Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle

Plato? Philo of Alexandria? Ian MacLaren? John Watson?

This blog post is based on a question that was posed at the wonderful blog used by the quotation expert Fred Shapiro who is the editor of one of the best reference works in this area: The Yale Book of Quotations. Fred Shapiro’s posts appear on the Freakonomics blog.

Question: This question is from Glossolalia Black.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.

It is attributed to Plato on this little thing I have up in my office, but I was told by a friend that it wasn’t him.

Fred Shapiro replied “this sounds anachronistic for Plato by almost 2500 years” and then invited readers to attempt to trace the quotation.

Quote Investigator: The websites ThinkExist, Quotations Page, and Brainy Quote do have this quotation listed under the august name of Plato.

Philo of Alexandria is another popular choice when assigning attribution, e.g., QuotationsBook credits Philo. Sometimes Anonymous gets the nod. QI was able to trace the saying back more than one-hundred years to its likely origin. The original aphorism did not use the word “kind”. Instead, another surprising word was used.

Continue reading Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle

No Respect for a Man Who Can Spell a Word Only One Way

Mark Twain? Nyrum Reynolds? Hiram Runnels? Andrew Jackson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I sometimes have difficulty spelling words correctly. But I take comfort in the magnificent statement attributed to Mark Twain:

I don’t give a damn for a man that can only spell a word one way.

Actually, I used to take comfort in those words, but recently I have found several other versions of this quip:

Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.

I have no respect for a man who can spell a word only one way.

Never trust anyone who can’t spell a word more than one way.

All of these quotations are credited to Twain. But now I have become suspicious. Did Twain say any of these sentences? Could you investigate this puzzle?

Quote Investigator: The statement has never been found in the writings or speeches of Mark Twain. Yet, Twain has been connected to the remark for more than one hundred and thirty years. The earliest linkage known to QI consisted of an unsupported attribution published in 1875: 1

Mark Twain says that he must have little genius who can’t spell a word in more than one way.

Since Twain lived to the age of 74 in 1910, the remark was credited to him for a few decades while he was alive. The TwainQuotes website of Barbara Schmidt includes an excellent webpage on the theme of spelling. However, none of the quotes featured match the joke precisely. The attitudes expressed do help to explain why contemporaries were willing to attribute the joke to Twain. Here is an example from Twain’s autobiography: 2 3

I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling-book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling-book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.

Interestingly, the earliest known versions of the comical remark were not attributed to Mark Twain. Instead, two individuals with curiously similar names were each separately credited: Nyrum Reynolds and Hiram Runnels. The first version that QI has located was an anecdote about Nyrum Reynolds dated August 31, 1855. The spelling in the following excerpt was present in the original text. Boldface has been added: 4

Several years ago, “when the country was new,” Hon. Nyrum Reynolds, of Wyoming Co., enjoyed quite a reputation as a successful pettifogger. He wasn’t very well posted up either in “book larnin'” or the learning of the law; but relied principally upon his own native tact and shrewdness–his stock of which has not failed him to this day. His great success created quite an active demand for his services.

On one occasion he was pitted against a “smart appearing” well-dressed limb of the law from a neighboring village, who made considerable sport of a paper which Reynolds had submitted to the Court, remarking among other things, that “all the law papers were required to be written in the English language, and that the one under consideration, from its bad spelling and penmanship, ought in fairness therefore to be excluded.”

“Gen’l’men of the Jury,” said Reynolds, when he “summed up”—and every word weighed a pound—”the learned counsel on the other side finds fault with my ritin’ and spellin’ as though the merits of this case depended upon sich matters! I’m again lugging in any sich outside affairs, but I will say, that a man must be a d—d fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way.” The Jury sympathized with Judge R. and rendered a decision in favor of his client.—[Olean Journal.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading No Respect for a Man Who Can Spell a Word Only One Way

Notes:

  1. 1875 November, The Illinois Schoolmaster, Spelling, Page 380, Volume VIII, Number 90, Normal, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link
  2. TwainQuotes website editor Barbara Schmidt, Spelling webpage, Accessed 2010 June 25. link
  3. 1925, The Writings of Mark Twain: Mark Twain’s Autobiography by Mark Twain, Page 68, Gabriel Wells. (Google Books snippet view only) link
  4. 1855 August 31, Jamestown Journal, Spelling Words More Than One Way, Page 3, Column 2, Jamestown, New York. (GenealogyBank)

The Creator Has an Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

Charles Darwin? J.B.S. Haldane? Stephen Gould? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been studying rain forests and came across the following passage in a New York Times article: 1

Charles Darwin surmised that the Creator must be inordinately fond of beetles: the earth is home to some 30 million different species of them.

