Famous for Being Famous

Daniel J. Boorstin? Andy Warhol? Charles Godfrey Leland? Marshall McLuhan? Raquel Welch? David Brinkley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Achieving fame required some significant accomplishment or impressive quality in the past. Now it seems that people are deemed notable for absurd reasons. Here are three phrases describing the self-referential nature of modern celebrityhood:

  • Famous for being famous.
  • Well-known for being well-known.
  • Notorious for their notoriety.

This concept has been attributed to historian Daniel Boorstin and Pop-Art fabricator Andy Warhol. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Intriguingly, this notion was mentioned back in the nineteenth century. In 1896 U.S. humorist Charles Godfrey Leland published a collection of re-told stories titled “Legends of Florence”. A character named Flaxius employed the saying while commenting on the motivations of some extravagant people. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . whole life and highest aim is really not to win gold for real pleasure, or even for avarice or aught solid, but merely to live in its glitter and sheen—to . . . jingle jewels, in a kind of fade ostentation, as doth a professional beauty or an actress famous for being famous, nothing more . . .

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1896, Legends of Florence: Collected from the People and Re-told by Charles Godfrey Leland (Hans Breitmann), Second Series, Chapter: La Via del Gomitolo del Oro, and How it got its Name, Quote Page 229, Macmillan and Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Every Society Honors Its Live Conformists, and Its Dead Troublemakers

Mignon McLaughlin? Marshall McLuhan? Wayne Dyer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: History books laud unconventional thinkers and eccentric characters who faced hardships during their lifetimes. An adage expressing this notion has been credited to magazine editor Mignon McLaughlin and media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Here are two versions:

  • The world values live conformists and dead rebels.
  • Society honors its living conformists and its dead troublemakers.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in “The Neurotic’s Notebook” by Mignon McLaughlin in 1963. The compendium contained quips, adages, and observations such as the following three. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The works of Herman Wouk seem written by two different men: one who creates a set of characters, and another who turns on them.

Every society honors its live conformists, and its dead troublemakers.

An artist usually has no friends except other artists, and usually they do not like his work.

McLaughlin worked as a writer and editor at magazines such as “The Atlantic Monthly”, “Glamour”, and “Vogue” for decades from the 1940s to the 1970s.

The attribution to Marshall McLuhan is spurious. It may have originated when someone confused the names McLaughlin and McLuhan. Alternatively, the mistake may have been catalyzed by textual proximity. Further details accompany the 2004 citation given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Every Society Honors Its Live Conformists, and Its Dead Troublemakers


  1. 1963, The Neurotic’s Notebook by Mignon McLaughlin, Chapter 7: Politics, Arts, Professions, Quote Page 72, The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified with scans)

A Lottery Is a Taxation Upon All the Fools in Creation

William Petty? Henry Fielding? Adam Smith? Camillo Benso? James Wolcott? Marshall McLuhan? Roger Jones? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The winners of a recent lottery jackpot split more than one billion dollars. Yet the probability of a lucky lottery strike is smaller than an unlucky lightning strike. Economists, mathematicians, and wits have made sardonic remarks like the following:

  • A lottery is tax on stupidity.
  • The lottery is a tax on fools.
  • Lotteries are a tax on the mathematically challenged.

Who you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Finding the earliest instances of this sentiment is difficult because expressions are variable. QI has located an example in the 1662 document “A Treatise of Taxes and Contributions” by the prominent English economist Sir William Petty. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Now in the way of Lottery men do also tax themselves in the general, though out of hopes of Advantage in particular: A Lottery therefore is properly a Tax upon unfortunate self-conceited fools; men that have good opinion of their own luckiness, or that have believed some Fortune-teller or Astrologer, who had promised them great success about the time and place of the Lottery, lying Southwest perhaps from the place where the destiny was read.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Lottery Is a Taxation Upon All the Fools in Creation


  1. 1662, Title: A treatise of taxes and contributions shewing the nature and measures of [brace] crown-lands, assessments, customs, poll-moneys, lotteries, benevolence, penalties, monopolies, offices, tythes, raising of coins, harth-money, excize, &c., Author: Sir William Petty (1623-1687), Chapter VIII: Of Lotteries, Quote Page 46, Publisher: Printed for N. Brooke, London. (Early English Books Online)

We Shape Our Tools, and Thereafter Our Tools Shape Us

Marshall McLuhan? Winston Churchill? Robert Flaherty? Emerson Brown? John Culkin? William J. Mitchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous media theorist Marshall McLuhan has been credited with a brilliant adage about the co-evolution of humans and tools. Here are two versions:

  1. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.
  2. We make our tools, and then our tools make us.

I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that these sayings evolved from a remark made by the U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill during a speech in the House of Commons in October 1943. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

On the night of 10th May, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity.

Churchill referred to “buildings” instead of “tools”, but buildings may be viewed as specialized tools for providing shelter. Interestingly, by 1965 a variant using “tools” was being attributed to Churchill. Details are provided further below in this set of chronological citations.

Continue reading We Shape Our Tools, and Thereafter Our Tools Shape Us


  1. 1943 October 28, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, House of Commons Rebuilding, Speaking: The Prime Minister (Mr. Churchill), HC Deb 28, volume 393, cc403-73. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on June 25, 2016) link

We Don’t Know Who Discovered Water, But We Know It Wasn’t a Fish

Marshall McLuhan? Albert Einstein? Clyde Kluckhohn? Pierce Butler? James C. Coleman? John H. Fisher? John Culkin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes an individual embedded in a particular culture or environment can become blind to the prevailing norms within his or her domain. I have heard a figurative expression that illustrates this predicament. Here are three versions:

  • We don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish.
  • The fish will be the last to discover water.
  • I don’t know who discovered water, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.

These words are often credited to the communication theorist and philosopher Marshall McLuhan, but I have not found a good citation. Could you examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: Marshall McLuhan did use a version of this saying in 1966, but he did not claim coinage; instead, he attributed the words to an anonymous “someone”. He also used the expression in later speeches. Detailed citations for McLuhan are given further below.

A recent update to the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” contained a thematically germane entry for “A fish doesn’t know it is in water; a fish doesn’t see water”. 1 The first citation for the adage was in a 1909 book titled “Every-Day Japan” which attempted to explicate the life and customs of Japan for an audience primarily in Britain and the United States. The following excerpt from the introduction was written by a Japanese Count. Emphasis added by QI: 2

It is said that fish do not see water, nor do Polar bears feel the cold. Native writers on subjects like those the present work deals with do not even think that anything which has been happening daily in their own immediate surroundings ever since their infancy can possibly be worthy of notice; the author of this work, on the contrary, being a foreigner, is able for this very reason to make a selection of striking facts, and, being also entirely free from local prejudice, is better able to arrive at just conclusions on the matters coming under his observation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Don’t Know Who Discovered Water, But We Know It Wasn’t a Fish


  1. 2016, Proverbium: Yearbook of International Proverb Scholarship, Volume 33, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs: A Supplement by Charles Clay Doyle and Wolfgang Mieder, Start Page 85, Quote Page 96 and 97, Published by The University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1909, Every-Day Japan by Arthur Lloyd, Section: Introduction by Count Hayashi (Tadasu Hayashi), Start Page xv, Quote Page xvi, Cassell and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link