If You Can Keep Your Head When Everybody Round You Is Losing His, Then It Is Very Probable That You Don’t Understand the Situation

Rudyard Kipling? Elizabeth Ogden Smith? Bob Rigley? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular poem “If —” by the prominent literary figure Rudyard Kipling has often been parodied. The first lines extol the ability to remain levelheaded in situations where others are panicking. A comical twist suggests that the unflappable person probably does not really understand what is happening. Would you please examine this humorous response?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the “High School Bulletin” section of a newspaper published in Rhinebeck, New York in September 1935. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

And if you can keep your head when everybody round you is losing his, then it is very probable that you don’t understand the situation.

The second match in December 1936 occurred in the high school news section of a Lake Park, Iowa newspaper. The word “and” was omitted, and the word “around” replaced “round”: 2

If you can keep your head when everybody around you is losing his, then it is very probable that you don’t understand the situation.

In both cases, the creator of the expression was anonymous. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Can Keep Your Head When Everybody Round You Is Losing His, Then It Is Very Probable That You Don’t Understand the Situation

Notes:

  1. 1935 September 20, The Rhinebeck Gazette, High School Bulletin: Published by Rhinebeck High School: Section: Jokes, Quote Page 8, Column 4, Rhinebeck, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1936 December 17, The Lake Park News, The Little Sioux Warrior, Quote Page 7, Column 2, Lake Park, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)

People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf

George Orwell? Richard Grenier? Rudyard Kipling? Winston Churchill? John Le Carré? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant writer George Orwell authored two of the most powerful and acclaimed political books of the last century: 1984 and Animal Farm. The saying that interests me is usually attributed to him, and there are two popular versions:

We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf

I think these words are consistent with the sentiments Orwell expressed in essays, but I have read conflicting comments about whether these words are correctly ascribed to him. Would you trace the source of these statements?

Quote Investigator:There is no substantive evidence that George Orwell who died in 1950 made this remark. The earliest known matching statement appeared in a column in the Washington Times newspaper written by the film critic and essayist Richard Grenier in 1993: 1 2

As George Orwell pointed out, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

It is important to note that Grenier did not use quotation marks around the statement of the view that he ascribed to Orwell. QI believes that Grenier was using his own words to present a summary of Orwell’s viewpoint. Later commentators placed the statement between quotation marks and introduced various modifications to the passage.

This is a known mechanism for the generation of misattributions. Person A summarizes, condenses, or restates the opinion of person B. At a later time the restatement is directly ascribed to person B.

Previous researchers located the key 1993 citation and found phrases in the works of Orwell and Kipling that contain parts of the idea expressed in the aphorism under investigation. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf

Notes:

  1. 1993 April 6, The Washington Times, Perils of Passive Sex by Richard Grenier, Page F3, Washington, D.C. (NewsBank)
  2. In 2009 the noted science fiction author William Gibson expressed an interest in identifying the origin of this saying. The important 1993 citation was mentioned in a forum post at the website of Gibson by an individual using the handle Caplewood who suggested that “Grenier made it up”; William Gibson Message Board, Message from Caplewood with timestamp: July 17, 2009 10:47 AM. (Accessed williamgibsonboard.com on November 5, 2011) link