The Next Best Thing To Being Witty One’s Self, Is To Be Able To Quote Another’s Wit

Christian Nestell Bovee? Evan Esar? Laurence J. Peter?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once heard an observation that cogently explained the popularity of quotations. I do not recall the precise phrasing, but it was something like this:

If you are unable to be witty yourself, the next best thing is being able to quote another’s wit.

Would you please determine the name of the originator and the correct phrasing?

Quote Investigator: In 1862 Christian Nestell Bovee published a two volume compilation titled “Intuitions and Summaries of Thought”. Bovee worked hard throughout his life to construct epigrams and memorable passages. His work included a section about the benefits of employing quotations. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At all events, the next best thing to being witty one’s self, is to be able to quote another’s wit. He presents me with what is always an acceptable gift who brings me news of a great thought before unknown. He enriches me without impoverishing himself.

The judicious quoter, too, helps on what is much needed in the world, a freer circulation of good thoughts, pure feelings, and pleasant fancies. Luminous quotations, also, atone, by their interest, for the dulness of an inferior book, and add to the value of a superior work by the variety which they lend to its style and treatment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Next Best Thing To Being Witty One’s Self, Is To Be Able To Quote Another’s Wit

Notes:

  1. 1862, Intuitions and Summaries of Thought by C. N. Bovee (Christian Nestell Bovee), Volume 2 of 2, Chapter: Questions and Answers: Quoters and Quoting, Quote Page 124 and 125, William Veazie, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Everything Which Is Not Compulsory Is Forbidden

T. H. White? Robert Heinlein? W. H. Auden? Murray Gell-Mann? Friedrich Schiller? Weare Holbrook? Ronald Storrs? Harry Lindsay? Gordon Daniel Conant? Gerhart H. Seger? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following societal principle has been called totalitarian, authoritarian, fascist, and dictatorial. Here are two versions:

Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory.
Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden.

This saying has been attributed to fantasy author T. H. White, science fiction author Robert Heinlein, poet W. H. Auden, and physicist Murray Gell-Mann. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this principle was derived from an older principle articulated by the German playwright and poet Friedrich Schiller in “Wallensteins Lager” (“Wallenstein’s Camp”) in 1798. Here is the German statement followed by an English translation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Was nicht verboten ist, ist erlaubt
Whatever is not forbidden is permitted

Changing the word “permitted” to “compulsory” changes the meaning dramatically. Here is a dated sampling of pertinent statements located by QI. The phrasing varies, and these assertions are not all logically equivalent:

1932 Sep 11: Everything was either “absolutely compulsory” or “strictly forbidden under pain of expulsion”

1938 Aug 06: Everything which is not forbidden is compulsory

1938 Sep 29: Everything not forbidden is compulsory

1939 Jan 03: Everything is either compulsory or forbidden

1939 May 24: Everything which is not compulsory is forbidden

1940 Jan 08: Everything is either forbidden or compulsory

1940 July: Anything not compulsory was forbidden

The earliest match found by QI occurred in a 1932 article about college campuses titled “The Way of All Freshmen” by Weare Holbrook. The author discussed the tight discipline enforced on undergraduates who experienced nine o’clock curfews and two-hour mandatory chapel services. Course selection was rigid until an elective system was adapted: 2

Government by graybeards presented many shining targets for the young idea to shoot at. Everything was either “absolutely compulsory” or “strictly forbidden under pain of expulsion.” The elective system was in its infancy. There was no middle ground on which a student could stroll around and exercise his option.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Everything Which Is Not Compulsory Is Forbidden

Notes:

  1. 1800, Wallenstein ein dramatisches Gedicht von Schiller (Wallenstein a dramatic poem by Friedrich Schiller), Wallensteins Lager (Wallenstein’s Camp), Erster Jäger (First Yager), Quote Page 29, J.G. Cotta’schen Buchhandlung, Tübingen, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1932 September 11, The Charleston Daily Mail, Section: The Charleston Daily Mail Magazine, The Way of All Freshmen by Weare Holbrook, Quote Page 16, Column 1,Charleston, West Virginia. (Newspapers_com)

Quotation: The Act of Repeating Erroneously the Words of Another

Ambrose Bierce? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A clever wit claimed that the act of quoting someone really meant erroneously repeating their words. I do not remember the precise phrasing; hence, this quotation itself is somewhat erroneous. Would you please help me to find the correct quotation and author?

