Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down

Collis Huntington? Richard Ballinger? David Starr Jordan? Upton Sinclair?

Dear Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the top railroad tycoons in the 1800s. His business skills helped to build the first transcontinental railroad in the United States and many other rail links. But his detractors considered him ruthless and greedy. These negative traits are displayed in an extraordinary saying that he supposedly pronounced:

Whatever is not nailed down is mine. What I can pry loose is not nailed down.

Is Huntington really responsible for this colorful expression? I have found some books that claim with varying degrees of certainty that he said it. However, I have not found any direct evidence. Could you look into this question?

Quote Investigator: Collis Huntington was one of the Big Four railroad barons in the 1800s and QI will be glad to research this saying. The image above is part of a railroad bond that features his portrait. There is no evidence that Huntington said this controversial quotation. He died in 1900 and the words were popularized starting in 1910 by David Starr Jordan who was the president of Stanford University.

Jordan applied the phrase to several individuals and groups of people whose conduct earned his disapproval. He said the words were the “motto of the exploiter“.  Yet, Jordan never put the saying directly into the mouth of any individual that he criticized. Instead, he said that the phrase was a guiding principle or motto of those he disliked. Indeed, a commentator in 1914 stated that Jordan himself had coined the saying, and it had thenceforth achieved nationwide circulation.

In 1922 Jordan disparagingly said that Collis Huntington used the quotation as his “code of ethics.” The prominent muckraking commentator Upton Sinclair echoed Jordan’s statement about Huntington in one of his books in 1923. Over a period of time the facts were garbled and by the 1960s and 1970s some writers claimed that Huntington himself spoke the quotation. Thus, the words of a severe critic of Huntington were reassigned to Huntington himself.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Whatever is Not Nailed Down is Mine and Whatever I Can Pry Loose is Not Nailed Down

A Collision at Sea Can Ruin Your Entire Day

Thucydides? W. B. ‘Bill’ Hayler? Horowitz’ First Law?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once served on a ship that had a brass plaque on the bridge engraved with the following:

A collision at sea can ruin your whole day.

This comes across as a modern sardonic saying, and I was surprised to read the name of Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian, on the plate beneath the saying. Is this attribution accurate? Perhaps it is a very loose translation? Could you examine this maxim and determine if it embodies ancient or modern wisdom?

Quote Investigator: The story behind this quotation is fascinating because it illustrates the malleability of sayings and attributions. Evidence indicates that this maxim which is dubiously linked with Thucydides was created and disseminated as a prank in the 1960s.

Commander W. B. ‘Bill’ Hayler was the prankster, and he confessed that he initiated the deed while he was a student at the Naval War College in 1960. The tale of Hayler’s hijinks was reported by the prominent newspaper columnist Herb Caen in 1971 [BHJ]. Top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro recently located Caen’s column while investigating the quote [QUC].

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There Are Things Known, and Things Unknown, and In Between Are the Doors

Jim Morrison? Ray Manzarek? Aldous Huxley? William Blake?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the best rock groups in history is The Doors, and its legendary front man Jim Morrison was one of the greatest rock stars ever. That is my opinion. But I am sending you this message because I want your opinion concerning a quotation:

There are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the Doors.

I was told that this sentence is the explanation that Jim Morrison gave when he was asked how the name of his band was chosen. But I have also been told that the major Romantic figure, poet, and painter William Blake came up with the saying. And somebody else claims that the writer, mystic, and experientialist Aldous Huxley was the creative intellect behind this insight. Could you disentangle this?

Quote Investigator: William Blake’s circa 1790 work “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” contained a quote that famously spoke of perception and metaphorical doorways:

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is: infinite.

Aldous Huxley wrote a 1954 book called “The Doors of Perception” that discussed his experiences with psychoactive agents; its title was an allusion to Blake’s work. But QI has not located the quotation under investigation in the texts of Blake or Huxley.

QI believes that the quote was derived from the words of the musician Ray Manzarek who together with Jim Morrison co-founded The Doors. In 1967 Newsweek magazine profiled the rock group and quoted Manzarek saying the following [NRM]:

There are things you know about, and things you don’t, the known and the unknown, and in between are the doors—that’s us.

QI hypothesizes that this quotation was streamlined and then the words were reassigned to more prominent figures such as Jim Morrison, Aldous Huxley and William Blake.

Continue reading There Are Things Known, and Things Unknown, and In Between Are the Doors

Figures Don’t Lie, But Liars Do Figure

Carroll D. Wright? Mark Twain? Charles H. Grosvenor? James G. Blaine? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I hope you will be able to settle a disagreement between friends concerning the following quotation:

Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

My friend believes that this saying originated with Samuel Clemens otherwise known as Mark Twain. I think it was created by Carroll D. Wright who was once the top statistics expert in the United States. Could you research this quote and help us to determine who composed it?

Quote Investigator: The saying has been credited to Mark Twain for more than ninety-five years, but the first citation for Twain located by QI is dated 1913. This is after Twain’s death and there is no corroborating evidence for the attribution in Twain’s own writings.

