You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him

Ann Landers? Abigail Van Buren? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Samuel Johnson? Malcolm Forbes? Paul Eldridge? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? James D. Miles? Dan Reeves?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am attempting to verify the following quotation because it will appear in a forthcoming book, but I have discovered multiple attributions:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

As I searched further I found a similar quotation with additional attributions:

The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.

Can you help determine the origin of this saying?

Quote InvestigatorQI agrees that these two expressions and several others can be grouped together because they are semantically closely aligned. Interestingly, members of this set have been employed by (or attributed to) a wide variety of individuals including: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, Malcolm Forbes, Paul Eldridge, James D. Miles, and Dan Reeves.

The earliest close match for this saying that QI has located appeared in the popular newspaper column of Earl Wilson. He credited the well-known magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1972 [EWMF]:

Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.

In 1978 Forbes published a collection of his own quotations called “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” [SCMF]. This title was constructed as wordplay on the well-known doctrinal work “The Sayings of Chairman Mao” also called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” or “The Little Red Book”.

A close variant of the saying under investigation was presented in the book and featured prominently in multiple advertisements that appeared in the New Yorker magazine for the collection in 1979 [SCMF] [NYMF]:

“You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them.”

—from The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm

Today a visitor to the Forbes magazine website can search a quotation database maintained by the publisher called “Thoughts on the Business of Life” that contains more than 10,000 entries. The version of the adage in “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” is available in the database [TBMF].

The famous advice giving sisters Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers used versions of this saying in the 1970s. But QI has not yet located any evidence of use before 1974 for either woman. The attachment of the quotation to the notable figures Samuel Johnson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe appears to be unsupported by current evidence.

QI has also examined a related saying: If you want to know what a man’s like, look at how he treats his inferiors. Click here to read the other article.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him

Anyone Can Do Any Amount of Work, Provided It Isn’t the Work He Is Supposed To Be Doing At That Moment

Robert Benchley? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the most insightful and humorous quotations about accomplishing tasks is:

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

All the websites and reference books I could find agree that this should be credited to Robert Benchley. But I have never seen a reference that says when and where he wrote it. Benchley died in 1945, and oddly I cannot find any reference while he was still alive. Did someone else create this clever remark?

Quote Investigator:  Benchley did write these words in a column titled “How to Get Things Done: One Week in the Life of a Writing Man” that was published in the Chicago Tribune on February 2, 1930 [RBTD]:

A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is, “Don’t you wish you knew?” …

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it deliberately on a well known psychological principle and have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. …

The psychological principle is this: Any one can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

Benchley explains that he creates an ordered list of tasks where the highest-priority items are supposed to be at the top. However, he deliberately subverts the list by putting important tasks at the bottom and unimportant tasks at the top, i.e., he engages in self-deception. Benchley then uses an internal monologue to rally himself to pursue the top task. Naturally, he decides to ignore the top task and work on tasks at the bottom of the list instead.

The psychological principle given above describes this curious but common behavior. Using this strategy Benchley accomplishes many important jobs. Comically, the task at the top of the list (the unimportant task) was to write an article for his newspaper column.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Anyone Can Do Any Amount of Work, Provided It Isn’t the Work He Is Supposed To Be Doing At That Moment

When the Last Tree Is Cut Down, the Last Fish Eaten, and the Last Stream Poisoned, You Will Realize That You Cannot Eat Money

Alanis Obomsawin? Prophecy of the Cree Indians? Osage saying? Sakokwenonkwas?  Greenpeace? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I recently came across the following stirring proverb on the internet:

When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.

After performing multiple searches for the phrase I finally found it listed in The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (2009) which simply stated that it was a “Native American saying”. The earliest example given in the reference was dated 1983 and appeared in the book “America Born and Reborn” by H. Wasserman, who labeled it an “Osage saying”. I was hoping that these provocative words of wisdom were older. Could you try to trace this saying further back in time?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance located by QI was in a collection of essays published in 1972 titled “Who is the Chairman of This Meeting?” A chapter called “Conversations with North American Indians” contained comments made by Alanis Obomsawin who was described as “an Abenaki from the Odanak reserve, seventy odd miles northeast of Montreal.” (The book uses the spelling Obomosawin.) Obomsawin employed a version of the saying while speaking with the chapter author Ted Poole. [AOTP]:

Canada, the most affluent of countries, operates on a depletion economy which leaves destruction in its wake. Your people are driven by a terrible sense of deficiency. When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.

