A Baby Learns To Speak in Two Years, But It Takes a Lifetime To Learn To Keep Quiet

Ernest Hemingway? Mark Twain? Luke McLuke? Lydia DeVilbiss? Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Frederick B. Wilcox? Abigail Van Buren? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While searching the twitter database I encountered the following two similar jokes:

(1) Humans need two years to learn to speak and sixty years to learn to shut up.

(2) It takes two years to learn to talk, and the rest of your life to control your mouth.

Ernest Hemingway received credit for the first, and Mark Twain received credit for the second. I am skeptical of both of these ascriptions. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that either of these famous quotation magnets employed this quip. The expression is highly variable which makes this large family of quips difficult to trace, and this article will only present a snapshot of current research.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in a 1909 editorial published in a Wenatchee, Washington newspaper. The context indicated that the quip was already in circulation; hence, the ascription was anonymous. The word “exuberance” was misspelled as “exhuberance”: 1

It is unfortunate that Charles R. Crane, who was recently designated as minister to China should have been led by an exhuberance of enthusiasm and interest in Oriental affairs to make remarks which might prove embarrassing to the administration. His indiscretion gives emphasis to the remark that it takes a person two years to learn how to talk and all the rest of his life to learn to keep from talking too much.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Baby Learns To Speak in Two Years, But It Takes a Lifetime To Learn To Keep Quiet


  1. 1909 October 13, The Wenatchee Daily World, A Diplomat Must Be Discreet, Quote Page 4, Column 1, Wenatchee, Washington. (Newspapers_com)

I Work From About Seven Until About Noon. Then I Go Fishing or Swimming, or Whatever I Want

Ernest Hemingway? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Did Ernest Hemingway drink heavily while he was writing? How many hours did he spend working each day? Can you find an interview containing quotations that illuminate his drinking and writing habits?

Quote Investigator: Shortly before Hemingway died in 1961, he participated in an interview conducted by Edward Stafford and his wife. The result appeared in the “Writer’s Digest” in 1964. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

My wife needled him. “Is it true,” she asked, “that you take a pitcher of martinis up into the tower every morning when you go up to write?”

“Jeezus Christ!” Papa was incredulous. “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked? You’re thinking of Faulkner. He does sometimes—and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one. Besides,” he added, “who in hell would mix more than one martini at a time, anyway?”

Thus, Hemingway denied that alcohol was his muse. A separate QI article explored a germane saying which has often been attributed to Hemingway: “Write drunk, edit sober”. QI found no substantive support for ascribing this remark to the famous author.

Continue reading I Work From About Seven Until About Noon. Then I Go Fishing or Swimming, or Whatever I Want


  1. 1964 December, Writer’s Digest, An Afternoon With Hemingway by Edward Stafford, Start Page 18, Quote Page 21, Writer’s Digest, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Verified with microfilm)

“How Did You Go Bankrupt?” “Two Ways. Gradually and Then Suddenly.”

Creator: Ernest Hemingway, U.S. author, winner of Nobel Prize in Literature

Context: The character Mike Campbell in the 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises” was asked about his money troubles and responded with a vivid description embracing self-contradiction: 1

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

“What brought it on?”

“Friends,” said Mike. “I had a lot of friends. False friends. Then I had creditors, too. Probably had more creditors than anybody in England.”

Related Article: I Fell In Love the Way You Fall Asleep: Slowly, and Then All At Once

Acknowledgement: Thanks to David Orlo who asked about this quotation.


  1. 1954 (1926 Copyright), The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway, Book II, Chapter 13, Quote Page 136, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)

Do Not Wait To Strike Till the Iron Is Hot; But Make It Hot By Striking

William Butler Yeats? William B. Sprague? Benjamin Franklin? Richard Sharp? Charles Lamb? Charles Caleb Colton? Oliver Cromwell? Peleg Sprague? Ernest Hemingway? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular proverb highlights the limited duration of an opportunity:

Strike while the iron is hot.

This metaphor has been astutely extended with advice for greater challenges:

Make the iron hot by striking.

