You Shall Either Die Upon the Gallows or of the Pox

Samuel Foote? 4th Earl of Sandwich? James Quin? John Wilkes? William Gladstone? Benjamin Disraeli?

Dear Quote Investigator: The sharpest and funniest retort I know of was said in response to a harsh insult:

You, sir, will certainly either die upon the gallows or of a social disease.

That depends, sir, upon whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.

Can you tell me who spoke these lines?

Quote Investigator: Many versions of this dialog have been presented in books and periodicals over a span of more than two hundred years. In addition, the participants in this verbal thrust and parry have varied in different renditions. Here are five pairs of antagonists that have been proposed:

(1) 4th Earl of Sandwich and Samuel Foote.
(2) A Nobleman and James Quin.
(3) 4th Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes.
(4) William Ewart Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli.
(5) 4th Earl of Sandwich and Charles James Fox.

The earliest evidence located by QI was published in a London periodical called “The European Magazine” in 1784. A bracing encounter between Lord Sandwich and Samuel Foote was described. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1

Bon Mot of the late Sam. Foote—Sam. was invited to a convivial meeting at the house of the late Sir Francis Blake Delaval. Lord Sandwich was one of the guests upon the same occasion. When the Comedian entered, the Peer exclaimed, “what are you alive still?” “Yes, my Lord,” replied Foote. “Pray Sam,” retorted his Lordship, “which do you think will happen to you first, the experience of a certain disease, or an intimate acquaintance with the gallows?” “Why,” rejoined the Comedian, “that depends upon circumstances, and they are these, whether I prefer embracing your Lordship’s mistress, or, your principles.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Shall Either Die Upon the Gallows or of the Pox


  1. 1784 January, The European Magazine: and London Review, Bon Mot of the late Sam. Foote, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Philological Society of London, Printed for John Fielding, London. (Google Books Full View) link

What Is the Difference Between a Misfortune and a Calamity?

Benjamin Disraeli? Prince Jérôme Napoléon? Napoleon III? French Academician? Mr. Snigger? Suffragette? Max O’Rell? Paul Blouët? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The statesman Benjamin Disraeli was famous for his witticisms and barbs. Reportedly he was once asked about the difference in meaning between the words “misfortune” and “calamity”, and he constructed a jest aimed at his political rival William Ewart Gladstone:

Well, if Gladstone fell into the Thames, that would be a misfortune; and if anybody pulled him out, that would be a calamity.

The reference works I examined gave citations in the twentieth century, but Disraeli died in 1881. Is this tale apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: There are many versions of this joke, and it has been circulating and evolving for more than 150 years. For example, the pair of contrasting words has included the following: accident versus malheur; accident versus misfortune; accident versus calamity; mischance versus misfortune; mishap versus misfortune; and misfortune versus calamity.

The hazardous event depicted has varied over time: falling into a pit, a pond, an unnamed river, the Seine, or the Thames. The identity of the endangered individual has also changed: Prince Jérôme Napoléon (also known as Plon-Plon), Napoleon III, the Emperor of the French, Mr. Bright, Sir Bilberry, Mr. Snippson, William Gladstone, or David Lloyd George.

This variability makes tracing the quip difficult. The earliest instance known to QI appeared in May 1861 in the English newspaper “The Leeds Mercury” which suggested that the anecdote originated in France. The target of disdain was Prince Jérôme Napoléon. The tale begins with a discussion between the Prince Imperial and the Emperor of France about synonyms and other closely related words. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

. . . the juvenile Imperial blood asked his parent to explain to him the difference between the words “accident” and “misfortune,” which have certainly a little closer affinity in French than English, and seem to require a little elucidation. After a pause for an illustration, His Majesty said, “I will tell you, my boy, the exact difference. It would be an accident if your cousin, Prince Napoleon, were to tumble into the Seine—but it would be a misfortune if any one were to help him out again.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What Is the Difference Between a Misfortune and a Calamity?


  1. 1861 May 28, The Leeds Mercury, London Correspondence, Quote Page 2, Column 4 and 5, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive and Newspapers_com)

Thank You for the Gift Book. I Shall Lose No Time In Reading It

Benjamin Disraeli? William Gladstone? William Makepeace Thackeray? Moses Hadas? A celebrated botanist? A Scotchman? Thomas Bailey Aldrich? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.? Samuel Wilberforce? Max O’Rell?