In later years Obomsawin became famous as an award-winning documentary filmmaker based in Canada.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When the Last Tree Is Cut Down, the Last Fish Eaten, and the Last Stream Poisoned, You Will Realize That You Cannot Eat Money

Every Dogma Has Its Day

Anthony Burgess? Israel Zangwill? Carolyn Wells? Merry-Andrew? Abraham Rotstein? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The proverb “Every dog has his day” is familiar to many, but recently I came across an amusing twist:

Every dogma has its day.

These words were credited to the English author Anthony Burgess who is probably best known for the novel “A Clockwork Orange”. Can you tell me when he said this?

Quote Investigator: Burgess did write about dogmas, but QI has not located this punning aphorism in the corpus of his works. As the questioner notes the wordplay is based on modifying the idiom “Every dog has its day” or “Every dog has his day”. This basic expression dates back to the 1500s according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and it typically denotes that each person has a period of influence, success, power, opportunity, or good luck during his or her life.

Carolyn Wells, the author and composer of light verse, used a version of the saying by 1898. Israel Zangwill, the British playwright and humorist, also used the saying by 1898. Each of these individuals sometimes receives credit for the comical aphorism in modern times.

But the earliest evidence located by QI is dated 1865. The wording in the following passage from the London Review was different but the idea was nascent [LRPA]:

Mesmerism, electro-biology, clairvoyance, spirit-rapping, and the séances of those ingenious jugglers the brothers Davenport, have all been ostensibly based on some occult principle in physics of which the existence has been emphatically declared, but which no one has been able to explain. But every dog—not to say every dogma—has its day, and one by one the exponents of these mysterious doctrines, as well as the doctrines themselves pass into oblivion.

In 1873 an exact match for the phrase was printed in a newspaper and the words were attributed to an anonymous “merry-andrew”, i.e., a clown or comedian [DDMA]:

The manifest decadence of belief in certain “articles of faith” promulgated by churches has instigated a local merry-andrew to improve an old saying into “every dogma has its day.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Every Dogma Has Its Day

Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? John B. Finch? John Stuart Mill? Abraham Lincoln? Zechariah Chafee, Jr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am writing a book on the theme of freedom and would like to include a classic quotation about the pragmatic limitations on liberty. My research has identified several versions of this popular saying:

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

The right to swing my arms in any direction ends where your nose begins.

My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.

Strangely, these three similar statements were credited to three very different people. The first quote was attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The second saying was credited to John Stuart Mill, and the third was ascribed to Abraham Lincoln. But I do not trust any of these attributions because no citations were provided. Could you investigate this adage and determine its origin?

Quote Investigator: The seminal reference work “The Yale Book of Quotations” presents an important citation for this saying that shows when the phrase entered the realm of scholarly legal discourse. The saying was not credited to any one of the three luminaries mentioned in the query. In June 1919 the Harvard Law Review published an article by legal philosopher Zechariah Chafee, Jr. titled “Freedom of Speech in War Time” and it contained a version of the expression spoken by an anonymous judge [ZCYQ] [ZCHL]:

Each side takes the position of the man who was arrested for swinging his arms and hitting another in the nose, and asked the judge if he did not have a right to swing his arms in a free country. “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.”

Interestingly, the genesis of this adage can be traced back more than thirty-five additional years. Several variants of the expression were employed by a set of lecturers who were aligned with the temperance movement which favored restrictions on the sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States. The earliest instance located by QI appeared in a collection of speeches that were delivered by John B. Finch who was the Chairman of the Prohibition National Committee for several years in the 1880s and died in 1887.

The saying Finch used was somewhat longer and clumsier than later versions of the aphorism. But the central idea was the same, and Finch received credit from some of his colleagues. It is common for expressions to be shortened and polished as they pass from one speaker to another over a period of years. Here is the relevant excerpt from an oration Finch gave in Iowa City in 1882 [PVJF]:

This arm is my arm (and my wife’s), it is not yours. Up here I have a right to strike out with it as I please. I go over there with these gentlemen and swing my arm and exercise the natural right which you have granted; I hit one man on the nose, another under the ear, and as I go down the stairs on my head, I cry out:

“Is not this a free country?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have not I a right to swing my arm?”

“Yes, but your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins.”

Here civil government comes in to prevent bloodshed, adjust rights, and settle disputes.

For decades the saying was used at pro-Prohibition rallies and meetings. Also, at the turn of the century the saying was adopted by some educators who presented it as a moral rule that children should learn about. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Your Liberty To Swing Your Fist Ends Just Where My Nose Begins

She’s the Original Good Time That’s Been Had By All

Bette Davis? Leonora Corbett? Kenneth Tynan? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the following catty quotation that was said by one Hollywood actor or actress about another performer who had allegedly slept her way to success:

She’s the original good time that’s been had by all.

Can you tell me who said this and who was the target of the gibe?

