What You Are Comes To You

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Norman Vincent Peale? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement is often attributed to the famous philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:

What you are comes to you.

Some adherents of “New Thought” and “New Age” belief systems view this as a spiritual law. This saying reminded me of the quasi-mystical book “The Secret”. However, I have not found this sentence in Emerson’s essays. Could you examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located this quotation in the works of Emerson, and QI hypothesizes that the ascription to Emerson emerged from a misreading of a passage by the best-selling writer Norman Vincent Peale who was a minister and proponent of “Positive Thinking”.

In Peale’s 1967 book “Enthusiasm Makes the Difference” he included a section about a psychological strategy he labeled the “‘As If’ Principle” which was summarized with the following quotation: 1

“If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.”

Peale recounted an anecdote in which an apathetic baseball player started to play as if he were enthusiastic. The athlete’s energy and vitality led to success and admiration, and these positive developments generated genuine enthusiasm.

Peale ended the section with a discussion of Ralph Waldo Emerson that included the quotation under investigation. But Peale did not claim that the short phrase “What you are comes to you” was from Emerson. In fact, the phrase was Peale’s and not Emerson’s. Peale was presenting his own summary analysis of Emerson’s perspective:

You too can activate yourself into enthusiasm by use of the “As if” principle. What you are comes to you. This remarkable principle is thus stated by Emerson, “A man is a method, a progressive arrangement; a selecting principle, gathering his like unto him wherever he goes.” So act as you want to be and you will be as you act.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What You Are Comes To You


  1. 1967, Enthusiasm Makes the Difference by Norman Vincent Peale, Page 20-22, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified with scans of 1971 fourth printing)

The Strength of the Sole Leather Has Passed into the Fibre of Your Body

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation about the value of exercise is attributed to the transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson:

When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the shoe leather has passed into the fiber of your body.

I searched for this expression in a database of writings by Emerson and was unable to find it. Neither the Wikiquote main page nor the discussion page for Emerson listed the saying. Would you be willing to explore these words?

Quote Investigator: A version of this statement did appear in the “Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson with Annotations: 1849-1855”, but some crucial words were different. Emerson spoke of “sole leather” and “fibre” instead of “shoe leather” and “fiber”. These small differences can cause a database search to fail. Even a search for a phrase that exactly matches a phrase that is present in a large-scale text database can sometimes fail for a variety of complex reasons.

Here is an excerpt from a journal page written in 1851 when Emerson was 48 years old. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Economy. Nature says thou shalt keep the air, skate, swim, walk, ride, run. When you have worn out your shoes, the strength of the sole leather has passed into the fibre of your body. I measure your health by the number of shoes and hats and clothes you have worn out. He is the richest man who pays the largest debt to his shoemaker.

The multi-volume edition of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals was edited by his son, Edward Waldo Emerson, and his grandson, Waldo Emerson Forbes. Publication was spread across several years, and the volume containing the excerpt above was released in 1913.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Strength of the Sole Leather Has Passed into the Fibre of Your Body


  1. 1913, Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson with Annotations: 1849-1855, Edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, (Age 48, 1851), Quote Page 232, Published by Constable & Co., London, and Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Internet Archive archive.org) link

Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You

Mary Schmich? Eleanor Roosevelt? Kurt Vonnegut? Baz Luhrmann? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Jane Addams? Mark Toby?

Dear Quote Investigator: To achieve personal growth it is sometimes necessary to move outside of a comfort zone. Unjustified fears can constrain exploration and positive development. Here is a saying I find valuable:

Do one thing every day that scares you.

The above advice is typically attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt who was First Lady for many years and a noted social activist. But I have been unable to find any justification for this ascription. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: An exact match for this quotation appeared within a June 1997 essay by Mary Schmich, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. She began her article with the statement: “Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out”, and she continued by presenting a staccato sequence of items of advice aimed at young students. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.

Do one thing every day that scares you.


Don’t be reckless with other people’s hearts. Don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours.


Don’t waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind. The race is long and, in the end, it’s only with yourself.

