Milli-Helen: The Quantity of Beauty Required To Launch Exactly One Ship

Isaac Asimov? W. A. H. Rushton? R. C. Winton? Edgar J. Westbury? Christopher Marlowe? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Standards of beauty are notoriously subjective and variable. Different qualities are prized over time, and distinct cultures value divergent attributes.

In the domain of Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was the most beautiful woman in the world. English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy “Doctor Faustus” contains the following lines about her:

Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium

An aspiring humorist proposed the “Helen” as a measure of female pulchritude. Thus, the “milli-Helen” (one thousandth of a “Helen”) was the amount of beauty sufficient to launch one ship. The hyphen is sometimes omitted. This quip has been attributed to science fiction author Isaac Asimov and physiologist W. A. H. Rushton. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence known to QI appeared in the London humor magazine “Punch” in 1954. The quip was attributed to an unnamed “professor of natural philosophy”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Scientists and aesthetes alike have heard with interest that the “unit of absolute beauty” has been invented by a professor of natural philosophy, who calls it a Helen and explains that it is divisible into millihelens. It is hoped that the millihelen may in time be interpreted in terms of power, when it should prove handy for launching a single ship.

In 1992 science fiction luminary Isaac Asimov made the interesting claim that he invented the term “millihelen” during a discussion with a friend in the early 1940s. See the 1992 citation given further below. QI has not yet located substantive support for this claim.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Milli-Helen: The Quantity of Beauty Required To Launch Exactly One Ship

Notes:

  1. 1954 June 23, Punch or The London Charivari, Volume 226, Issue Number 5936, Page Title: Punch: Charivaria, Quote Page 737, Column 3, Published at the Office of Punch, London, England. (Gale Cengage “Punch” Historical Archive)

Money Can’t Buy Love, But It Improves Your Bargaining Position

Christopher Marlowe? Laurence J. Peter? Evan Esar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Christopher Marlowe was a brilliant poet and dramatist of the 1500s whose works influenced the luminary William Shakespeare. I was astonished to find the following statement attributed to him:

Money can’t buy love, but it improves your bargaining position.

In my opinion, this expression is not from the 1500s and crediting Marlowe is nonsensical. Nevertheless, many websites dedicated to quotations present this dubious ascription. Would you please explore this quotation? Perhaps you could uncover the source of this inanity.

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the twentieth century and not the sixteenth. In 1954 a newspaper in Iowa printed an instance of the saying in a humor column. The phrasing differed somewhat from the common modern expression, and no attribution was given: 1

Money cannot buy love, but it places one in an excellent bargaining position.

QI believes that the flawed attribution to Christopher Marlowe originated with the misreading of an influential book of quotations that was compiled by Laurence J. Peter and published in 1977. The details of this citation are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Money Can’t Buy Love, But It Improves Your Bargaining Position

Notes:

  1. 1954 March 18, The Elgin Echo, Rich’s “Pipe Dreams”, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Elgin, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)