Quote Investigator: This wordplay joke is based on a comical modification of a traditional expression of enthusiasm: A good time was had by all. The jest is often attributed to the famous film star Bette Davis and sometimes to the influential English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan.

But neither is credited in the earliest instance of this quip located by QI which was published in a 1946 book by the prominent gossip columnist Earl Wilson. The actress who delivered the barb appeared in multiple films in the 1930s and 1940s but is not well known today. The target of her ire was unidentified [EWLC]:

The tallish, beautiful actress, Leonora Corbett, can also claw with her painted lips. Seeing a reputedly loose woman waggling past, Miss Corbett remarked, “There goes the original good time that’s been had by all.” Of an actress whose ability was said by everybody to be less than negative, Miss Corbett said, “She has more talent to the square head than anybody I know.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading She’s the Original Good Time That’s Been Had By All

If You Want Jobs Then Give These Workers Spoons Instead of Shovels

Milton Friedman? William Aberhart? Unemployed Worker? Businessman in China? UK Minister of Agriculture?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 2011 an editorial in the Wall Street Journal mentioned a quotation that apparently is well-known: 1

The famous Milton Friedman line about government ordering people to dig with spoons to employ more people comes to mind.

The image of people digging with spoons is quite striking, but I am not familiar with this saying. Could you explore this topic and tell me what Friedman said?

Quote Investigator: This quotation is usually coupled with a colorful anecdote, but the details of the stories vary greatly. Here is an account from the economics writer Stephen Moore that was printed in the Wall Street Journal in 2009. Moore stated that he used to visit Milton Friedman and his wife, and together they would dine at a favorite Chinese restaurant: 2

At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: “You don’t understand. This is a jobs program.” To which Milton replied: “Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it’s jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”

Different versions of this tale are based in distinct locales that span the globe, e.g., India, China, England and Canada.  The person delivering the trenchant commentary also varies and has included: the noted economist Milton Friedman, an unemployed worker in England, a businessman touring China, a UK Minister of Agriculture, and a Canadian politician named William Aberhart.

The earliest instance of this anecdote type that QI has located was printed in 1935 in a Canadian newspaper, the Lethbridge Herald. The politician William Aberhart of the Social Credit party in Alberta was described as unhappy because government building projects were not using modern large-scale machines. Aberhart delivered a humorous version of the remark with the phrase “spoons and forks”: 3

Taking up the policy of a public works program as a solution for unemployment, it was criticized as a plan that took no account of the part that machinery played in modern construction, with a road-making machine instanced as an example. He saw, said Mr. Aberhart, work in progress at an airport and was told that the men were given picks and shovels in order to lengthen the work, to which he replied why not give them spoons and forks instead of picks and shovels if the object was to lengthen out the task.

Thus, there is evidence that the core of the anecdote and remark were in circulation before the 1960s. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Want Jobs Then Give These Workers Spoons Instead of Shovels

Notes:

  1. 2011 September 8, Wall Street Journal, Section: Opinion, Why the Stimulus Failed, Page A14, New York. (ProQuest) link
  2. 2009 May 29, Wall Street Journal, De Gustibus: Missing Milton: Who Will Speak For Free Markets? by Stephen Moore, Section Opinion, Page W.13, New York. (ProQuest) (Also website online.wsj.com accessed 2011 October 10) link
  3. 1935 May 18, Lethbridge Herald, 5,500 Hear Social Credit Expounded By Party Leader, Start Page 1, [Continuation title on page 3: “5500 Hear”], Quote Page 3, Column 2, Lethbridge, Alberta (NewspaperArchive)

Three Things Can Happen When You Pass and Two of Them Are Bad

Woody Hayes? Darrell Royal? Bernie Moore?

Dear Quote Investigator: It’s football season and I received an email from a friend with a collection of quotations from coaches and players. One of the sayings about passing the ball is credited to Woody Hayes, but I think it should probably be attributed to Darrell Royal, coach of the Texas Longhorns:

Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad.

Can you determine who first expressed this aphorism?

Quote Investigator: Candidly, the results of this exploration are confusing. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a column by Bud Shrake in the Dallas Morning News in 1962, and it supported the belief that Darrell Royal created and/or popularized this adage [DRDM]:

Two plays later Wade threw another pass. The ball was batted into the air and Aggie linebacker Jerry Hopkins intercepted at the Texas 49.

You could almost hear Royal repeating his maxim: “When you throw a pass three things can happen to it, and two of them are bad.”