Mary Schmich’s essay went viral and became a smash hit by August 1997, but the words were not credited to her. Instead, the work was retitled “Wear Sunscreen” and was incorrectly described as a graduation speech given by the well-known author Kurt Vonnegut at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 2

In 1999 the essay was transformed into a popular spoken-word song titled “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” by the prominent film director Baz Luhrmann who credited Schmich. The quotation was included in the lyrics. 3 4

The famous transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson employed a precursor to the saying in the nineteenth century. The conception of incrementally conquering fears as a pathway to growth evolved over many decades. The following five instances of expressions are examined in greater depth further below:

Always do what you are afraid to do. (1841) —Popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson

To do what you are afraid to do is to guide your life by fear. How much better not to be afraid to do what you believe in doing! (circa 1881) —Jane Addams

You must do the thing you think you cannot do. (1960) —Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m supposed to do one thing every day that I want to do but I’m afraid to do. (1961) —Mark Toby

Do one thing every day that scares you. (1997) —Mary Schmich

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You


  1. 1997 June 1, Chicago Tribune, “Advice, Like Youth, Probably Just Wasted on the Young” by Mary Schmich, Page 4C, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  2. 1997 August 13, Washington Post, Section: Editorial, “The Speech That Wasn’t”, Quote Page A20:1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  3. YouTube video, Title: Baz Luhrmann – Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen, Uploaded on May 24, 2007, Uploaded by: steffyweffy777, (Quotation starts at 1 minute 20 seconds of 5 minutes 4 seconds), Lyrics based on essay by Mary Schmich, (Accessed youtube.com on August 8, 2013) link
  4. 1999 March 31, Chicago Tribune, “From column to song: ‘Sunscreen’ spreads to Chicago” by Mark Caro [Tribune staff writer], Online Archive of Chicago Tribune, Chicago, Illinois. (Accessed chicagotribune.com on August 8, 2013) link

We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children

Amish Saying? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Native American Proverb? Wendell Berry? Chief Seattle? Moses Henry Cass? Dennis J. Hall? Helen Caldicott? Lester Brown? David R. Brower? Taghi Farvar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In my opinion the most thoughtful and poignant quotation about the environment is the following:

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children

No one seems to know the origin of this saying. Perhaps it was constructed in recent decades, or perhaps it encapsulates the wisdom of previous centuries. Could you attempt to trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1971 the influential environmental activist Wendell Berry published a book titled “The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge”. Berry emphasized the desirability of preserving natural areas and adapting a long-range perspective about the environment. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…

The wording in the passage above did not exactly match the modern instance of the saying, but this citation was the earliest evidence known to QI. Later expressions may have been derived directly or indirectly from the words above.

In May 1971 Berry published an essay in “Audubon” magazine titled “The One-Inch Journey” which was based on chapter 2 of the book mentioned above. The excerpt above was reprinted in the essay, and thus it achieved wider dissemination. This appearance also linked the saying to the Audubon Society. 2

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children


  1. 1971, The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge by Wendell Berry, Photographs by Gene Meatyard, Chapter 2: The One-Inch Journey, Start Page 11, Quote Page 26, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1971 May, Audubon, The One-Inch Journey by Wendell Berry, Start Page 4, Quote Page 9, Column 1, National Audubon Society, New York. (Verified in paper)

Watch Your Thoughts, They Become Words; Watch Your Words, They Become Actions

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Lao Tzu? Frank Outlaw? Gautama Buddha? Bishop Beckwaith? Father of Margaret Thatcher?

Dear Quote Investigator: What do the following people have in common: Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, supermarket magnate Frank Outlaw, spiritual teacher Gautama Buddha, and the father of Margaret Thatcher? Each one of these individuals has been credited with versions of the following quote:

Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.

Can you sort out this confusing situation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a closely matching expression located by QI was published in a Texas newspaper feature called “What They’re Saying” in May 1977. The saying was ascribed to the creator of a successful U.S. supermarket chain called Bi-Lo: 1

“Watch your thoughts, they become words;
watch your words, they become actions;
watch your actions, they become habits;
watch your habits, they become character;
watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Late President of the Bi-Lo Stores

QI believes that this saying evolved over many decades. One interesting property that is shared between the modern expression and several precursor sayings involves wordplay. Consider five of the key words in the saying: words, actions, thoughts, character, and habits. The initial letters can be arranged to spell the repeated focal term: w, a, t, c, h. This type of wordplay will be discussed further below.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order Continue reading Watch Your Thoughts, They Become Words; Watch Your Words, They Become Actions


  1. 1977 May 18, San Antonio Light, What They’re Saying, Quote Page 7-B (NArch Page 28), Column 4, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)

If I Shoot at the Sun, I May Hit a Star

P. T. Barnum? Britney Spears? George Herbert? Jane Russell? W. Clement Stone? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Norman Vincent Peale? Les Brown? John McEnroe?

Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a collection of sayings that uses celestial bodies to illustrate advice about setting goals. Here are three examples:

  1. If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.
  2. If we aim at the moon—we may hit a star!
  3. Shoot for the moon. If you miss it, you will still land among the stars.

The moon and sun are impressive objects in the sky while the stars are less luminous and therefore not as visually striking. Hence, I think that these adages mean the following: If you set a very difficult goal for yourself then even if you are only partially successful you will find that the result is still superb.

Modern astronomical knowledge makes the sayings more difficult to interpret. Stars (other than the sun) are much farther away from the Earth than the sun or the moon. Hence, hitting a star is actually much more difficult than hitting the sun or moon. Indeed, there is another set of aphorisms that switches the role of the moon and the stars:

  1. If you don’t aim for the stars, you’re not going to get to the moon.
  2. I’ll shoot for the stars, and I’ll settle for the moon.

These types of sayings have been credited to P. T. Barnum, Norman Vincent Peale, and others. Could you examine this class of quotations?

Quote Investigator: An important precursor to this collection of sayings was written by the poet and Anglican priest George Herbert who died in 1633. In the poem “The Church-Porch” a verse exhorted the reader to be humble but also to “aimeth at the sky”. Herbert contended that one would achieve more by targeting the sky instead of adopting the easier task of aiming at a tree: 1

Pitch thy behaviour low, thy projects high;
So shalt thou humble and magnanimous be:
Sink not in spirit; who aimeth at the sky,
Shoots higher much, than he that means a tree.
A grain of glory mix’d with humbleness
Cures both a Fever, and Lethargickness.

The advice that one should aim at the moon to achieve something great has been proffered for many years. In 1846 an instance of this type of guidance suggested that one may not hit the moon but still “hit a high mark”. The following words were credited to George Herbert, and QI hypothesizes that this expression evolved from Herbert’s verse given above: 2

…still George Herbert’s advice on a higher matter is applicable to this, that we had better shoot at the moon if we want to hit a high mark.

In 1859 an expression of this kind was already labeled an “old saying”. In the following excerpt the result of shooting at the moon was not as impressive as landing among the stars; nevertheless, it was portrayed as desirable: 3

You remember the old saying, Beatrice, “Shoot at the moon and you will hit the top of the highest tree.” If you could not be a genius you may, nevertheless, have made greater progress by the effort to be one.

In 1865 a statement mentioned shooting at the stars instead of the moon. The conceptual pattern of the aphorism was the same. The result of pursuing an exalted goal was the achievement of a less impressive but useful goal: 4

Probably the ingenious author goes on the principle that if you shoot at the stars you may hit a tree. If you cram your novel with Cabinet Ministers and Latin and Greek and Lafitte, you may get the public to listen to your substantial but prosaic grievance, that an inmate of Whitecross Street prison may not receive visitors on a Sunday.

In 1876 another astronomical object was presented as an unreachable but valuable aspirational target: the sun: 5

Again, he would say, “shoot an arrow at the sun every morning.” “But we can’t hit it,” was the answer. “You will hit higher than if you aimed lower,” he would reply.

In 1879 the name of George Herbert was invoked again. This time the saying credited to him concerned the moon and a tree: 6

This was an ideal scheme, but nothing great is ever accomplished by the man who has not a high ideal: and George Herbert’s words were never forgotten by the bishop, “that it is good to shoot at the moon even though you only hit a tree.”

Finally, in 1891 an expression matching a version given by the questioner was printed in a collection of quotations and short writings that had been “Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California”. The words were ascribed to the famous American showman Phineas T. Barnum: 7

If I shoot at the sun, I may hit a star.
—P. T. Barnum

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If I Shoot at the Sun, I May Hit a Star


