You Must Know Your Destination Port If You Wish to Catch A Favorable Wind

Oscar Wilde? Seneca the Younger? Leon Tec?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I came across a quotation in a pub in Germany that was credited to Oscar Wilde. Your help in tracing this expression would be greatly appreciated but there is a twist to this request that will probably increase the difficulty. I have not been able to find this quote in its original English language version. All I could find on the web was the German phrase as I saw it in the pub. Here is the saying together with a translation:

Günstige Winde kann nur der nutzen, der weiß, wohin er will.

Only he can make use of favourable winds who knows where he wants to go.

I know that Oscar Wilde attracts a large number of spurious attributions. Could you search for the original version of this aphorism and determine who said it?

Quote Investigator: QI has not located any substantive evidence connecting this saying to Oscar Wilde. Intriguingly, the earliest evidence points to a maxim that was written in Latin and not English. During classical antiquity Seneca the Younger wrote about ports and catching a favorable wind. Here is the Latin version of one of his adages together with an English translation [SYDC]:

Ignoranti quem portum petat, nullus suus ventus est.

If a man does not know to what port he is steering, no wind is favourable to him.

Seneca. Epistolae, LXXI., 3.

The wording and the emphasis in the above maxim differs somewhat from the content of the quotation provided by the questioner. However, over the years other writers have modified Seneca’s saying. Here is a modern example attributed to Seneca in a volume aimed at public speakers titled “The Speaker’s Sourcebook” which was published in 1988 [SYSP]:

You must know for which harbor you are headed if you are to catch the right wind to take you there. Seneca

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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The Graveyards Are Full of Indispensable Men

Charles De Gaulle? Georges Clemenceau? Elbert Hubbard? R. C. O’Brien? Vladmir Bjornberg? Seth Wiggins? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I would love to have a specific citation for the following quotation. Here are two versions that I’ve seen many times:

1) The graveyards are full of indispensable men.
2) The cemeteries are full of indispensable men.

This is often attributed to Charles De Gaulle, and it would be a good fit with a mordant Gallic world view. Ralph Keyes’s “The Quote Verifier” offers a baker’s dozen of alternative attributions as far-flung as Winston Churchill and Rick Santorum. Keyes concluded with “Verdict: An old saying”.[1] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Pages 84-85 and 294-295, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.(Verified on paper)

Quote Investigator: The earliest version of this sentiment located by QI does not use the word indispensable, but the saying still communicates the same idea.

Elbert Hubbard was a prominent writer and publisher who also founded the Roycroft artisan community in New York. He collected adages and also formulated many of his own. In 1907 his publication “The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest” printed the following phrase as a free standing saying without attribution:[2] 1907 May, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Page 190, Volume 24, Number 6, Published by Society of the Philistines, The Roycrofters, New York. (Google Books full view) link

The graveyards are full of people the world could not do without.

By definition an “indispensable” person is a person one could not do without. This adage has been attributed to Hubbard for many decades, and he still sometimes receives credit today.

In 1909 a newspaper in Oklahoma printed the phrase as part of a larger passage that carefully delineated its implications. Boldface has been added to excerpts.:[3] 1909 February 4, The Evening News, Press Comment, Page 2, Column 3, [NArch Page 7], Ada, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive)

Young man, as you perambulate down the pathway of life toward an unavoidable bald head bordered with gray hairs it would be well to bear in mind that the cemeteries are full of men this world could not get along without, and note the fact that things move along after each funeral procession at about the same gait they went before. It makes no difference how important you may be, don’t get the idea under your hat that this world can’t get along without you —Abilene Reporter.

In 1919 a magazine called “The Recruiters’ Bulletin” published by the United States Marine Corps printed a version of the adage and credited the words to an Icelandic poet:[4] 1919 May, The Recruiters’ Bulletin, Section: Editorial, Another Swan Song, Page 12, Volume 5, Number 4, United States Marine Corps, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Several years ago, in these very columns, we quoted the words of the famous Icelandic poet, Vladmir Bjornberg, who wrote “The graveyards are filled with the men the world could not get on without.” We are going away and we’ll never be missed.

The ascription “Vladmir Bjornberg” may have been invented by the editor of “The Recruiters’ Bulletin”, Thomas G. Sterrett. See the comment presented after this article.

