other’s Washing

Mark Twain? William Morris? Edward Dicey? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Skeptics have questioned the economic viability of small isolated or insular communities by derisively envisioning rudimentary economies based on simple tasks, e.g., individuals would wash clothes for one another. This notion has been credited to humorist Mark Twain and socialist activist William Morris. In modern times this scenario has been used to criticize measures of economic activity such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the book “The Battle-Fields of 1866” within an essay by Edward Dicey about Heligoland, a small German archipelago in the North Sea near Germany and Denmark. Dicey compared the activities on Heligoland to those on the Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

What the inhabitants do during the winter is a subject too awful for contemplation. Somebody once suggested that the dwellers in the Isle of Man earned a precarious livelihood by taking in each other’s washing. A similar occupation is the only one I can suggest for the Heligolanders. Robinson Crusoe upon his rock can hardly have been more cut off from the outer world.

The locution “somebody once suggested” indicates that the origin is anonymous. Dicey’s essay was dated September 8, 1866 and it was published contemporaneously in newspapers such as “The Sheffield Daily Telegraph” of Sheffield, England which acknowledged “The London Telegraph’s correspondent”. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading They Eked Out a Precarious Livelihood by Taking in Each Other’s Washing

Notes:

  1. 1866, The Battle-Fields of 1866 by Edward Dicey, The Island of Heligoland, Location: Heligoland, Date: September 8, 1866, Start Page 247, Quote Page 254, Tinsley Brothers, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1866 September 17, The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Heligoland, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

This World Is the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe

Mark Twain? Thomas Jefferson? Voltaire? Edward Young? George Bernard Shaw? Laird MacKenzie? Elsie McCormick? Bertrand Russell? Kurt Vonnegut? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Several thinkers have offered an anguished explanation for the dangerously disordered state of the world. Here are four versions:

  • This world is the lunatic asylum for other planets.
  • Earth is a madhouse for the Universe
  • The other planets use Earth as an insane asylum.
  • Our world is bedlam for other worlds.

This notion has been credited to Mark Twain, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, George Bernard Shaw and others. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: This is a complex topic; hence, QI will split the response into three articles; an article centered on Voltaire’s quotation is available here; an article centered on George Bernard Shaw’s quotation is available here; an overview article is presented below.

A thematic match occurred in a lengthy work by the English poet Edward Young. The poem was called “The Complaint, Or, Night-thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality”, and it was split into a sequence of numbered “Nights”. The expression appeared in “Night Nine” which was serialized in “The Scots Magazine” in 1747. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But what are we? You never heard of Man,
Or Earth; the Bedlam of the universe!
Where Reason, undiseas’d with you, runs mad,
And nurses Folly’s children as her own;

Voltaire wrote a story “Memnon ou La Sagesse Humaine” (“Memnon or Human Wisdom”) in the late 1740s and published it by 1749. The main character Memnon mentions Earth’s place in the universe. Here is an English translation from 1807: 2

“I am afraid,” said Memnon, “that our little terraqueous globe here is the mad-house of those hundred thousand millions of worlds, of which your Lordship does me the honour to speak.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading This World Is the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe

Notes:

  1. 1747 May, The Scots Magazine, Volume 9, Section: Poetical Essays, The Complaint, Night 9 and Last: The Consolation, (by Edward Young), Continuation of Complaint, Night 9, Start Page 221, Quote Page 225, Printed by W. Sands, A. Murray, and J. Cochran, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1807, Classic Tales: Serious and Lively, Volume 2, Voltaire, Story: Memnon the Philosopher; or Human Wisdom, Start Page 181, Quote Page 188 and 189, Printed and Published by and for John Hunt & Carew Reynell, London. (Google Books Full View) link