If You Remember the ’60s, You Really Weren’t There

Robin Williams? Charlie Fleischer? Paul Krassner? Paul Kantner? Grace Slick?

Dear Quotation Investigator: I lived through the 1960s, but the only thing I remember about it is the following quotation:

If you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there.

Does anyone recall who said this?

Quote Investigator: Yes, many people think they remember who said this. The problem is they disagree: Paul Kantner, Robin Williams, Paul Krassner, Pete Townshend, Grace Slick, Timothy Leary, and many others have been credited with the saying. Of course, no one who was there really remembers.

The earliest citation currently known by QI for this expression was found by the outstanding researcher Stephen Goranson.

The cite is a two-line article in the Comedy column of the Los Angeles Times in 1982:[1] 1982 June 13, Los Angeles Times, The Comedy Column: Shandling Takes the Low-Key Road by Lawrence Christon, Page M60, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

EXIT LINE: Comedian Charlie Fleischer observes: “If you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there.”

Apparently it took all of the 1970s to recover from the 1960s and create the quip. Until further citations are located, Charles Fleischer gets the credit.


1 1982 June 13, Los Angeles Times, The Comedy Column: Shandling Takes the Low-Key Road by Lawrence Christon, Page M60, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Practice!

Jascha Heifetz? Arthur Rubinstein? Generic Maestro?

Dear Quote Investigator: How old is that classic joke about one of New York City’s landmark venues?

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.

Quote Investigator: Tracing jokes can be difficult because they can be told in so many ways. Etymologist Barry Popik is one of the most skilled practitioners of word and phrase tracing in the world, and he shares his results at the Big Apple website.

Popik has a web page about this quip that includes its earliest known appearance.

Continue reading “How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Practice!”

Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity

Albert Einstein? Frederick S. Perls? Anonymous? A Great Astronomer?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained three quotations that are usually attributed to Einstein. Are these quotes accurate? I am particularly interested in the second quotation:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about th’universe!

Did Einstein really say that?

Quote Investigator: Probably not, but there is some evidence, and QI can tell you why the quote is attributed to Einstein. The story begins in the 1940s when the influential Gestalt therapist Frederick S. Perls wrote a book titled “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method.”

Continue reading “Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity”

Quote Origin: Time Flies Like an Arrow; Fruit Flies Like a Banana

Groucho Marx? Anthony Oettinger? Susumu Kuno? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: The simile “Time flies like an arrow” compares the rapidity of the passage of time to the quickness of a darting arrow. However, there exist alternative interpretations of the phrase. Here are two possibilities:

(1) A particular type of flies called “time flies” are fond of arrows.

(2) The technique used to measure the speed of flies should be same one used to measure the speed of an arrow.

The humor of the following quip is based on the juxtaposition of two phrases with divergent interpretations:

Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.

This line has been attributed to the famous comedian Groucho Marx, but I have never seen a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found any substantive evidence that Groucho Marx used the comical line under examination. He died in 1977, and he received credit for the line by 1989. See the citation given further below.

In November 1963 the “Harvard Alumni Bulletin” reported on the research of faculty members Anthony Oettinger and Susumu Kuno who were attempting to create a computer program to help automate the task of language translation. The task was more difficult than early researchers anticipated. Boldface added to excepts by QI:1

Unfortunately, there are many English sentences that humans understand in a unique way but that machines find highly ambiguous. For example: “Time flies like an arrow.” Your English grammarian sees that “Time” is the subject of the verb “flies,” and the verb is modified by the adverbial phrase “like an arrow.” The computer will diagram the sentence in this way too; but being very literal-minded, it will also provide several other parsings.

The bulletin discussed alternative parsings which corresponded to the interpretations of the type presented at the beginning of this article:

For example, it would also parse the sentence as though its meaning were (1) “Determine the speed of flies as quickly as you can;” and (2) “A species of fly, called time flies, enjoy an arrow.”

The bulletin continued with a discussion of the computer program used for parsing:2

These possibilities do not make much sense to a human; but they are syntactically correct, and the computer blindly produces all of these simply because it has not been taught, for example, that there is no such species of fly as “time flies.” The computer could be “trained,” of course, not to parse such a sentence the way it did . But then the machine could not correctly handle a sentence like “Fruit flies like bananas.”

Thus, the article in the “Harvard Alumni Bulletin” contained the two phrases: “Time flies like an arrow” and “Fruit flies like bananas”. However, the sentences were not placed adjacent to one another, and they were not intended to produce laughter. QI believes both sentences were supplied to the bulletin journalist by the researchers Anthony Oettinger and Susumu Kuno.

In September 1966 Oettinger published an article in “Scientific American” magazine that employed the two phrases: “Time flies like an arrow” and “Fruit flies like a banana”.3

The slight alteration in the latter phrase produced a closer parallel structure. The two sentences were used to illustrate the ambiguity of language. The sentences were not placed adjacent to one another in the text.

Many years later in 1982 a message in the Usenet newsgroup net.jokes mentioned a gag that was already circulating which used the examples given during linguistics research in the 1960s:4

Seen on a bathroom wall:
Time flies like an arrow.
Fruit flies like a banana.

This was the earliest close match for the joke known to QI. The creator remains anonymous although QI believes that the inspiration can be traced to the research efforts of Anthony Oettinger and Susumu Kuno.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “Quote Origin: Time Flies Like an Arrow; Fruit Flies Like a Banana”

This Post Fills a Much-Needed Gap – Part 02

Gary Cooper? Lee Neuwirth? Henry Miller? Moses Hadas?

Dear Quotation Investigator: I was told that a prominent journal editor would sometimes write a rejection letter to an author that said his or her “paper fills a much-needed gap”. Is this true?