The phrase “inordinately fond of beetles” makes me chuckle, and I can imagine the creator carefully designing each beetle. But I have read The Voyage of the Beagle and this phrase does not sound like something that Darwin would say. Could you investigate this phrase?

Quote Investigator: Your suspicions of the Darwin attribution are justified. The most likely originator of the saying was another biologist named J.B.S. Haldane. But the words “possibly apocryphal” appear even in the earliest citation.

Continue reading The Creator Has an Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

Notes:

  1. 1989 November 25, New York Times, The Editorial Notebook: Burning the Book of Nature by Nicholas Wade, New York. (Online New York Times archive) link

No One Washes a Rental Car

Thomas Friedman? Lawrence Summers? Jack Kemp? Bill Creech?  Aircraft Maintenance Chief? Thomas Peters? Nancy Austin?

Dear Quote Investigator: New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has used the following catch phrase several times:

No one washes a rented car.

I think this saying encapsulates an important idea. There is little incentive to wash or maintain a car that one does not own. For example, the renter does not benefit from the resale of the rental car. In fact, the renter may never see the car again. However, a person who owns something has a strong incentive to take care of it.

I searched through the New York Times archive and found that Thomas Friedman attributes the phrase to Lawrence Summers, an economist and former President of Harvard. Currently, Summers is Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director of the National Economic Council. But I think I originally heard the aphorism from a conservative, Jack Kemp who was a Congressman from New York. Could you investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that the originator of this adage was not an economist, politician, or businessman. The saying comes from an aircraft-maintenance crew chief, and it was popularized in a bestselling book in 1985.

Continue reading No One Washes a Rental Car

Facts Are Stubborn Things

John Adams? Tobias Smollett? Alain-René Lesage?

Dear Quote Investigator: In class last year we studied the Boston Massacre and our history book said that John Adams, who later became the second President of the United States, defended the soldiers who shot and killed the protesters. During the defense Adams used the famous phrase:

Facts are stubborn things.

But when I looked up this phrase in an old copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations I found that someone named Tobias Smollett was credited. Further, Smollett used the phrase when he was translating a book that was written even earlier by a Frenchman. Can you investigate this?

Quote Investigator: The evidence indicates that John Adams did use the phrase; however, before he used it Tobias Smollett employed it. Further, the French author Alain-René Lesage wrote the book that Smollett translated. Intriguingly, QI has located an instance of the proverb that predates the usage by each of these three gentlemen.

Continue reading Facts Are Stubborn Things

The Futuristic Weapons of WW3 Are Unknown, But WW4 Will Be Fought With Stones and Spears

Omar Bradley? Albert Einstein? Young Army Lieutenant? Walter Winchell? Joe Laitin? James W. Fulbright?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a great quotation about the type of weapons that will be used in World War IV. The words are both funny and chilling, and every time I have seen the saying it has been attributed to Albert Einstein. But while I was researching five-star generals I found a newspaper story from 1949 that gives credit to a famous World War II general [OMB]:

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Omar Bradley recently got involved in a discussion with the big shots of a midwestern city where he was making a speech. The group was arguing about future wars and how they would be fought.

One of the men said: “General, the newspapers tell us that World War III will be fought with atomic bombs, supersonic planes and a lot of new weapons. These are great strides, but how about World War IV? Is it possible to get any newer and fancier weapons than these?” “I can give you the exact answer to that question,” said General Bradley, “If we have World War III, then World War IV will be fought with bows and arrows.”

Do you think that Bradley is responsible for this sobering insight instead of Einstein?

Quote Investigator: A quotation on this theme is attributed to Albert Einstein in 1948 and 1949, and his words are listed further below. However, it is unlikely that Bradley or Einstein originated this compelling motif concerning World War 4 weapons. The evidence that QI has collected points to a Bikini origin.

Continue reading The Futuristic Weapons of WW3 Are Unknown, But WW4 Will Be Fought With Stones and Spears

Time You Enjoy Wasting is Not Wasted Time

John Lennon? Bertrand Russell? Laurence J. Peter? Marthe Troly-Curtin?

Dear Quote Investigator: I like to enjoy life and sometimes I am criticized for spending too much time on amusements and diversions. My favorite response is attributed to the legendary free-spirit John Lennon:

Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

An acquaintance told me recently that the saying is actually from the brilliant philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell. It is clear that you enjoy tracing quotations, so could you please look into this one? I am certain you will not be wasting your time.