This full metaphor has been credited to the English military leader Oliver Cromwell, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, and the American novelist Ernest Hemingway. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The basic proverb appeared in one of “The Canterbury Tales” called “The Tale of Melibeus” by Geoffrey Chaucer written in the latter half of the 1300s. Here is the original spelling together with a modern rendition. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

…whil that iren is hoot men scholden smyte…
…while the iron is hot men should smite…

The earliest full match known to QI appeared in a 1782 letter from the famous statesman Benjamin Franklin to Reverend Richard Price about using the press to spread ideas. The letter was included in “Memoirs of the Life of The Rev. Richard Price” published in 1815: 2

The facility with which the same truths may be repeatedly enforced by placing them daily in different lights in newspapers which are every where read, gives a great chance of establishing them. And we now find, that it is not only right to strike while the iron is hot, but that it may be very practicable to heat it by continually striking.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Do Not Wait To Strike Till the Iron Is Hot; But Make It Hot By Striking


  1. 1860, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Edited by Thomas Wright, The Tale of Melibeus, Start Page 150, Quote Page 152, Richard Griffin and Company, London and Glasgow. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1815, Memoirs of the Life of The Rev. Richard Price by William Morgan, Volume 5, (Letter within footnote), Letter from: Benjamin Franklin, Letter to: Richard Price, Letter date: June 13, 1782, Start Page 95, Quote Page 96, Printed for R. Hunter, Successor to J. Johnson, London. (Google Books Full View) link

There Is Nothing Noble in Being Superior to Some Other Man. The True Nobility Is in Being Superior to Your Previous Self

Ernest Hemingway? W. L. Sheldon? Hindu Proverb? Khryter? Seneca? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A quotation about “true nobility” attributed to the Nobel Prize-winning author Ernest Hemingway suggests that one should avoid comparing oneself to others. I haven’t been able to find a solid citation. Would you please trace this aphorism?

Quote Investigator: Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899, and the first strong match known to QI appeared a couple years before in 1897. A collection of “Ethical Addresses” included a piece titled “What to Believe: An Ethical Creed” by W. L. Sheldon who was a Lecturer of the Ethical Society of St. Louis. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Remember that in the struggle of life it is always possible to turn one kind of defeat into another kind of victory. Try it and see!

Remember that if you cannot realize the ends of your being in one way, you can in another. Realize something! You will have to render an account somehow.

Remember that there is nothing noble in being superior to some other man. The true nobility is in being superior to your previous self.

Remember that you show what you are by the way you talk about people.

Remember that, as you grow older, nature’s tendencies are laying their grip upon you. Nature may be on your side when you are young, but against you later on.

In January 1963 “Playboy” magazine published a controversial posthumous article titled “A Man’s Credo” by Ernest Hemingway which included an instance of the adage. However, Hemingway expert Peter L. Hays believes that the luminary did not write the article.

Details are provided further below together with selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Is Nothing Noble in Being Superior to Some Other Man. The True Nobility Is in Being Superior to Your Previous Self


  1. 1897 April, Ethical Addresses, Series 4, Number 4, What To Believe: An Ethical Creed by W. L. Sheldon (Lecturer of the Ethical Society of St. Louis), Start Page 57, Quote Page 61, S. Burns Weston, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link

We Are All Broken. That’s How the Light Gets In

Ernest Hemingway? Leonard Cohen? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Benjamin Blood? Rumi? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is impossible to avoid all pain and suffering during a lifetime, but I believe that our setbacks have a larger meaning and purpose. The famous author Ernest Hemingway reportedly said the following:

We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.

I would like to use this statement in an article, but I have never seen a good citation. Would you please help me?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ernest Hemingway wrote or said this precise remark.

An interesting precursor appeared in an essay about “Compensation” in an 1841 collection by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Siegfried, in the Nibelungen, is not quite immortal, for a leaf fell on his back whilst he was bathing in the Dragon’s blood, and that spot which it covered is mortal. And so it always is. There is a crack in every thing God has made.

Another precursor appeared in an 1860 book titled “Optimism: The Lesson of Ages” by philosopher Benjamin Blood who echoed Emerson’s words and added the notion of light entering through the cracks: 2

It frequently happens that the souls of men outgrow the love of their own peculiar merits, and they long to exchange, even for merits of less worth.—“There is a crack in every thing that God has made;” but through that crevice enters the light of heaven. Every thing is blessed, but every thing is unfortunate as well.