Quote Investigator: In July 1906 a newspaper in Vicksburg, Mississippi printed a piece titled “The Cynic’s Word Book” by journalist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce containing a collection of eight entries. The following three items were included. The letter “n” means noun. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

QUOTATION, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.

RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of tomorrow injected into the affairs of today

RADIUM, n. A mineral that gives off heat and stimulates the organ that a scientist is a fool with.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Quotation: The Act of Repeating Erroneously the Words of Another

Notes:

  1. 1906 July 5, The Vicksburg American, The Cynic’s Word Book, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Vicksburg, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)

Everybody Has Plans Until They Get Hit for the First Time

Mike Tyson? Joe Louis? Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Fair Play? Walter Payton? Mike Lupica? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The opponent of a well-known boxing champion stated that he had a plan to win an upcoming match. The champion replied with a caustic dismissive remark. Here are four versions:

(1) Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time.
(2) Everyone has a game plan until they get hit.
(3) Everybody has a plan until they’re punched in the mouth.
(4) Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.

Would you please help me to locate a citation and identify the two boxers involved?

Quote Investigator: In August 1987 the Associated Press news service published a piece about a boxing match planned for October in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Tyrell Biggs says he has a plan to beat heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. But the man they call “Iron Mike” is not impressed.

“Everybody has plans until they get hit for the first time,” Tyson said.

QI believes that professional boxer Mike Tyson should receive credit for this remark. The phrasing has evolved over time. Thanks to researcher Barry Popik who found the above citation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Everybody Has Plans Until They Get Hit for the First Time

Notes:

  1. 1987 August 19, Oroville Mercury-Register, Biggs has plans for Tyson (Associated Press), Quote Page 1B, Column 2, Oroville, California. (Newspapers_com)

How Old Would You Be If You Didn’t Know How Old You Are?

Satchel Paige? Wayne W. Dyer? Clarence H. Wilson? Wallace R. Farrington? G. Herbert True? Ruth Gordon? Garson Kanin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is foolish to place restrictive limits on oneself solely based on age. Most activities can be pursued at any age. This viewpoint is encouraged by an inquiry designed for self-reflection. Here are three versions:

(1) How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?
(2) How old would you be if you didn’t know your age?
(3) If you didn’t know how old you were, how old would you be?

This saying has been attributed to famous baseball player Satchel Paige, popular motivational author Wayne W. Dyer, and others. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared within a 1927 sermon described in “The Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York. Reverend Clarence H. Wilson of the Flatbush Congregational Church encouraged his audience to adapt a youthful perspective. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

We make ourselves old by keeping tally of the years. How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are? Properly, a man is as old as he feels. . . . Birthdays are an annoyance and a delusion.

QI tentatively credits Clarence H. Wilson with this saying although there is a significant probability that the statement was already in circulation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading How Old Would You Be If You Didn’t Know How Old You Are?

Notes:

  1. 1927 October 24, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Too Much Checking Up Of One’s Life Is Bad, View of Dr. Wilson, Quote Page 13, Column 3, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)

Tortoises All the Way Down

Hester Lynch Piozzi? William James? Bertrand Russell? Mark Twain? Henry David Thoreau? Carl Sagan? Terry Pratchett? Samuel Purchas? John Locke? George B. Cheever? Joseph F. Berg? George Chainey? John Phoenix? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a prominent scientist once presented a lecture on cosmology which discussed the solar system and galaxies. Afterwards, a critical audience member approached and stated that the information given was completely wrong.

Instead, the world was supported by four great elephants, and the elephants stood on the back of an enormous turtle. The scientist inquired what the turtle stood upon. Another more massive turtle was the reply. The scientist asked about the support of the last turtle and elicited this response:

“Oh, it’s turtles all the way down.”

Some versions of this anecdote use tortoises instead of turtles. A variety of individuals have been linked to this tale including writer Hester Lynch Piozzi, psychologist William James, logician Bertrand Russell, humorist Mark Twain, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, astronomer Carl Sagan, and fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This anecdote evolved over time. It began with European interpretations of Hindu cosmography. Early instances featuring tortoises and elephants did not mention an infinite iteration; instead, the lowest creature was sitting upon something unknown or on nothing. In 1838 a humorous version employed the punchline “there’s rocks all the way down!” In 1854 a debater used the phrase “there are tortoises all the way down.” By 1886 another punchline was circulating: “it is turtle all the way down!” Here is an overview sampling showing pertinent statements with dates:

