He Is a Modest Man Who Has a Great Deal To Be Modest About

Winston Churchill? Voltaire? Julian Amery? Ronald Reagan? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a political rival of Winston Churchill was once praised with the description “He is a modest man.” Churchill responded with the quip “He has much to be modest about.” Would you please investigate this tale?

Quote Investigator: Clement Attlee became the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in July 1945. In December 1945 “The New York Times” printed a group of anecdotes that were circulating in newspapers and diplomatic circles in London. One tale was about Attlee. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Although some quarters contend that the Labor Government has gone too far too fast in instituting reforms, a considerable bloc of Prime Minister Attlee’s supporters is frankly disappointed. That explains this observation, now making the rounds: “Attlee is a modest man who has a great deal to be modest about.”

The originator of the barb was unidentified although the prefatory words suggested that the critic wished to see more reforms from Attlee’s administration whereas Churchill opposed those reforms. The phrasing of the remark has been variable, and an instance was ascribed to Churchill by April 1947 in a Canadian newspaper.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading He Is a Modest Man Who Has a Great Deal To Be Modest About


  1. 1945 December 9, The New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, What London Is Laughing At, Quote Page 21, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)

Baby: An Alimentary Canal with a Loud Voice at One End and No Responsibility at the Other

Elizabeth I. Adamson? Ronald Knox? Ronald Reagan? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a definition that refers to the two ends of a baby. One end consists of a loud voice or a big appetite, and the other end is given a comical description. Are you familiar with this joke? Would you please research its origin?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance located by QI appeared in the July 1937 issue of “The Reader’s Digest”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

BABY: An alimentary canal with a loud voice at one end and no responsibility at the other.—Elizabeth I. Adamson

QI does not have any biographical information for Adamson, but based on current evidence she was the most likely creator of this quip. In 1965 future president Ronald Reagan extended the metaphorical framework to construct a barb aimed at government.

Details are given below together with selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Baby: An Alimentary Canal with a Loud Voice at One End and No Responsibility at the Other


  1. 1937 July, Reader’s Digest, Volume 31, Patter, Quote Page 101, Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified using hardcopy)

There Are Two Lasting Bequests We Can Give Our Children: Roots and Wings

Henry Ward Beecher? Jonas Salk? Hodding Carter? Wise Woman? Ronald Reagan? Jean W. Rindlaub? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: The goals of child rearing have sometimes been explicated using two vivid metaphors: roots and wings. This contrasting figurative language presents a powerful though oddly incongruous combination:

Parents should provide their children with roots and wings.

There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other wings.

Good parents give their children roots and wings: roots to know where home is, and wings to fly off and practice what has been taught them.

Expressions of this type have been linked to the clergyman Henry Ward Beecher, the scientist Jonas Salk, and the journalist Hodding Carter. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a strong match located by QI was published in 1953 in the book “Where Main Street Meets the River” by Hodding Carter who was a prominent newspaper editor. The expression was credited to an anonymous “wise woman”. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

A wise woman once said to me that there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these she said is roots, the other, wings. And they can only be grown, these roots and these wings, in the home. We want our sons’ roots to go deep into the soil beneath them and into the past, not in arrogance but in confidence.

QI has found no substantive evidence that the well-known nineteenth-century minister Henry Ward Beecher used this expression. There is some evidence that the famous research scientist Jonas Salk employed a version of the saying, but citations occurred many years after Carter’s instance was already in circulation.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Two Lasting Bequests We Can Give Our Children: Roots and Wings


  1. 1953, Where Main Street Meets the River by Hodding Carter, Chapter 27: It’s How We like It, Quote Page 337, Published by Rinehart & Company, New York. (Verified on paper)

There Must Be a Pony Somewhere

James Kirkwood Jr.? Ronald Reagan? Ken Kesey? Anonymous?

pony03Dear Quote Investigator: There is a famous joke about a child who wakes up on Christmas morning and is surprised to find a heap of horse manure under the tree instead of a collection of presents. Yet, the child is not discouraged because he has an extraordinarily optimistic outlook on life. His parents discover him enthusiastically shoveling the manure as he exclaims, “With all this manure, there must be a pony somewhere!”

New York Times language maven William Safire stated that the entire joke would be brought to mind for many readers by simply mentioning the punchline: 1

There must be a pony in here somewhere.

Safire connected the tale to Ronald Reagan who enjoyed telling a version, but I know that the Broadway playwright James Kirkwood Jr. also wrote a semi-autobiographical 1960 novel referencing the tale with the title:

There Must Be A Pony!

Would you please trace this comical anecdote?

Quote Investigator: There are many versions of this joke, and it has been evolving for more than one hundred years. The telltale sign of a pony seen by the expectant child has varied, e.g., horse dung, a horse shoe, horsehair, and a bale of hay. Sometimes one child was featured, and sometimes the divergent behaviors of an optimistic child and a pessimistic child were contrasted. This high variability makes the story difficult to trace. Also, the earliest instances located by QI used a different punchline.

In 1902 a state senator in Illinois addressed a banquet of business people in the advertising industry and presented the following narrative: 2

Three little children were hanging up their stockings. They were Rebecca and Rachel and Ikey. The old man had licked Ikey the night before and told him that Santa Claus was no good and wouldn’t bring him anything.