  1. 1709, “The Temple, Sacred Poems and Private Ejaculations” by George Herbert, [The Thirteenth Edition Corrected; First Edition was published in 1633], The Church-Porch, Start Page 1, Quote Page 12, Printed for John Wyat, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1846 December, The English Review, Englishwomen of the 17th and 19th Centuries, Start Page 285, Quote Page 330, Francis & John Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1859, “Beatrice; or, Six Years of Childhood and Youth” by Mrs. S. Valentine [Laura Valentine], Quote Page 127, William Tegg & Co., London. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1865 September 30, The Saturday Review, Volume 20, Who is the Heir? [Book Review], Start Page 429, Quote Page 430, Column 1, Published at the Saturday Review Office, London. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1876 September 8, Kalamazoo Weekly Gazette, “Picnicing Pioneers. The Fifth Annual Re-Union a Success Socially and Numerically” Quote Page 2, Column 6, Kalamazoo, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1879, “Memoir of the Life and Episcopate of George Augustus Selwyn, D.D.” by Rev. H. W. Tucker [Henry William Tucker], Volume 2 of 2, Quote Page 256, William Wells Gardner, London. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1891, More Borrowings, Compiled by Ladies of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California, Quote Page 24, [Copyright 1891 by Sarah S. B. Yule and Mary S, Keene], C. A. Murdock & Co., Printers, San Francisco, California. (Google Books full view) link

Lose As If You Like It, and Win As If You Are Used to It

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Eric Mark Golnik? Thomas Hitchcock, Jr.? Thomas Hitchcock, Sr.?  F. Ambrose Clark? Rosalind Russell? Jock Whitney? Desi Arnaz? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a quotation about sportsmanship that I would like to learn more about:

Win as if you were used to it, lose as if you enjoyed it for a change.

I have seen these words credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eric Mark Golnik, and anonymous. Could you examine this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no compelling evidence linking the coinage of the saying to Emerson or Golnik. The earliest relevant citation located by QI was a precursor printed in The Times of London in 1920. An article about the Tennis Amateur Championship praised a player named E. L. Phillips [TCPH]:

Mr. Phillips has learned the most difficult thing in all games, to lose as if he liked it, and is therefore even a pleasure to play against, in spite of the fact that he often wins.

The excerpt above presented part of the saying. A more complete version appeared in a 1929 book in the domain of horse racing titled:  “Between the Flags: The Recollections of a Gentleman Rider”. The author placed the statement between quotation marks indicating that the adage was already in circulation without attribution [BFHP]:

In racing, the rough and the smooth are so quickly interchangeable that the only path safe from the ridiculous, is the one guarded by “Win as if you are used to it. Lose as if you liked it.”

In 1942 the Edwardsville Intelligencer, a newspaper in Illinois, published the maxim as a freestanding sentence without ascription, i.e., as filler material. The word “it” in the phrase “like it” was apparently accidentally omitted [LLEI]:

Lose as if you like, and win as if you were used to it.

In April 1943 a Texas newspaper assigned the adage to an individual [LRTH]:

Lose as if you like it, and win as if you were used to it — Thomas Hitchcock.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Lose As If You Like It, and Win As If You Are Used to It

Life Is a Journey, Not a Destination

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Lynn H. Hough? Aerosmith? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Ralph Waldo Emerson is often credited with the following:

Life is a journey, not a destination.

I’ve searched the RWE.org database without luck and did a text search through over 1100 pages of his essays. I believe this is a misattribution. Any insight you have into the lineage of this quote would be much appreciated.

Quote Investigator: QI believes that an exact match for the expression above has not been found in the oeuvre of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet, Emerson did write a thematically related remark [RWEJ]:

To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.

This sentence suggested a psychological vantage point in which the intermediate advances of the journey were representative of the completion of the journey. This is arguably a distinct statement from the questioner’s saying which is listed in “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” without attachment to a specific person [DPLJ].

The earliest close match located by QI appeared in 1920 in a periodical called “The Christian Advocate”. The phrase was used by the theologian Lynn H. Hough within his outline for a Sunday School Lesson discussing a letter from Simon Peter. Bold face has been added to the phrase here and some phrases below [LHCA]:

He wanted his friends to realize that life is a journey and not a destination; that the heart must be set upon those matters of character which are eternal and not upon those matters of sensation which pass away.

Interesting precursors of the expression were in circulation in the previous century. In 1854 “The Sunday at Home: A Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading” printed a “Page for the Young” with the following advice [SHPY]:

You should learn in early youth that your life is a journey, not a rest. You are travelling to the promised land, from the cradle to the grave.

In 1855 another religious text used a variant phrase and provided an explanation [PSJC]:

All life is a journey, not a home; it is a road, not the country; and those transient enjoyments which you have in this life, lawful in their way,—those incidental and evanescent pleasures which you may sip,—are not home; they are little inns only upon the road-side of life, where you are refreshed for a moment, that you may take again the pilgrim-staff and journey on, seeking what is still before you—the rest that remaineth for the people of God.