1626: the Elephants feete stood on Tortoises, and they were borne by they know not what.
1690: what gave support to the broad-back’d Tortoise, replied, something, he knew not what.
1804: And on what does the tortoise stand? I cannot tell.
1826: tortoise rests on mud, the mud on water, and the water on air!
1836: what does the tortoise rest on? Nothing!
1838: there’s rocks all the way down!
1842: extremely anxious to know what it is that the tortoise stands upon.
1844: after the tortoise is chaotic mud.
1852: had nothing to put under the tortoise.
1854: there are tortoises all the way down.
1867: elephants . . . their legs “reach all the way down.”
1882: the snake reaching all the way down.
1886: it is turtle all the way down!
1904: a big turtle whose legs reach all the way down!
1917: there are turtles all the way down
1927: he was tired of metaphysics and wanted to change the subject.
1967: It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tortoises All the Way Down

Like a Little Bridegroom On a Wedding Cake

Alice Roosevelt Longworth? Marie Corelli? Jane Burr? Rose Guggenheim Winslow? Nancy Hale? Ruth Hanna McCormick? Walter Winchell? Ethel Barrymore? Grace Hodgson Flandrau?

Dear Quote Investigator: A U.S. politician running for president was once described as a “little man on a wedding cake” and a “bridegroom on the wedding cake”. This ridicule harmed his campaign, and he lost the race. The remark has been attributed Alice Roosevelt Longworth, the daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, although on several occasions she denied authorship. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Alice Roosevelt Longworth did use this expression when describing presidential aspirant Thomas Dewey in July 1944, but she was not the first. The phrase “little bridegroom on every wedding cake” was intended as a compliment when it was applied to Dewey in June 1944. This vivid saying can be traced backwards at least a few more decades. It has been used with both positive and negative connotations.

In 1904 the novel “God’s Good Man: A Simple Love Story” by Marie Corelli employed a wedding-cake-topper simile positively to portray a new wife: 1

“But ’ere was we all a-thinkin’ she’d be a ’igh an’ mighty fashion-plate, and she ain’t nothin’ of the sort, onny jest like a little sugar figure on a weddin’-cake wot looks sweet at ye and smiles pleasant…”

In 1908 a serialized work in a Washington D.C. newspaper titled “Letters From a New Congressman’s Wife” described a party during which a connubial couple waited stiffly for the arrival of a dignitary. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 2

Of course, it was rather strained while the Secretary and his plump little wife stood up like the bride and groom figures on a wedding cake, waiting for the great guest of honor to arrive . . .

In 1921 Jane Burr published the novel “The Passionate Spectator”. According to the “Handbook of Pseudonyms and Personal Nicknames” Jane Burr was a pseudonym for Rose Guggenheim Winslow. 3 The book wielded the phrase to disparage a fictional character: 4

Dr. Leighton was little and homely, with a voice like a ’cello. In his prim black clothes he reminded me of a candy groom on a wedding cake.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Like a Little Bridegroom On a Wedding Cake

Notes:

  1. 1904, God’s Good Man: A Simple Love Story By Marie Corelli, Chapter 10, Quote Page 172, Methuen & Company, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1908 February 16, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: Sunday Magazine, Letters From a New Congressman’s Wife (Continuation title: Congressman’s Wife), Start Page 9, Quote Page 18, Column 3, Washington, District of Columbia. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1972, Handbook of Pseudonyms and Personal Nicknames, Compiled by Harold S. Sharp, Volume 1: A to J, Quote Page 524, The Scarecrow Press Inc., Metuchen, New Jersey. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1921, The Passionate Spectator by Jane Burr, Chapter 11, Quote Page 89, Thomas Seltzer, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Nearly Any Invented Quotation, Played With Confidence, Stands a Good Chance To Deceive

Mark Twain? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain once spun a tale in which he won an argument by concocting a fake quotation. His successful deception led him to pronounce a maxim similar to this: Any invented quotation, spoken with confidence, will be accepted by listeners. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Mark Twain published his popular travel book “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World” in 1897. He described a dinner with companions who disagreed about the pronunciation of the word “three” by common Scottish people. The two options were “three” and “thraw”. Twain created a verse he attributed to the prominent Scottish poet Robert Burns that rhymed the word with “knee”. Twain won the argument because of the prestige of the poet. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Does Robbie Burns say — what does he say?”