“Oh, yes,” said Ikey, “Santa Claus will; my father is an old friend of his; Santa Claus is a nice fellow; he will bring me something.”

By the way, I should tell you what a mean daddy the father was. He went out into the street and got a piece of frozen earth that hadn’t been left there by an automobile [laughter], and he put that—deliberately took and put it in poor little Ikey’s stocking. In the morning the three children were up early to find out what Santa Claus had left them. “What you got?” was the first question as each examined the contents of the stockings. Rachel had a little diamond ring and Rebecca had a gold watch. “And you, Ikey. What did you get?”

But Ikey was faithful.

“Well, Santa Claus is all right,” he said. “I think he brought me a pony, but he must have got away.” [Laughter and applause.]

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Must Be a Pony Somewhere


  1. 1984 March 11, New York Times, On Language: Punch-line English by William Safire, Quote Page A28, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1902 January, Advertising Experience, Volume 14, Number 3, Agate Club Banquet of December 20th, (Speaker: William E. Mason, Illinois State Senator), Start Page 3, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Published and Edited by W.G. Souther, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link

I’ve Never Been Hired by a Poor Person

Robert Orben? Milton Berle? Ronald Reagan? Phil Gramm? Michael Dolan? Roger Ross? Sean Hannity? Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Quote Investigator: Years ago I heard a quotation that was credited to Ronald Reagan about the creation of jobs. I do not remember the precise wording, but here are two versions that express the gist of the quote:

No poor man ever gave me a job.

Have you ever been hired by a poor person?

Recently, I’ve seen the saying credited to former Senator Phil Gramm. Can you determine who made this remark?

Quote Investigator: The top etymological researcher Barry Popik has explored this saying, and the results given here build on his valuable work.

The earliest evidence for this expression located by QI was published in a 1977 profile of a professional comedy writer named Robert Orben. The New York Times article noted that Orben supplied humorous material to business men and women who were planning to deliver speeches. The story listed some of lines suggested by Orben. For example, here is an introductory remark and a retort aimed at a heckler [ORNY]:

The program director really wasn’t sure how I’d do tonight. I asked him the capacity of this room. He said, ‘It sleeps 300’.

Sir, to have an open mind doesn’t mean you have to have an open mouth.

The article also contained a statement similar to the one under investigation:

Don’t knock the rich. When was the last time you were hired by somebody poor?

In March 1978 the same quip appeared in a newspaper advertisement for a shop called “Ross Jewelers” of Nashua, New Hampshire.

In December 1981 a South Carolina newspaper column titled “The Stroller” printed a version of the joke [SRSC]:

Here’s something to think about: Don’t knock the rich. When were you ever hired by a poor person?

In 1989 the famous comedian Milton Berle published a collection of his jokes that included a modified version of the quip. The second half was changed to an exclamation instead of a rhetorical question [MBPJ]:

I don’t knock the rich. I never got a job from a poor person!

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I’ve Never Been Hired by a Poor Person

A Man May Do an Immense Deal of Good, If He Does Not Care Who Gets the Credit

Benjamin Jowett? Father Strickland? William T. Arnold? Harry Truman? Ronald Reagan? Charles Edward Montague? Edward Everett Hale?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a quotation I love that presents an insightful guideline for the most effective way to achieve a goal by accenting humility:

The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit for doing them.

When I tried to find out who was responsible for this quotation I became confused because there are so many different versions of what I consider to be the same basic idea. Could you look into this expression or family of expressions and figure out who first verbalized the thought?

Quote Investigator: This is a complicated question, and QI will attempt to tackle it for you. This concept of positive action coupled with a generous spirit has a multiplicity of formulations, and it has inspired a large number of people. Here are five versions:

[1] A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.

[2] This was the opportunity for a man who likes to do a good thing in accordance with the noble maxim … “Never mind who gets the credit.”

[3] The way to get things done is not to mind who gets the credit of doing them.

[4] There is no limit to what a man can do who does not care who gains the credit for it.

[5] There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.

These sayings are certainly not identical, but they are closely interlinked thematically. Quotation number [1] appeared in a diary entry from the year 1863 in which the words were recorded as spoken by a Jesuit Priest named Father Strickland. This is the earliest citation located by QI.

In 1896 the text of [2] was published, and the phrase “Never mind who gets the credit” was dubbed the noble maxim of Edward Everett Hale.

In 1905 quotation [3] was published, and the words were attributed to Benjamin Jowett who was a theologian and classical scholar at Oxford University. But one of the author’s who made this attribution decided it was flawed, and in a later book he reassigned credit for the saying from Jowett to a “Jesuit Father”. This is probably a reference to Father Strickland. This maxim is a very close match to the quote given by the questioner above.

Expression [4] was used by Charles Edward Montague in 1906, but he did not claim coinage of the phrase. He said it was the favorite saying of his friend and colleague the journalist William T. Arnold. But Montague did not credit Arnold as originator either. He left the attribution anonymous by using the locution “someone has said”.

In 1922 Montague published a close variant of saying [4], “There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit”, in his book “Disenchantment”. For this reason he is sometimes cited in modern texts and databases.

Finally, quotation [5] appeared in the 1980s on a small plaque atop the desk in the Oval Office of the White House during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Man May Do an Immense Deal of Good, If He Does Not Care Who Gets the Credit