In July 1924 a member of the Irish Parliament named Mr. McGarry speaking during a question and answer period employed a version the expression with the word “indispensable” that was similar to modern instances though a specific cemetery was named:[5]1924 July 15, Dáil Éireann (House of Representatives), Irish Parliament, Leinster House, Dublin, Ceisteanna (Questions for the President), Speaking: Mr. McGarry. (Accessed debates.oireachtas.ie on … Continue reading

They have acted in the belief, and they have carried on as if they believed that there was no alternative Government. They have forgotten that Glasnevin Cemetery is full of indispensable people.

Decades later in 1962 the French statesman Georges Clemenceau was credited with a version of the saying, and later the words were attributed to the French general Charles de Gaulle. Details for these citations are given further below.

Top-researcher Barry Popik has done great work tracing this maxim, and this article uses some of his pioneering results.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “The Graveyards Are Full of Indispensable Men”

References

References
1 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Pages 84-85 and 294-295, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.(Verified on paper)
2 1907 May, The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest, Page 190, Volume 24, Number 6, Published by Society of the Philistines, The Roycrofters, New York. (Google Books full view) link
3 1909 February 4, The Evening News, Press Comment, Page 2, Column 3, [NArch Page 7], Ada, Oklahoma. (NewspaperArchive)
4 1919 May, The Recruiters’ Bulletin, Section: Editorial, Another Swan Song, Page 12, Volume 5, Number 4, United States Marine Corps, New York. (Google Books full view) link
5 1924 July 15, Dáil Éireann (House of Representatives), Irish Parliament, Leinster House, Dublin, Ceisteanna (Questions for the President), Speaking: Mr. McGarry. (Accessed debates.oireachtas.ie on May 24, 2014) link link

I Don’t Want To Be the Richest Man in the Cemetery

Steve Jobs? Colonel Harland Sanders? Ed Wynn? The Sportsmen? Skeets Gallagher? Clifford Odets?

Dear Quote Investigator: Steve Jobs was the most fascinating entrepreneur and business leader of modern times in my opinion. Several of his quotations were reprinted in articles after his death at the early age of 56. This one captured my interest [SJWJ]:

Being the richest man in the cemetery doesn’t matter to me … Going to bed at night saying we’ve done something wonderful… that’s what matters to me.

Did Jobs originate the expression in the first sentence or have other wealthy people used this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this general expression located by QI was published in an interview in January 1932 with Ed Wynn who was a very popular comedian. He became wealthy performing in multiple venues: vaudeville, Broadway, radio, and films. He also lost most of his money in a business reversal before his earnings made him prosperous again. In 1932 he spoke of his life philosophy [EWBG]:

“I have no ambition to be the wealthiest man in the cemetery,” he said. “And that, my boy, is the most brilliant thing I ever said. It is worthy of a greater brain than mine.”

“I made and lost four million before I found I needed only one to be happy.”

This turn of phrase impressed the Boston Globe headline writer who incorporated it in the article title “Ed Wynn Doesn’t Yearn to Be Wealthiest Man in Cemetery”. Note, Wynn used the word “wealthiest”, but he was later quoted using the synonym “richest” that is more common in the modern versions of the saying.

The phrase was used by silent film star Douglas MacLean, playwright Clifford Odets, actor Skeets Gallagher, KFC entrepreneur Colonel Harland Sanders, and others in later years. It even appeared in the title of a song in 1948 according to Billboard magazine. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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“How Will You Get Robots to Pay Union Dues?” “How Will You Get Robots to Buy Cars?”

Walter Reuther? Henry Ford II? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: An article on the Economist website recently told an extraordinary anecdote about automation. The rivals in the tale were two titans in the world of automobile manufacturing who took a tour of a newly built and highly-automated factory. The forceful executive, Henry Ford II, and the leader of the automobile workers union, Walter Reuther, both saw many examples of advanced machinery operating at the plant. The words they exchanged brilliantly encapsulated the paradox of automation:

Henry Ford II: Walter, how are you going to get those robots to pay your union dues?

Walter Reuther: Henry, how are you going to get them to buy your cars?

The Economist article expressed uncertainty about the tale by labeling it apocryphal. Can you determine if this conversation really took place?