Carroll D. Wright was a prominent statistician employed by the U.S. government, and he did use the expression in 1889 while addressing the Convention of Commissioners of Bureaus of Statistics of Labor. But Wright did not claim that he coined the expression [CDW1]:

The old saying is that “figures will not lie,” but a new saying is “liars will figure.” It is our duty, as practical statisticians, to prevent the liar from figuring; in other words, to prevent him from perverting the truth, in the interest of some theory he wishes to establish.

Wright indicates that the second half of the quotation which is a twist using wordplay on the first half is a “new saying”. Indeed, QI has traced the statement back a few more years. The oldest three citations found by QI contain no attributions. The first instance is in a North Dakota newspaper of 1884 where the sentiment is presented as an anonymous piece of wisdom.

Continue reading Figures Don’t Lie, But Liars Do Figure

Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

Laurie Anderson? Steve Martin? Frank Zappa? Martin Mull? Elvis Costello? Thelonius Monk?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have a difficult riddle for you. A mailing list I belong to has discussed the following quotation several times during the past ten years, and the question of its origin has never been satisfactorily resolved.

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Laurie Anderson, Steve Martin, Frank Zappa, Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Thelonius Monk, Clara Schumann, Miles Davis, George Carlin and several other people have been credited with concocting this extraordinarily popular and enigmatic simile. There is another common version of the quote: “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Is there any chance that you could attempt to trace this famous saying?

Quote Investigator: With the help of colleagues, correspondents, and wonderful music librarians QI can report some revealing citations. The first close match appears in the “Detroit Free Press” of Michigan in February 1979 within a column titled “Bob Talbert’s quotebag” which presents miscellaneous quotations. The dots are in the original text. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Martin Mull . . .
. . . Comedian-musician on music criticism: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

The second close match appears in a magazine dedicated to the history of rock and roll called “Time Barrier Express”. The September-October 1979 issue contains a profile of the group Sam & Dave by Gary Sperrazza in which he discusses the interplay and rapport of the duo: 2

All quick, very natural, and captured on vinyl. It’s so hard to explain on paper, you’ll just have to find the records and listen for yourself (because I truly believe — honest — that writing about music is, as Martin Mull put it, like dancing about architecture).

Based on current evidence QI believes that Martin Mull is the most likely originator of this expression. It is not clear how Bob Talbert and Gary Sperrazza heard or read about the quotation. Mull did release several albums combining comedy and music in the 1970s. He also appeared in the television soap opera parody “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”, and the talk show parody “Fernwood 2 Night” (later renamed “America 2-Night”). It is possible that he used the phrase in one of these venues, or perhaps he said it during a stage performance or interview.

Researchers have been attempting to trace this well-known saying for many years. It is a recurrent topic in discussion forums and on mailing lists. Alan P. Scott was the key pioneer in this endeavor, and he has created a wonderful webpage that records his gleanings and includes a comprehensive list of people that have been credited with the quotation. 3

The clever maxim was probably not created ex nihilo. QI has found a family of similar expressions about music that date back to 1918. This backstory helps to illuminate the aphorism, and it begins with a remark involving “singing about economics.”
Continue reading Writing About Music is Like Dancing About Architecture

Notes:

  1. 1979 February 18, Detroit Free Press, Bob Talbert’s quotebag, Quote Page 19C, Column 5, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1979 September-October, Time Barrier Express, “Looka Here! It’s Sam & Dave!” by Gary Sperrazza, Page 25, Column 1, Issue Number 26, Volume 3, Number 6, White Plains, N.Y. (Verified using scanned images from the Music Library & Sound Recordings Archives at Bowling Green State University; Great thanks to the librarian at BGSU)
  3. Alan P. Scott authored webpage about the origin of the saying “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture” (Accessed 2010 November 7) link

If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman

Margaret Thatcher? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been trying to learn about a sentence supposedly said by Margaret Thatcher who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the 1980s. The version I was told is:

If you want a speech made you should ask a man, but if you want something done you should ask a woman.

This is a fascinating statement, but I am incredulous. Could you investigate? Where and when did she say this? Or is this another fake quotation?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will look into this provocative remark for you. Two important reference works, the Yale Book of Quotations [YQMT] and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations [OQMT], list a version of this saying that appeared in People magazine in 1975. This instance of the adage includes the prefatory phrase “In politics”. Here is an excerpt from People [PMT]:

“In politics,” Margaret Thatcher once acidly observed, “if you want anything said, ask a man. If you want anything done, ask a woman.”

The Yale Book of Quotations also states, “Thatcher is said to have used this in a 1965 speech.” Yes, QI can report that a newspaper called the Evening News on May 20, 1965 quotes Thatcher using the phrase when addressing a women’s group.

Continue reading If You Want Anything Said Ask a Man, Want Anything Done Ask a Woman

How Old Cary Grant? Old Cary Grant Fine, How You?

Cary Grant? Gar Wood? Mark Clark? Tom Ferris?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the movies from the golden age of Hollywood. I think the stars were more glamorous in the past, and the stories about the stars were wittier. The quotation I would like you to investigate was written by Cary Grant for a telegram that he sent.