In 1963 the book “Darrell Royal Talks Football” by Darrell Royal with Blackie Sherrod was published, and it discussed the primary author’s philosophy of coaching.  A version of the aphorism was given, and Royal did not give credit to anyone else when he used the expression [DRDR]:

I might say this: we’ve always been a running team and I’m sure we will continue to be so. (We’ve been criticized for it, I might add.) But I’ve always felt that three things can happen to you whenever you throw the football, and two of them are bad. You can catch the ball, you can throw it incomplete, or have it intercepted.

Over the years other individuals have been connected to the saying. For example, in 1966 Woody Hayes, the celebrated football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, was attached to the aphorism [WHPD]:

Woody also professes to the theory that when you pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad.

The early evidence points strongly to Darrell Royal as the creator of this saying. But there is a key piece of counter-evidence that appeared in an interview that Royal gave in 2005 that was published in The Columbus Dispatch. Royal himself attributed the maxim to Woody Hayes according to the reporter [DRWH]:

“Now, you can hear some stuff in a barbershop. You can pick up some wisdom there. I’m just a model of the people I’ve been around in my life, and Woody was one of those people.”

Royal credits Ohio State’s Hayes, his contemporary and friend, with being the first one to say three things can happen on a pass play and two of them are bad.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Three Things Can Happen When You Pass and Two of Them Are Bad

Twenty Years From Now You Will Be More Disappointed By The Things You Didn’t Do Than By The Ones You Did Do

Mark Twain? H. Jackson Brown? Sarah Frances Brown? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Virgin Galactic company of Richard Branson plans to offer suborbital spaceflights for tourists. The organization put together a beautiful brochure containing the following quotation credited to Mark Twain: 1

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Can you tell me where this was written by Mark Twain? I have not been able to locate this astute piece of advice in his novels or essays.

Quote Investigator: QI will be unable to tell you where to find this passage in the works of Twain because he never wrote it. Yet, the words are regularly credited to him. For example, the April 20, 1998 issue of The New Yorker magazine printed a vibrant full page advertisement depicting an ocean scene that prominently featured a version of this saying with the label “attributed to Mark Twain”. 2

The website TwainQuotes.com edited by Barbara Schmidt is a key resource for checking quotations attributed to Twain, and Schmidt states that “the attribution cannot be verified. The quote should not be regarded as authentic”. 3

The earliest appearance that QI has located is relatively recent, 1990. The bestselling author H. Jackson Brown, Jr. published the work containing the quotation, but he did not take credit for it. The book “P.S. I Love You” contained a collection of wise aphorisms from Brown’s mother, Sarah Frances Brown. Each page contained one thought, and the advice under investigation was printed on page 13. Each remark was prefaced with “P.S.” and ended with “I love you, Mom”. 4

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Spoiler Warning: This post contains a spoiler for a version of the popular game Minecraft.

Continue reading Twenty Years From Now You Will Be More Disappointed By The Things You Didn’t Do Than By The Ones You Did Do

Notes:

  1. Virgin Galactic website at virgingalactic.com, Link on homepage for Downloadable Brochure describing suborbital space flights. Quotation ascribed to Mark Twain is on the first page. (Accessed 2011 September 29) link
  2. 1998 April 20, New Yorker magazine, Page 25, Advertisement with title “Warming Trends in the Caribbean”, F. R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans)
  3. TwainQuotes.com website edited by Barbara Schmidt, Comment at bottom of webpage titled Discovery. (Accessed 2011 September 29) link
  4. 1990, “P.S. I Love You” by H Jackson Brown, Page 13, Rutledge Hill Press, a Thomas Nelson Company, Nashville, Tennessee. (Many thanks to the librarian at the Columbia County Public Library in Lake City, Florida for verifying the quotation on paper; Cross-checked using Amazon Look Inside)

You Can’t Wait for Inspiration. You Have To Go After It With a Club

Jack London? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I belong to a great group for writers in Florida, and a recent announcement message on our mailing list included a motivational quotation attributed to the author and journalist Jack London:

You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

Since London died in 1916 I thought I would be able to find a citation before that date, but I am having difficulty obtaining one. Did London actually say this or something similar?

Quote Investigator: Yes, London did express this thought. But the original wording he used was more picturesque and perhaps less intelligible to the modern reader. He referred to loafing and said “light out after it” instead of “go after it”: 1

Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.

London was a prolific writer who depended on his literary skills for his livelihood. This saying is from a 1905 essay of instruction that he wrote titled “Getting Into Print” which appeared in several publications under different titles and was reprinted multiple times over the years.

Continue reading You Can’t Wait for Inspiration. You Have To Go After It With a Club

Notes:

  1. 1905, Practical Authorship, Edited by James Knapp Reeve, “Getting Into Print” by Jack London, Start Page 140, Quote Page 143, The Editor Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link