How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Practice!

Jascha Heifetz? Arthur Rubinstein? Generic Maestro?

Dear Quote Investigator: How old is that classic joke about one of New York City’s landmark venues?

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Quote Investigator: Tracing jokes can be difficult because they can be told in so many ways. Etymologist Barry Popik is one of the most skilled practitioners of word and phrase tracing in the world, and he shares his results at the Big Apple website.

Popik has a web page about this quip that includes its earliest known appearance.

Continue reading How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Practice!

Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity

Albert Einstein? Frederick S. Perls? Anonymous? A Great Astronomer?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained three quotations that are usually attributed to Einstein. Are these quotes accurate? I am particularly interested in the second quotation:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about th’universe!

Did Einstein really say that?

Quote Investigator: Probably not, but there is some evidence, and QI can tell you why the quote is attributed to Einstein. The story begins in the 1940s when the influential Gestalt therapist Frederick S. Perls wrote a book titled “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method.”

Continue reading Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity

Time Flies Like an Arrow; Fruit Flies Like a Banana

Groucho Marx? Anthony Oettinger?

Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite quote attributed to Groucho Marx is the absurdist, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.” But I have read enough of this blog to know that sometimes quotes are wrongly credited. Can you tell me about this quote?

Quote Investigator: Yes, but the news is not good for your favorite Groucho quote. The Yale Book of Quotations is a wonderful reference that I recommend to all readers of this blog. Editor Fred R. Shapiro has researched this quote and says “There is no reason to believe that Groucho actually said this. It appeared in the Usenet news group net.jokes, 9 July 1982.”

So where did this quote come from?

Continue reading Time Flies Like an Arrow; Fruit Flies Like a Banana

This Post Fills a Much-Needed Gap – Part 02

Gary Cooper? Lee Neuwirth? Henry Miller? Moses Hadas?

Dear Quotation Investigator: I was told that a prominent journal editor would sometimes write a rejection letter to an author that said his or her “paper fills a much-needed gap”. Is this true?

QI: This post continues the investigation of the phrase “much needed gap”, restarting in 1956, and considers this new question. Here is a link to part one if you missed it.

When legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper asks movie star Gary Cooper about the new star Grace Kelly in 1956 he says that “she fills a much needed gap in motion pictures” [GC]. Misunderstanding is still prevalent.

Continue reading This Post Fills a Much-Needed Gap – Part 02

This Post Fills a Much-Needed Gap – Part 01

Dear Quotation Investigator: I once read that the funniest book review ever written begins with the sentence: “This book fills a much-needed gap”. Does this book review actually exist?

QI: Remarkably, the phrase mentioned does appear in many book reviews and other evaluations. For years writers have been incongruously eager to praise the filling of a “much-needed gap”. The book reviewers probably intend to say: “This book is a much needed gap-filler.” Instead, books are not being praised they are being inadvertently condemned because a much-needed gap should certainly remain unfilled.

Typically, the humor is unintentional, but sometimes the writer is aware of the precise meaning of the expression.

Continue reading This Post Fills a Much-Needed Gap – Part 01

Misbehaving Children in Ancient Times

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a great quote by Plato or Socrates about the misbehavior of children in antiquity that I read in the New York Times. The quote shows that the problems between generations are not just a recent occurrence. Instead, the conflicts between parents and offspring are timeless [NY8]:

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.

I wanted to use this quote, so I needed to know who said it; however, the NYT website contained a surprise. The newspaper had retracted the quote and now there was a note that said “Its origin is unclear, although many researchers agree that Plato is not the source.” I am sure I have seen this quote before. Can you tell me where it came from and who said it?

Quote Investigator: The quote is so entertaining and it fills its niche so well that it is cited repeatedly around the globe. Over the decades the quotation or a close variant has appeared in newspapers such as: Oakland Tribune of California in 1922; The Bee of Danville, Virginia in 1946; Winnipeg Free Press of Manitoba, Canada in 1976; The Sunday Herald of Chicago, Illinois in 1982; the Sun-Herald of Sydney, Australia in 2005; and the Taipei Times of Taiwan in 2008 [SOC1-SOC6]. The words are usually attributed to Socrates and the confusion with Plato is understandable because Plato’s dialogues are the primary source of knowledge concerning Socrates.

QI has determined that the author of the quote is not someone famous or ancient.

Continue reading Misbehaving Children in Ancient Times

Electric Communication Will Never Be a Substitute for the Face of Someone Who with Their Soul Encourages

Charles Dickens? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: In a book on corporate communications I read a quote that supposedly was said by Dickens: 1

Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.
Charles Dickens

I find this quote hard to believe. Naturally,  email and twitter did not exist in the time of Dickens, but even the telephone wasn’t deployed. Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone in 1876 and Dickens died in 1870.

Quote Investigator: Your skepticism is understandable and the quotation you provide has been modified; however, it is based on a passage in a work by Charles Dickens entitled “The Wreck of the Golden Mary”. A character in the story is commenting on communication via electric telegraph within a ship during a time of great peril and says the following. Boldface has been added: 2

O! what a thing it is, in a time of danger, and in the presence of death, the shining of a face upon a face!  I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph.  I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us.  But, it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true.  Never try it for that.  It will break down like a straw.

This quotation has been altered to obtain the shorter version that you give. Only one sentence from the story has been extracted for the quote. The pronoun referring to the telegraph has been removed, and the generic term “electric communication” has been substituted. Also, the male referents have been changed to genderless referents.

In conclusion, substantial changes have been made to the original text to yield the widely-distributed single sentence quotation in its modern form. The dramatic life-or-death context has been excised.

Yet, it is true that the words of Dickens did reflect skepticism toward substituting the telegraph for face-to-face contact in crucial situations.

Update History: On April 8, 2014 the style of the bibliographic notes was updated to numerical form.

Notes:

  1. 2007, Essentials of Corporate Communication by C. B. M. van Riel and Charles J. Fombrun, Page 181, Routledge. (Google Books limited view) link
  2. 1856 December 6, Household Words (Extra Christmas Number), The Wreck of the Golden Mary, Page 10, Column 2, Bradley and Evans. (Google Books full view) link

Everybody Talks About the Weather, But Nobody Does Anything About It.

Mark Twain? Charles Dudley Warner?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a classic Mark Twain quotation about the weather that I have used for years.

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

However, recently I visited the Bartleby website and discovered that the reference work Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations says that the attribution to Twain may be incorrect. Someone named Charles Dudley Warner may have created the saying. Who is Charles Dudley Warner and who created the quote?

QI: Your confusion is understandable and for many years the question of authorship for this quote was unresolved. But, QI has uncovered some new evidence that points to the most likely answer.

Continue reading Everybody Talks About the Weather, But Nobody Does Anything About It.

A New Blog Exploring Quotations

Have you ever enjoyed reading or hearing a clever quotation? Have you ever repeated the quote along with the attribution but wondered if the information was accurate? This blog tries to track down correct information about the provenance of sayings by utilizing the massive text databases that are being constructed right now along with other quotation history resources.