Telegram delivery was halted in the 1980s, so some of your blog readers may not know much about them. They were text messages that were sent long-distance via radio or wire and then delivered using messengers. They were expensive in the 1930s and 1940s, and to save money telegram messages were often very short. Words such as “is” and “are” were often deleted from messages to obtain greater brevity.

A classic anecdote begins with a journalist who is working on a story about Cary Grant with a tight deadline. He needs to gather some background information, so he sends a telegram to the publicist of Cary Grant asking about the age of the star:

HOW OLD CARY GRANT?

But Cary Grant intercepts the message and decides to send his own reply:

OLD CARY GRANT FINE. HOW YOU?

I love this story, but I know that Hollywood studios during the golden age sometimes concocted fun stories about stars and planted them in newspapers. Could you investigate whether this quotation is genuine?

Quote Investigator: Cary Grant directly denied the story in a newspaper interview in 1978. This humorous yarn has been told with at least three different people in the leading role. Cary Grant was the third. While the version featuring Grant is probably apocryphal there is evidence supporting a version featuring the motorboat racer Gar Wood and the writer Tom Ferris.

A 1957 report says that a journalist who was covering a speedboat race was badgered by a managing editor to obtain the age of a participant named Gar Wood. The exasperated journalist finally sent a telegram of this type to the editor. An account in 1959 says that a cable like this was sent regarding the age of General Mark Clark. Also in 1959 the comedienne Celeste Holm joked that a movie studio sent a reply wire of this sort about Cary Grant’s age.

Continue reading How Old Cary Grant? Old Cary Grant Fine, How You?

She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them

Who Said the Quote? Dorothy Parker? Richard Henry Little? Alexander Woollcott?

Who was the Polyglot? Winifred Stackville Stoner? Merle Oberon?

Dear Quote Investigator: My question differs from most. Here is a quotation of admiration with a stinger that I would like you to investigate:

That woman speaks eighteen languages, and can’t say “No” in any of them.

Dorothy Parker receives credit for this quip in multiple reference books. What interests me is the identity of the polyglot woman. Can you figure out who Parker was talking about?

Quote Investigator: Like many of the sayings assigned to Parker that have persisted in the cultural milieu this phrase is risqué. The earliest attribution of the quote to Parker located by QI occurs in 1933.

But QI has also found an earlier citation for a close variant of this joke in 1931 that is not credited to Parker. The witticism was written by a Chicago Tribune columnist, Richard Henry Little, who was writing about a former child prodigy named Winifred Stackville Stoner, Jr. The text of the article reveals a different interpretation to the notion of saying “No”. Little’s gag is not focused on promiscuity; instead, it refers to multiple marriages [RLWS]:

… it was proudly proclaimed that Winifred could speak twelve languages. But apparently Winifred never learned to say “No” in any of them and hiked up to the altar as fast as anybody suggested the idea.

It is possible that Little heard a joke from Parker and then modified it to create a less provocative version that applied to Winifred Stackville Stoner. Alternatively, Little’s jest may have been modified to create a ribald version that fit the wisecracking persona of Parker.

Continue reading She Speaks Eighteen Languages, and Can’t Say “No” in Any of Them

Dying is Easy. Comedy is Hard

Peter O’Toole? Edmund Kean? Edmund Gwenn? Donald Crisp? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of my friends is an aspiring comedian, and he enjoys telling an anecdote about a gifted character actor who delivered a famously incisive line about playing comic roles while lying on his deathbed. A visitor approached the actor who was ill in a hospital and said sympathetically, “This must be very difficult for you”. The actor lifted his head, smiled weakly, and disagreed saying “No. No. It is not too bad”. He then spoke the classic apothegm:

Dying is easy. Comedy is difficult.

Is there any truth to this story? Could you investigate this quotation? My friend says the tale is about Edmund Gwenn who played Santa Claus in the 1947 version of the movie Miracle on 34th Street.

Quote Investigator: There is another popular variant of this show business adage that is similarly terse: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” This tale is prevalent in Hollywood and has been told by prominent actors such as Academy Award winners Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon.

Edmund Kean was a celebrated Shakespearean actor, who lived from 1787 to 1833, and who is sometimes credited with this maxim. However, QI has not located any solid support for this attribution. Other renowned figures such as Groucho Marx and Stan Laurel [QVEG] are sometimes mentioned, but the evidence is non-existent.

There is evidence that Edmund Gwenn is responsible for this adage though the phraseology given in the earliest citation is different. Gwenn was a very successful actor who began with roles on the stage, appearing in West End and Broadway productions; later he appeared in Hollywood films. He died in 1959, and the first published description of his deathbed saying that QI has located is in a 1966 self-help guide by Neil and Margaret Rau that is aimed at actors.

A movie director and friend named George Seaton regularly visited the bedridden Edmund Gwenn at the Motion Picture Country House.  The nickname Seaton used for Gwenn was Teddy. On Seaton’s final visit the following dialog reportedly ensued [NREG]:

“All this must be terribly difficult for you, Teddy.”
“Not nearly as difficult as playing comedy.”

The anecdote recounted by the Raus states that Gwenn expired immediately afterwards, hence these were his last words.

Continue reading Dying is Easy. Comedy is Hard