I was the Toast of Two Continents: Greenland and Australia

Dorothy Parker? Robert Benchley? Frank Sullivan?

Dear Quote Investigator: The writer Dorothy Parker was famous for her clever and barbed witticisms. Her remarks were often aimed at others, but sometimes she laughed at herself with a self-deprecating comment. I particularly enjoy the statement she made when asked about her fame:

Yes, I once was the toast of two continents: Greenland and Australia.

I laughed when I heard this, but then I began to wonder. Greenland is not really a continent, and Parker must have known this fact. Maybe this picayune detail is irrelevant, but maybe it shows that this quote is a fake. Perhaps Dorothy Parker never said it. Would you please investigate this quote?

Quote Investigator: Yes, QI will examine this saying for you. It is true that Greenland is not a continent, but it is the largest island that is not a continent, and QI still thinks that the joke is funny. Nevertheless, there is evidence that Parker originally told a different version of this joke. Specifically, Parker is quoted in 1956 stating that she was the toast of two continents. But the two continents that she names differ from the two geographical regions mentioned in the quotation above.

Continue reading I was the Toast of Two Continents: Greenland and Australia

The Harder I Practice, the Luckier I Get

Gary Player? Arnold Palmer? Jerry Barber? Jack Youngblood? Lee Trevino? Ethel Merman? L. Frank Baum?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am a fan of the golfing legend Gary Player, and the Wikipedia article about him says he: “Coined one of the most quoted aphorisms of post-War sport”:

The harder you practice, the luckier you get.

Is that true? Which golfer said it first? Was it Arnold Palmer?

Quote Investigator: Gary Player is a very fine golfer, but he is not responsible for this well-known maxim. The best evidence that he did not coin the adage is in a book written by Player himself in 1962 where he credits the aphorism to fellow golfer Jerry Barber. Before discussing that book QI will review support for Player and some other claimants to the phrase. The earliest instance of the expression found by QI that uses the word “practice” is not from a golfer. It appears in a memoir published in 1961 by a soldier of fortune during the Cuban revolution.

The saying is a popular motto and different versions can be grouped together in a family that stretches back to before 1900. Here are some examples:

The harder I practice, the luckier I get
The more I practice, the luckier I get.
The more they put out, the more luck they have.
The harder he works, the luckier he gets.
The more you know, the more luck you have.

Continue reading The Harder I Practice, the Luckier I Get

Confused on a Higher Level and About More Important Things

Enrico Fermi? Bernt Øksendal? Earl C. Kelley?

Dear Quote Investigator:  My favorite quotation should resonate with anyone who has tried to master a difficult subject:

We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.

I first saw it several years ago, but I cannot remember where. So I searched for it on the internet and discovered a reference to a math textbook: Stochastic Differential Equations. The information provided about the provenance of the quote is very limited [SDE]:

Posted outside the mathematics reading room, Tromsø University

Could you find out where this quotation came from?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this humorous quote located by QI is in a book for teachers about workshops and the educational process. The 1951 volume is titled “The Workshop Way of Learning”, and it discusses a long-running series of workshops. The passage in the book has been streamlined over the years to yield the modern version. (Thanks to top-notch urban-legend researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake for verifying the citation on paper.)

Continue reading Confused on a Higher Level and About More Important Things

Laws are Like Sausages. Better Not to See Them Being Made

Otto von Bismarck? John Godfrey Saxe? Claudius O. Johnson?

Dear Quote Investigator: The quotation of Otto von Bismarck about laws and sausages has been a favorite of mine for years. I found several versions using Google, and here are two:

Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.

To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.

I looked for some clear references to texts written by Otto von Bismarck and translated into English to justify the attributions. I could not find anything. Could you investigate this quotation to find out who really said it originally?

Quote Investigator: Quotation experts Fred Shapiro and Ralph Keyes have identified the most likely originator of the aphorism. Before presenting that evidence QI will give the details of a citation in an American history textbook from the 1930s. This post ends with information about a bizarre duel involving sausages that was reported in the 1860s.

Continue reading Laws are Like Sausages. Better Not to See Them Being Made

Never Interfere With an Enemy While He’s in the Process of Destroying Himself

Napoleon Bonaparte? Haley Barbour? Woodrow Wilson?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi on television recently and he recited a quotation that he attributed to Napoleon [HBCNN] [HBFOX]:

You know, Napoleon said ‘Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself.’

Is this an accurate quote? Could you investigate whether Napoleon actually presented this as military advice?

Quote Investigator: QI was unable to find an exact match for this advice in the 1800s, but QI did find words attributed to Napoleon in an 1836 history book during a discussion of an 1805 battle. These words may have been transformed into the modern maxim. QI also found similar statements made during the past one-hundred and seventy-four years.

Continue reading Never Interfere With an Enemy While He’s in the Process of Destroying Himself

Legal Advice: Pound the Facts, Pound the Law, Pound the Table

Alan Dershowitz? Jerome Michael? Jacob J. Rosenblum? Oliver Wendell Holmes?

Dear Quote Investigator: A few years ago I saw a famous quotation about legal strategy attributed to a celebrity professor [ADFW]:

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz shares with his students a strategy for successfully defending cases. If the facts are on your side, Dershowitz says, pound the facts into the table. If the law is on your side, pound the law into the table. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.

But I thought that this saying was originally from a Columbia professor named Jerome Michael and not from a Harvard professor. Could you investigate this?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Jerome Michael used a version of the saying while teaching, but the adage was in use before he graduated from Columbia Law School. QI has traced it back ninety-nine years and will present selected citations in reverse order.

Continue reading Legal Advice: Pound the Facts, Pound the Law, Pound the Table

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