QI: This post continues the investigation of the phrase “much needed gap”, restarting in 1956, and considers this new question. Here is a link to part one if you missed it.

When legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper asks movie star Gary Cooper about the new star Grace Kelly in 1956 he says that “she fills a much needed gap in motion pictures” [GC]. Misunderstanding is still prevalent.

Continue reading “This Post Fills a Much-Needed Gap – Part 02”

This Post Fills a Much-Needed Gap – Part 01

Dear Quotation Investigator: I once read that the funniest book review ever written begins with the sentence: “This book fills a much-needed gap”. Does this book review actually exist?

QI: Remarkably, the phrase mentioned does appear in many book reviews and other evaluations. For years writers have been incongruously eager to praise the filling of a “much-needed gap”. The book reviewers probably intend to say: “This book is a much needed gap-filler.” Instead, books are not being praised they are being inadvertently condemned because a much-needed gap should certainly remain unfilled.

Typically, the humor is unintentional, but sometimes the writer is aware of the precise meaning of the expression.

Continue reading “This Post Fills a Much-Needed Gap – Part 01”

Misbehaving Children in Ancient Times

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a great quote by Plato or Socrates about the misbehavior of children in antiquity that I read in the New York Times. The quote shows that the problems between generations are not just a recent occurrence. Instead, the conflicts between parents and offspring are timeless [NY8]:

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.

I wanted to use this quote, so I needed to know who said it; however, the NYT website contained a surprise. The newspaper had retracted the quote and now there was a note that said “Its origin is unclear, although many researchers agree that Plato is not the source.” I am sure I have seen this quote before. Can you tell me where it came from and who said it?

Quote Investigator: The quote is so entertaining and it fills its niche so well that it is cited repeatedly around the globe. Over the decades the quotation or a close variant has appeared in newspapers such as: Oakland Tribune of California in 1922; The Bee of Danville, Virginia in 1946; Winnipeg Free Press of Manitoba, Canada in 1976; The Sunday Herald of Chicago, Illinois in 1982; the Sun-Herald of Sydney, Australia in 2005; and the Taipei Times of Taiwan in 2008 [SOC1-SOC6]. The words are usually attributed to Socrates and the confusion with Plato is understandable because Plato’s dialogues are the primary source of knowledge concerning Socrates.

QI has determined that the author of the quote is not someone famous or ancient.

Continue reading “Misbehaving Children in Ancient Times”

Electric Communication Will Never Be a Substitute for the Face of Someone Who with Their Soul Encourages

Charles Dickens? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: In a book on corporate communications I read a quote that supposedly was said by Dickens:[1] 2007, Essentials of Corporate Communication by C. B. M. van Riel and Charles J. Fombrun, Page 181, Routledge. (Google Books limited view) link

Electric communication will never be a substitute for the face of someone who with their soul encourages another person to be brave and true.
Charles Dickens

I find this quote hard to believe. Naturally,  email and twitter did not exist in the time of Dickens, but even the telephone wasn’t deployed. Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone in 1876 and Dickens died in 1870.

Quote Investigator: Your skepticism is understandable and the quotation you provide has been modified; however, it is based on a passage in a work by Charles Dickens entitled “The Wreck of the Golden Mary”. A character in the story is commenting on communication via electric telegraph within a ship during a time of great peril and says the following. Boldface has been added:[2] 1856 December 6, Household Words (Extra Christmas Number), The Wreck of the Golden Mary, Page 10, Column 2, Bradley and Evans. (Google Books full view) link

O! what a thing it is, in a time of danger, and in the presence of death, the shining of a face upon a face!  I have heard it broached that orders should be given in great new ships by electric telegraph.  I admire machinery as much as any man, and am as thankful to it as any man can be for what it does for us.  But, it will never be a substitute for the face of a man, with his soul in it, encouraging another man to be brave and true.  Never try it for that.  It will break down like a straw.

This quotation has been altered to obtain the shorter version that you give. Only one sentence from the story has been extracted for the quote. The pronoun referring to the telegraph has been removed, and the generic term “electric communication” has been substituted. Also, the male referents have been changed to genderless referents.

In conclusion, substantial changes have been made to the original text to yield the widely-distributed single sentence quotation in its modern form. The dramatic life-or-death context has been excised.

Yet, it is true that the words of Dickens did reflect skepticism toward substituting the telegraph for face-to-face contact in crucial situations.

Update History: On April 8, 2014 the style of the bibliographic notes was updated to numerical form.


1 2007, Essentials of Corporate Communication by C. B. M. van Riel and Charles J. Fombrun, Page 181, Routledge. (Google Books limited view) link
2 1856 December 6, Household Words (Extra Christmas Number), The Wreck of the Golden Mary, Page 10, Column 2, Bradley and Evans. (Google Books full view) link

Everybody Talks About the Weather, But Nobody Does Anything About It.

Mark Twain? Charles Dudley Warner?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a classic Mark Twain quotation about the weather that I have used for years.

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.

However, recently I visited the Bartleby website and discovered that the reference work Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations says that the attribution to Twain may be incorrect. Someone named Charles Dudley Warner may have created the saying. Who is Charles Dudley Warner and who created the quote?

QI: Your confusion is understandable and for many years the question of authorship for this quote was unresolved. But, QI has uncovered some new evidence that points to the most likely answer.

Continue reading “Everybody Talks About the Weather, But Nobody Does Anything About It.”

A New Blog Exploring Quotations

Have you ever enjoyed reading or hearing a clever quotation? Have you ever repeated the quote along with the attribution but wondered if the information was accurate? This blog tries to track down correct information about the provenance of sayings by utilizing the massive text databases that are being constructed right now along with other quotation history resources.