Tag Archives: Charles A. Dana

I Do Not Believe in Ghosts, But I Am Awfully Afraid of Them

Edgar Allan Poe? Germaine de Staël? Bert Leston Taylor? Charles A. Dana? Anonymous?

stael09Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of quips that express a comically contradictory attitude toward specters. Here are three instances:

I do not believe in ghosts, but I am awfully afraid of them.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I’ve been running from them all my life.
I don’t believe in ghosts, but I don’t want to see one.

The master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe sometimes has received credit for the second statement. Would you please explore this group of jokes for Halloween?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Edgar Allan Poe employed one of these quips.

Germaine de Staël was an author and influential French intellectual who died in 1817. The physician Sir Henry Holland met Madame de Staël on multiple occasions and dined with her; in 1872 he published a memoir titled “Recollections of Past Life” which included a quotation from de Staël in French about revenants, i.e., ghosts. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Another trait she discloses, speaking of les revenants: ‘Je n’y crois pas, mais je les crains.’

Here is one possible translation of the French:

‘I do not believe, but I’m afraid.’

When Holland’s book was reviewed in “The London Quarterly Review” 2 and “Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine” 3 the remark from Madame de Staël was reprinted which widened its distribution.

Also in 1872 the notable writer and conversationalist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. published “The Poet at the Breakfast-Table” in which he presented a slightly different version of the quotation and ascribed the words to an unnamed “famous woman”: 4

We are all tattoed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible. You cannot educate a man wholly out of the superstitious fears which were early implanted in his imagination; no matter how utterly his reason may reject them, he will still feel as the famous woman did about ghosts, Je ne les crois pas, mais je les crains, — “I don’t believe in them, but I am afraid of them, nevertheless.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1872, Recollections of Past Life by Sir Henry Holland, Quote Page 113, Longmans, Green, and Co., London. (Original text has “revenans” for “revenants”) (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1872 January, The London Quarterly Review, American Edition, Review of Sir Henry Holland’s Recollections, Start Page 82, Quote Page 88, The Leonard Scott Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1872 April, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, American Edition, Review of Sir Henry Holland’s Recollections, Start Page 82, Quote Page 88, Leonard Scott Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1872 Copyright, The Poet at the Breakfast-Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Quote Page 346, George Routledge and Sons, London. Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link

‘Dog Bites a Man’ Is Not News. ‘Man Bites a Dog’ Is News

John B. Bogart? Charles A. Dana? Amos Cummings? Horace Greeley? Jesse Lynch Williams? Billy Woods? Doc Wood? Alfred Harmsworth? Lord Northcliffe? Joseph Pulitzer? Anonymous?

dana04Dear Quote Investigator: Would you please explore one of the most famous maxims in the news business? Legend states that a neophyte reporter asked a sage editor to define “news”, and he received this reply:

When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.

This saying has been credited to several newspaper people including: John B. Bogart, Amos Cummings, and Charles A. Dana who all worked at the New York Sun. The British press baron Alfred Harmsworth who became Lord Northcliffe has also been named as the originator.

Quote Investigator: The earliest written evidence located by QI appeared in a book titled “The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories” by Jesse Lynch Williams in 1899. The adage was spoken by a fictional character named “Billy Woods” in a chapter called “The Old Reporter”. Woods was considered a repository of knowledge and wisdom by fellow reporters though his lack of a college education sometimes made him self-conscious. In the following passage Woods entertained young reporters and explained his concept of newsworthiness. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Then he would open up, put them at their ease, discourse interestingly about the traditions of the office, and fascinate them, as he could anyone, man or woman, who came in his way.

“No wonder Senators at the Fifth Avenue Hotel like to have Mr. Woods come up and slap them on the back!” “No wonder he can make anybody talk about everything,” thought the new reporters, while the old one went on in his rapid style, “You’ll soon assimilate the idea. Now, for instance, ‘A dog bites a man’—that’s a story; ‘A man bites a dog’—that’s a good story,” etc., until in a lull there came the question—inevitable from very recent graduates:

“What college are you from Mr. Woods?”
Billy always felt better when this was over.

The author Jesse Lynch Williams went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for drama. QI speculates that Williams was trying to achieve verisimilitude in his novel by relaying an anonymous witty remark he had heard from within the newspaper business.

By August 1902 a version of the adage was being credited to the prominent newspaper editor Charles Anderson Dana. Here is a short item from a paper in Omaha, Nebraska that reprinted information from a paper in Buffalo, New York: 2

The Buffalo Commercial relates that Richard Harding Davis once asked Charles A. Dana: “What constitutes news?” “If you should see a dog biting a man,” replied Dana, “don’t write it up. But if you should see a man biting a dog, spare not money, men nor telegraph tolls to get the details to the Sun office.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1899, The Stolen Story and Other Newspaper Stories by Jesse Lynch Williams, Chapter: The Old Reporter, Start Page 215, Quote Page 223, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1902 August 3, Omaha Daily Bee, Personal and General, (Paragraph size news item), Quote Page 14, Column 5, Omaha, Nebraska. (Chronicling America)