Quote Investigator: Walter Reuther did claim that a comparable dialog actually occurred in the early 1950s. However, he did not claim he was speaking with Henry Ford II. Instead, his conversation partner was described using a phrase such as “one of the management people” or “a company official”.

The earliest evidence QI has located appeared in conjunction with a conference about automation held by the UAW-CIO union in November 1954. The conference report was published in January 1955, and one of the initial pages presented the following short stand-alone passage [WRUW]:

Parable

CIO President Walter Reuther was being shown through the Ford Motor plant in Cleveland recently.

A company official proudly pointed to some new automatically controlled machines and asked Reuther: “How are you going to collect union dues from these guys?”

Reuther replied: “How are you going to get them to buy Fords?”

In November 1956 Walter Reuther delivered a speech to a Council group of the National Education Association. The transcript of his talk was published as part of his “Selected Papers”, and it contained an extended description of this intriguing episode [WRNE]:

I went through this Ford engine plant about three years ago, when they first opened it. There are acres and acres of machines, and here and there you will find a worker standing at a master switchboard, just watching, green and yellow lights blinking off and on, which tell the worker what is happening in the machine. One of the management people, with a slightly gleeful tone in his voice said to me, “How are you going to collect union dues from all these machines?” And I replied, “You know, that is not what’s bothering me. I’m troubled by the problem of how to sell automobiles to these machines.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading ““How Will You Get Robots to Pay Union Dues?” “How Will You Get Robots to Buy Cars?””

Quiz Question: Who Is Buried in Grant’s Tomb? Answer: Grant!

Groucho Marx? Ed Wynn? Jimtown Weekly? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Groucho Marx was the host of a quiz show called “You Bet Your Life” during the 1940s and 50s. Sometimes when a contestant did poorly Groucho would ask an easy question so that the person could win a prize or some money. For example:

Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?

This question refers to the mausoleum in New York City that contains the remains of Ulysses S. Grant and his wife. The simple answer that Groucho expected to hear was “Grant”, and this allowed him to award a prize. Was Groucho the original creator of this absurdist question?

Quote Investigator: This query was explored by the New York Times journalist Michael Pollak in an article that was part of an ongoing series answering questions about the megacity New York [NYGT]. Top researcher Barry Popik and QI were able to help Pollak respond successfully to this query, and he kindly acknowledged our aid.

The earliest evidence of this humorous question appeared in a syndicated newspaper column by the comedian and actor Ed Wynn who often used the persona of “The Perfect Fool”. In September 1925 the column “Ed Wynn’s Question Box: He Knows All – He Sees All” printed several interrogatives with a comic edge. Here are three of them [EWGT]:

Do you know that a female “moth” is called a “myth?”

Do you know where your lap goes to when you stand up?

Do you know the name of the general who is buried in Grant’s tomb? If you don’t know, ask me.

This version of the Grant query even includes a hint that the answer is a general. The show “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho started broadcasting in the 1940s, so the joke was not constructed for that show. Here are additional selected citations.

Continue reading “Quiz Question: Who Is Buried in Grant’s Tomb? Answer: Grant!”

People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf

George Orwell? Richard Grenier? Rudyard Kipling? Winston Churchill? John Le Carré? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The brilliant writer George Orwell authored two of the most powerful and acclaimed political books of the last century: 1984 and Animal Farm. The saying that interests me is usually attributed to him, and there are two popular versions:

We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf

I think these words are consistent with the sentiments Orwell expressed in essays, but I have read conflicting comments about whether these words are correctly ascribed to him. Would you trace the source of these statements?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that George Orwell who died in 1950 made this remark. The earliest known matching statement appeared in a column in the Washington Times newspaper written by the film critic and essayist Richard Grenier in 1993:[1] 1993 April 6, The Washington Times, Perils of Passive Sex by Richard Grenier, Page F3, Washington, D.C. (NewsBank)

As George Orwell pointed out, people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.

It is important to note that Grenier did not use quotation marks around the statement of the view that he ascribed to Orwell. QI believes that Grenier was using his own words to present a summary of Orwell’s viewpoint. Later commentators placed the statement between quotation marks and introduced various modifications to the passage.