Dear Quote Investigator: Aspiring authors sent numerous manuscripts to the statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Reportedly, he would send back a wittily ambiguous response:

Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it.

This statement might mean that Disraeli would immediately start to read the volume, or it might mean that he would never read the book. A similar response has been credited to William Makepeace Thackeray. Also, I have seen the following variant phrasing:

Your book has arrived, and I shall waste no time reading it.

Could you determine who is responsible for this type of quip?

Quote Investigator: This amusing remark has been attributed to a large and varied collection of individuals over the past 140 years including: French comedian Max O’Rell, author William Makepeace Thackeray, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, statesman Benjamin Disraeli, and his opposition William Gladstone.

First, QI notes that the phrase can be used in a straight-forward manner without a comical overlay. For example, a letter dated September 11, 1784 from the poet William Cowper used the phrase with the assumption that the text would indeed be read quickly: 1

I know that you will lose no time in reading it, but I must beg you likewise to lose none in conveying it to Johnson, that if he chuses to print it, it may go to the press immediately…

The earliest instance located by QI of an individual wielding the phrase with a humorous intent appeared in an 1871 issue of the British Quarterly Review. The quipster was identified as a botanist, but no name was given: 2

A celebrated botanist used to return thanks somewhat in the following form:—’I have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it.’ The unfortunate author might put his own construction on this rather ambiguous language.

In 1883 a travel book titled “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” printed the joke and referred to it as “the old equivoque”. The word “equivoque” meant a pun or a phrase with a double meaning: 3

…they may adopt the old equivoque—”We have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it!”

Also, in 1883 the witticism was printed in the science periodical Nature. The context was an article critical of testimonial letters which clearly indicated that the saying was being used sarcastically. The phrase was called a “well-known formula”: 4

Many testimonials are framed after that well-known formula for acknowledging the receipt of pamphlets which runs as follows:—”Dear Sir,—I beg to thank you for the valuable pamphlet which you have so kindly sent me, and which I will lose no time in reading.” And I heard the other day a testimonial praised because it showed the electors whom not to elect.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Thank You for the Gift Book. I Shall Lose No Time In Reading It


  1. 1805, The Port – Folio (1801-1827), Volume 5, Issue 45, Original Letters from Cowper to the Rev. William Unwin, Page 354, (Letter to Rev. William Unwin dated September 11, 1784), Published by H. Maxwell, Philadelphia. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  2. 1871 October 1, The British Quarterly Review, Article V, Letters and Letter Writing, Start Page 392, Quote Page 411, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1883, “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” by J. Fox Turner [John Fox Turner], Section: Preface, Quote Page vii, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., London. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation) link
  4. 1883 August 9, Nature (Weekly), A Result of our Testimonial System, Start Page 341, Quote Page 342, Column 1, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view; HathiTrust) link

Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled

Mark Twain? William Gladstone? The Allens? Harry Leon Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love to play golf, but sometimes when I am playing poorly I am tempted to simply walk the course and get some exercise. When I mentioned this to a friend he told me that Mark Twain said: “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” This sounds like Twain to me, but did he really say it?

Quote Investigator: No, Mark Twain was probably not responsible for this barb. The earliest attribution to Twain located by QI appeared in “The Saturday Evening Post” of August 1948. 1 But Twain died in 1910, so this is a suspiciously late citation with minimal credibility.

The earliest appearance of the quip that QI has discovered was in a 1903 book about lawn tennis. The players of this sport are the traditional adversaries of golfers in the field of recreation. Individual chapters of this book were written by different authors. The author of the second chapter, H. S. Scrivener, attributed the saying to fellow players named the Allens. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

… my good friends the Allens … one of the best of their many excellent dicta is that “to play golf is to spoil an otherwise enjoyable walk.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Golf is a Good Walk Spoiled


  1. 1948 August 28, Saturday Evening Post, Volume 221, Issue 9, Golf’s Own Home Town by Allan A. Michie, Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Saturday Evening Post Society, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Ebsco)
  2. 1903, Lawn Tennis at Home and Abroad edited by Arthur Wallis Myers (second chapter by H. S. Scrivener), Page 47, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link