Quote Investigator: In addition to John Lennon and Bertrand Russell, the saying has been attributed to T. S. Elliot, Soren Kierkegaard, Laurence J. Peter, and others. The attribution to Russell was a mistake that was caused by the misreading of an entry in a quotation book compiled by Peter. The details of this error are given further below in this post.

The first instance of the phrase located by QI was published in 1912, a year that occurred before Laurence J. Peter and John Lennon were born. The expression appeared in the book “Phrynette Married” by Marthe Troly-Curtin. This novel was part of a series by Troly-Curtin that began with “Phrynette” in 1911. The image to the left is the frontispiece of this earlier novel. 1 An advertisement in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine grandly proclaimed that “Phrynette” was “The Most Talked-About Book in London Today” in July 1911. 2

In the following excerpt from “Phrynette Married” a character is reproved for wasting the time and energy of others: 3 4

“… Your father, for instance, don’t you think he would have done three times as much work if it had not been for your—what shall I say—’bringing up’?”
“He liked it—time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
“Oh, but it was in his case—wasted for him and for many lovers of art.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Time You Enjoy Wasting is Not Wasted Time

Notes:

  1. 1911, Phrynette‎ by Marthe Troly-Curtin, J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia and London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. July 1911, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Section: Lippincott’s Magazine Advertiser: [Advertisement for Phrynette by Marthe Troly-Curtin], Page not numbered, J. B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia. (HathiTrust) link  link
  3. 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Grant Richards Ltd, London; Riverside Press, Edinburgh. (Google Books snippet view) (Thanks to Eric at the Stanford University Information Center for verification of the text on paper) link
  4. 1912, Phrynette Married by Marthe Troly-Curtin, Quote Page 256, Published by The Macmillan Company of Canada, Toronto, Canada. (Note that a flaw is present in the digital image of the microfilm image of page 256; some words are repeated)(Internet Archive archive.org; digitized from University of Alberta Libraries Microfilm; accessed December 3, 2013) link

Three Weeks to Prepare a Good Impromptu Speech

Mark Twain? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have to present a speech soon, and I would like to use a quotation attributed to Mark Twain:

It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.

The intended audience has the background to know that impromptu means without planning or preparation, and the quip should cause a chuckle. But reading this blog makes me wonder if Twain really invented this joke. It is listed on several of the quotation websites. Could you investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no evidence that the exact quote you gave above is authentic; however, Twain did make several similar pertinent remarks. For example, in 1879 Twain said the following. Details are given further below.

I … never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.

Continue reading Three Weeks to Prepare a Good Impromptu Speech

Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

Abraham Lincoln? Ambrose Burnside? Charles Fair?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the worst military strategists in history was a Civil War general named Ambrose Burnside (sideburns are named after his whiskers). After a military fiasco called the Battle of the Crater, Abraham Lincoln relieved him of command and supposedly said:

Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory.

The phrase “defeat from the jaws of victory” might be a cliché now, but I think Lincoln was one of the first to use it in this powerful quotation. Unfortunately, I am having trouble finding any solid references to this quote from before the 1970s. Can you tell me where I can find it in a Civil War newspaper, or a diary, or some other document from the era?

Quote Investigator: You have stumbled upon a Lincoln legend based on a false quotation. A fascinating newspaper article from 1971 states that the saying began as a mistake on the cover of the book “From the Jaws of Victory” by Charles Fair [LCF]:

Continue reading Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

All Creative-Writing Programs Ought to be Abolished by Law

Kay Boyle? John Barth? Cormac McCarthy? Louis Menand?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been reading about creative writing programs because I am seriously considering attending one. Recently, I encountered a quotation from the writer and educator Kay Boyle which stunned me. Her comment appeared in an article in The New Yorker magazine titled “Show or Tell: Should creative writing be taught?” by Louis Menand. Boyle’s remark was extravagantly, almost comically, negative [KBNY1]:

Kay Boyle once published a piece arguing that “all creative-writing programs ought to be abolished by law.” She taught creative writing for sixteen years at San Francisco State.

I was disappointed to see someone who was long-time teacher of writing harshly attack the discipline. I tried to locate this quotation, so I could learn more about her perspective, but I could not find it. Is this quote accurate? Could you help me locate it if it exists?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI can help you. Kay Boyle did not say the words between the quotation marks. Hence, tracing this quote is problematic. Despite obstacles QI did succeed in this investigation. Proponents of creative-writing programs will not be pleased with the comment that Boyle actually did make because it is very similar.

Continue reading All Creative-Writing Programs Ought to be Abolished by Law