“This is what he says :
“There were nae bairns but only three —
Ane at the breast, twa at the knee.”

It ended the discussion. There was no man there profane enough, disloyal enough, to say any word against a thing which Robert Burns had settled. I shall always honor that great name for the salvation it brought me in this time of my sore need.

It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive. There are people who think that honesty is always the best policy. This is a superstition; there are times when the appearance of it is worth six of it.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Nearly Any Invented Quotation, Played With Confidence, Stands a Good Chance To Deceive

Notes:

  1. 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), Chapter 5, Quote Page 78, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

Biography Should Be Written by an Acute Enemy

Arthur James Balfour? Batman? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently, the crime-fighting superhero Batman is a quotation expert. I recall watching a rerun episode of the 1960s television series during which Batman was asked to identify the creator of an obscure quotation about biography, and he immediately answered correctly with the name Arthur James Balfour who was a British statesman. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Batman’s capacious memory was displayed during an episode broadcast on March 8, 1967. Batman (played by Adam West) wished to send a message to the villain King Tut, so he called a popular radio broadcaster Jolly Jackson (played by Tommy Noonan) to relay the message. Jackson demanded that Batman prove his identity by answering a difficult question about the ascription of a quotation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Jolly Jackson: Alright listen. If you’re really Batman then you’re a very brainy guy, right.

Batman: Go on.

Jolly Jackson: Tell me who said, “Biography should be written by an acute enemy”?

Batman: Arthur James Balfour, born 1848, died 1930. He was quoted by S. K. Ratcliffe in the London Observer, January 30, 1927.

QI conjectures that the writers of the television show obtained this information from “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”. The 1938 edition contains the following entry: 2

ARTHUR JAMES BALFOUR
[1848-1930]
Biography should be written by an acute enemy.
Quoted by S. K. RATCLIFFE in The London Observer, January 30, 1927

The citation in “Bartlett’s” was accurate. In 1927 “The Observer” published a piece by S. K. Ratcliffe containing the following: 3

Biography, I once heard Lord Balfour say, should be written by an acute enemy. If that were a principle to be rigidly applied (it obviously is not), there would be no place as biographer for Mr. Francis Hirst.

Yet, there are subtleties to this tale of provenance. As indicated further below the quotation under examination appeared with an anonymous attribution in 1913.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Biography Should Be Written by an Acute Enemy

Notes:

  1. Batman Television Series, Season 2, Episode 24, Batman’s Waterloo, Broadcast date: March 8, 1967, Quotation spoken at 11 minutes 53 seconds of 25 minutes 11 seconds. (Viewed via Amazon Prime Video on August 10, 2021)
  2. 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Entry: Arthur James Balfour, Quote Page 687, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1927 January 30, The Observer, John Morley by S. K. Ratcliffe, Quote Page 7, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com)

Every Great Man Nowadays Has His Disciples, and It Is Always Judas Who Writes the Biography

Oscar Wilde? Arthur Pendenys? Arthur James Balfour? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An ill-intentioned biography is indistinguishable from a character assassination. The famous wit Oscar Wilde crafted a pertinent line on this topic. Here are three versions:

Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and
…it is usually Judas who writes the biography.
…it is invariably Judas who writes the biography.
…it is always Judas who writes the biography.

Would you please help me to determine which version is accurate?

Quote Investigator: In April 1887 Oscar Wilde published an unsigned article titled “The Butterfly’s Boswell” in “Court and Society Review”. Wilde’s piece sardonically discussed a recent fawning article about the painter James McNeill Whistler. In the following excerpt “Judas” denoted Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Every great man nowadays has his disciples, and it is usually Judas who writes the biography. Mr. Whistler, however, is more fortunate than most of his confrères, as he has found in Mr. Walter Dowdeswell the most ardent of admirers, indeed, we might almost say the most sympathetic of secretaries.

Wilde employed this line on at least three different occasions, but he varied the phrasing slightly. Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Every Great Man Nowadays Has His Disciples, and It Is Always Judas Who Writes the Biography

Notes:

  1. 1914, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde by Stuart Mason, The Butterfly’s Boswell by Oscar Wilde (Reprint of “The Butterfly’s Boswell” by unsigned from “Court and Society Review”, Page 378, Volume 4, Number 146, Date: April 20, 1887), Start Page 28, Quote Page 28, T. Werner Laurie Ltd., London. (Internet Archive archive.org; QI has not yet directly verified this excerpt in the 1887 periodical) link