A decade later the passage above was reprinted in a collection entitled “A Cyclopaedia of Illustrations of Moral and Religious Truths”; however, it was labeled ANON [CRJB].

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Life Is a Journey, Not a Destination

He Has Achieved Success Who Has Lived Well, Laughed Often and Loved Much

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Bessie A. Stanley? Albert Edward Wiggam? Harry Emerson Fosdick? Ann Landers? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In church this morning I listened to a short discourse on the definition of success. It began:

To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends,…

The speaker credited the words to Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I am confident this ascription is inaccurate. Can you find the real source of this quotation?

Quote Investigator: Your skepticism is well founded. Many of the words you heard were derived from an essay written by Bessie A. Stanley of Lincoln, Kansas. Here is an article about her essay that was published in the Emporia Gazette of Emporia, Kansas on December 11, 1905 [BSEK]:

A Boston firm recently offered several prizes for the best essay on the subject. “What Constitutes Success?” It was stipulated that the essay must be under one hundred words in length.

A Kansas woman, Mrs. A. J. Stanley of Lincoln, submitted a definition of success in the contest. Mrs. Stanley is the wife of the county superintendent of schools in Lincoln county. Her husband also represented his county in the legislature of 1899. It was considered in competition with several hundred others from all parts of the country, and a few days ago Mrs. Stanley received a draft for two hundred and fifty dollars, with the information that she had won the first prize. Her definition was as follows:

“He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.”

There are multiple versions of this essay with relatively small differences that are all attributed to Bessie A. Stanley. For example, in 1906 a version was printed in a Springfield, Illinois newspaper that replaced the line immediately below with the next line [ILBS]:

… who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;

… who has gained the trust of pure women and the love of little children;

A considerably altered version of the piece was published in a syndicated newspaper column by Albert Edward Wiggam in 1951. When asked the question “What is success?” Wiggam decided to answer by presenting what he claimed was an abridged version of statements that he credited to Ralph Waldo Emerson [AWRE]:

Listen to Emerson (abridged): “To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent persons and the affection of children; to earn the approbation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty.

“To find the best in others; to give one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exaltation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded.”

This is the earliest evidence of an association to Emerson located by QI. The beginning of this piece was quite similar to Stanley’s work, and it was thematically congruent, but the latter part of the text diverged significantly. QI has not yet located comparable passages in Emerson’s corpus.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading He Has Achieved Success Who Has Lived Well, Laughed Often and Loved Much

What You Do Speaks So Loudly that I Cannot Hear What You Say

John F. Kennedy? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 1960 President John F. Kennedy spoke at that Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah and used a quotation that he attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson [JKU]:

What we are speaks louder than what we say, as Emerson said.

I was surprised when I came across this because my favorite saying about hypocrisy is the following:

What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

I thought these words were written by Emerson, but now I am not so certain. Did Emerson express this idea in more than one way? Did Kennedy employ a misquotation? Surprisingly, I could not find either of these statements in a database of Emerson’s essays. Could you help me to unravel this?

Quote Investigator:The first quotation below is directly from an essay titled “Social Aims” by Ralph Waldo Emerson published in 1875. The other six quotes appeared in the years afterward. Most are credited to Emerson, but one is ascribed to a “great man”, and another is anonymous. It is remarkably commonplace for a popular saying to be simplified and streamlined over time:

1) Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.

2) Don’t talk. What you are thunders so loudly above what you say that I cannot hear you.

3) Be still, for what you are stands over you and speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.

4) What you are stands over you and thunders, and denies what you say.

5) What you are, thunders so loud that I cannot hear what you say.

6) What you are speaks so loud I can not hear what you say

7) What you do speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.

The ordering of the sayings given above is based on perceived simplification and not chronology. All of these items were published on or before 1900. The last item appeared in a sermon published in 1900, and the parishioners were told that the wisdom emanated from Emerson.

The variant that is the questioner’s favorite is nearly identical to item seven which has been ascribed to Emerson for more than one-hundred years. The words “loud” and “loudly” have been swapped. QI thinks that both quotations presented by the questioner are abridged and simplified forms of what Emerson actually wrote.

This belief concurs with quotation expert Ralph Keyes who identified saying number one above as the likely impetus for the modern sayings numbered six and seven [QVRE]. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What You Do Speaks So Loudly that I Cannot Hear What You Say