The Best Things in Life Are Not Things

Art Buchwald? Henry James Lee? Mrs. Kenneth Clarke? Linda Godeau? Laurence J. Peter? Anonymous?

Dear Quote investigator: A popular modern adage de-emphasizes materialism:

The best things in life aren’t things.

This phrase has been attributed to the humorist Art Buchwald and the quotation collector Laurence J. Peter. What do you think?

Quote investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the “Illinois State Journal and Register” of Springfield, Illinois in 1948. An editorial piece about “The Fine Things of Life” employed a version of the saying without a precise ascription. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A person recently bereaved of an only sister, wrote to a friend: “Isn’t it wonderful that the really fine things of life are not things at all.” And so it is. Love, friendship, appreciation, kindness, honesty, thrift, and a multitude of life’s finest qualities, are intangible and spiritual but nevertheless, very real.

Laurence J. Peter placed the saying in one of his collections in 1982, but it was already in circulation. Art Buchwald was connected to the saying by 1989, but there was no substantive evidence that he crafted it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Best Things in Life Are Not Things


  1. 1948 October 24, Illinois State Journal and Register, The Fine Things of Life, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)

A Disordered Desk Is a Sign of Genius

Leo Tolstoy? Edwin H. Stuart? Elinor Glyn? Henry Traphagen? Art Buchwald? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While I am working hard on a complex project my desk usually becomes messy, but I take comfort in the following sayings:

  • A cluttered desk is the mark of a genius.
  • A messy desk is the sign of a creative mind.
  • An untidy desk is a sign of brilliance.

Would you please explore the history of this modern adage?

Quote Investigator: A strong match appeared in the journal “Typo Graphic” in 1947. The editor Edwin H. Stuart sent a questionnaire to his readers, and he was disappointed with the low response rate. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

When you did not reply we assumed that you may have: Moved to another city. …

Or, that you’re one of those geniuses who have a piled-up desk and you threw the card in the pile and it got lost.

Tolstoi said that a disordered desk was a sign of genius and we see lots of littered desks in our rambles around Pittsburgh.

Stuart used the alternative spelling “Tolstoi” while crediting Leo Tolstoy. QI has not yet found support for this ascription; however, QI has not attempted the difficult task of searching for a Russian instance.

This website also has articles about two related expressions: “A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain” and “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, we can’t help wondering what an empty desk indicates”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Disordered Desk Is a Sign of Genius


  1. 1947 December, Typo Graphic, Page Title: Well Thanks, Brother, Article: Don’t Blame Us, Quote Page 36, Column 2, Publisher Edwin H. Stuart, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Library of University of Minnesota, Twin Cities)

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings

Lee Arthur? Dick Motta? Dan Cook? Ralph Carpenter? Fred Speck? Bob Pafford? Art Buchwald? Anonymous?


Dear Quote Investigator: The leading position in an athletic or political contest can dramatically shift during a short period, and sometimes the outcome can be dependent on the final stage of competition. A family of adages employs analogical language to reflect this tension and uncertainty. Here are five examples:

Church ain’t over till they quit singing.
Church isn’t over until the choir stops singing
Church ain’t out ’till the fat lady sings.
The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings.
The game isn’t over until the fat lady sings.

Would you please explore the origin of this collection of aphorisms?

Quote Investigator: By 1872 a saying about the length of church services was being used analogically. A report in a Cincinnati, Ohio newspaper discussed incomplete polling data for a U.S. Presidential election and told readers that the fate of candidate Horace Greeley was still uncertain. The report was reprinted in a New Orleans, Louisiana newspaper. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

As long as the organ is playing church is not out. With Indiana and New York Greeley can spare Ohio and Pennsylvania. We see no reason whatever to despair of Greeley’s election.

In 1894 a group of railroad passenger agents expected an additional reduction in the price of a ticket to a popular destination: 2

The impression is still strong among railroad passenger agents that there will be further reductions in the rate to the Washington encampment of the Knights of Pythias.

“Church is never out till the people get through singing,” said one of them this morning, and all of them talk as if they understood the language of this parable.

In 1896 the “New York Tribune” printed the response of a well-known orator named Chauncey M. Depew when he was asked about a presidential nomination race between William McKinley and Governor Levi P. Morton. Depew was a strong supporter of Morton, but new developments pointed to the success of McKinley. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“Do you think the Governor still has a chance?”

“While there is life there is hope. It doesn’t do to count on anything as a certainty until all is over. Church is never out until they stop singing. I admit that Major McKinley looks like the winner, but I am with Morton as long as he is to be considered as a candidate.”

Depew was unhappy that his favorite was not selected. McKinley did win the Republican nomination and ultimately the U.S. presidency.

The following 1913 example from a periodical titled “The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer” was also employed in the domain of politics: 4

There is an old saying that “church is not out ’till the singing’s done,” and with the narrow margin which the Democrats have in the Senate, it is believed that at least the wool and sugar schedules are still in the balance.

Even in 1913 this adage was labelled “old”, and it has continued to circulate up to modern times. Instances were applied to a variety of competitions such as: boat racing in 1952, hockey in 1974, and dominoes in 1975. QI conjectures that the sayings in this family evolved from this early piece of proverbial wisdom.

The terms “opera” and “fat lady” were incorporated into statements by 1976, and three key figures in the sports world all used this adage by 1978: Ralph Carpenter, Dan Cook, and Dick Motta. Currently, the earliest known citation named Carpenter as speaker of this variant saying, and he is the leading candidate for crafter. However, an exploration of provenance that was published in June 1978 named Dan Cook as the creator. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings


  1. 1872 October 17, The Daily Picayune (Times-Picayune), The Political Outlook: Opinions Of Leading Papers, From the Cincinnati Volksblatt, Quote Page 2, Column 2, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1894 August 17, The Fort Worth Gazette, Lower Rate to Washington, Quote Page 7, Column 4, Fort Worth, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1896 May 2, New York Tribune, M’Kinley A Sure Winner: The Popular Conviction, Quote Page 1, Column 6, New York. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1913 July 12, The Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, Volume 51, Number 2, (Issue Start Page 41), Washington (Dateline July 12, 1913), Start Page 45, Quote Page 46, Column 1, Louisiana Planter and Sugar Manufacturer, New Orleans, Louisiana. (Google Books full view) link