This is a known mechanism for the generation of misattributions. Person A summarizes, condenses, or restates the opinion of person B. At a later time the restatement is directly ascribed to person B.

Previous researchers located the key 1993 citation and found phrases in the works of Orwell and Kipling that contain parts of the idea expressed in the aphorism under investigation. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “People Sleep Peacefully in Their Beds at Night Only Because Rough Men Stand Ready to Do Violence on Their Behalf”

References

References
1 1993 April 6, The Washington Times, Perils of Passive Sex by Richard Grenier, Page F3, Washington, D.C. (NewsBank)

Computers Are Useless. They Can Only Give You Answers

Pablo Picasso? Louis Zukofsky? William Fifield? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Our reliance on computerized systems seems to grow every day. The following mordant quotation has been attributed to Pablo Picasso, the most vital artist of the 20th century:

Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.

Recently, I was examining a poem by another influential modern artist, the poet Louis Zukofsky, and I was surprised to find the following words ascribed to “Pablo”:

Calculators can only give answers.

Based on the context I think Zukofsky was crediting this saying to Pablo Picasso. The section of the poem with these words was published in 1967. Can you determine which of these quotes is accurate? Was Picasso really talking about calculators or computers? Or did he use both quotes?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence for this quotation located by QI appeared in an interview article published in The Paris Review 32 of Summer-Fall 1964. The article called “Pablo Picasso: A Composite Interview” consisted of a collection of interviews conducted by the prize-winning author William Fifield together with his interspersed observations. Interestingly, the word “computer” did not actually appear in the text written by Fifield that gave rise to the modern quotation [WFP1]:

I feel I am nibbling on the edges of this world when I am capable of getting what Picasso means when he says to me—perfectly straight-facedly—later of the enormous new mechanical brains or calculating machines: “But they are useless. They can only give you answers.” How easy and comforting to take these things for jokes—boutades!

It is clear the Fifield was talking about devices that today would be called computers. QI believes that it is also possible to see how both versions of the saying highlighted by the questioner could have been derived from the text in the Paris Review.

Fifield later revised his comments and introduced a third slightly different version of the saying as discussed further below. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Compound Interest Is Man’s Greatest Invention

Albert Einstein? Advertising copywriter? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some people think that Albert Einstein’s name is magical. If they want to convince you of something or sell you something they invoke his revered name to prove that a genius agrees with whatever proposition they are peddling. Here is a collection of statements that the brilliant physicist supposedly said:

Compound interest is man’s greatest invention.

Compound interest is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time.

Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.

Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Compound interest is more complicated than relativity theory.

Did Einstein make any of these ridiculous remarks? Sometimes the wording of the quotations is different. For example, some sayings replace “compound interest” with “compounding interest”, “compounded interest”, or “compounding”. Are they all bogus?

Quote Investigator: Since this is a large topic involving multiple quotations this post will concentrate only on remarks claiming that compound interest is the greatest invention. QI has not located any significant evidence that Einstein made this comment.

The earliest instance QI has located in which compound interest was called “the greatest invention the world has ever produced” was dated 1916. The words appeared in an advertisement for the “Security Investment Co.” The speaker was a fictional character created by an advertising copywriter [GICI]:

The Greatest Invention

Three friends were having a discussion as to what was the greatest invention. One claimed the steam engine, another the telegraph.

The third friend sharpened his pencil and started to figure on a large piece of paper.

Finally he said: “Gentlemen, if the man who invented compound interest had of secured a patent on his idea he would have had without any doubt the greatest invention the world has ever produced.”

If Columbus had of placed one single dollar out at 6% interest compounded annually with instructions to pay the proceeds to you today, you would have over Ten Billion Dollars coming to you.

In 1976 the Wall Street Journal published an opinion article that ascribed to Einstein the belief that “compound interest” was “man’s greatest invention”. Einstein died in 1955, and this is the earliest instance located by QI of an attribution of this sentiment to him though the phrasing used in the newspaper is tentative [HKAE]:

All I can do is remind them of the truth of Albert Einstein’s alleged response when he was asked, “What do you, Mr. Einstein, consider to be man’s greatest invention?” He didn’t reply the wheel or the lever. He is reported to have said, “Compound interest.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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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.

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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”