QI conjectures that the statement under examination was constructed via an evolutionary blending of a well-known quotation from Hemingway together with a lyric from the influential singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

In 1929 Hemingway published a novel set during World War I titled “A Farewell to Arms”, and he discussed the universality of human pain and resilience. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

In 1992 Leonard Cohen released the album “The Future” which included the song “Anthem” containing the following lines echoing Emerson and Blood: 4

Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

The words of Hemingway and Cohen appear to have been merged to yield: “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” As shown further below, this quotation with an ascription to Hemingway entered circulation by 2013. Breakage typically causes cracks, and light symbolically represents spiritual strength and insight.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Are All Broken. That’s How the Light Gets In


  1. 1841, Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Essay III: Compensation, Start Page 75, Quote Page 88, James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1860, Optimism: The Lesson of Ages by Benjamin Blood, Section 17: Compensation, Quote Page 91, Bela Marsh, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1929, A Farewell to Arms, Chapter 34, Quote Page 267, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (archive.org Internet Archive) link
  4. YouTube video, Title: Leonard Cohen – Anthem, Uploaded on Jan 2, 2012, Uploaded by: Differance1’s channel, (Video for the song “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen), (Quotation starts at 1 minute 19 seconds of 6 minutes 10 seconds). (Accessed on youtube.com on November 15, 2016) link

Write Drunk, Revise Sober

Ernest Hemingway? Gowan McGland? Dylan Thomas? Peter De Vries? F. Scott Fitzgerald? James Joyce? Stephen Fry? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: “Alcohol loosens the tongue” is an old saying that some authors treat with reverence. But the resultant lubricated poetry and prose may require a red pencil. The famous writer Ernest Hemingway reportedly made one of the following remarks:

  1. Write drunk, edit sober.
  2. Write drunk, revise sober.

I cannot find a solid citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: Researchers have been unable to find this saying in the output of Ernest Hemingway who died in 1961, and it is unlikely that he ever said it or wrote it.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1964 novel “Reuben, Reuben” by the humorist Peter De Vries which included a character named Gowan McGland whose behaviors and eccentricities were partially modeled on the celebrated Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

At the beginning of chapter twenty-one McGland was reviewing a previously written draft of a poem. Now that he was sober he excised two lines that he considered dreadful. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

He remembered something he had told a New York journalist in an interview about his “working habits,” a dull subject about which people remained curiously interested in the case of writers and artists. “Sometimes I write drunk and revise sober,” he had said, “and sometimes I write sober and revise drunk. But you have to have both elements in creation — the Apollonian and the Dionysian, or spontaneity and restraint, emotion and discipline.”

QI conjectures that the words of De Vries evolved and were reassigned to the more prominent Hemingway who was certainly known to take a drink.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Write Drunk, Revise Sober


  1. 1964, Reuben, Reuben by Peter De Vries, Chapter 21, Quote Page 242, Chapter 30, Published by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)

The Dictionary Feud: Faulkner versus Hemingway

William Faulkner? Ernest Hemingway? Apocryphal?

dictionary10Dear Quote Investigator: Two major writers of the twentieth century disagreed sharply about the type of vocabulary that was advantageous in literary works. Apparently, Faulkner said that Hemingway had “no courage” because he tightly circumscribed his word choice. Hemingway punched back by stating that he did not need “ten-dollar words”. He also said that Faulkner’s writing had deteriorated because of his dependence on alcohol. Would you please examine this altercation?

Quote Investigator: In April 1947 William Faulkner visited the University of Mississippi by invitation. He answered questions posed by students in a Creative Writing class, and his remarks were transcribed. After a multi-year delay the text was published in the Summer 1951 issue of the quarterly “The Western Review”. When asked to evaluate his own position in the literary pantheon he made a critical comment about Hemingway. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

Q. If you don’t think it too personal, how do you rank yourself with contemporary writers?

A. 1. Thomas Wolfe: he had much courage and wrote as if he didn’t have long to live; 2. William Faulkner; 3. Dos Passos; 4. Ernest Hemingway: he has no courage, has never crawled out on a limb. He has never been known to use a word that might cause the reader to check with a dictionary to see if it is properly used; 5. John Steinbeck: at one time I had great hopes for him — now I don’t know.

. . .
Q. Mr. Faulkner, do you mind our repeating anything we have heard today outside of class?

A. No. It was true yesterday, is true today, and will be true tomorrow.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Dictionary Feud: Faulkner versus Hemingway


  1. 1951 Summer, The Western Review: A Literary Quarterly Published at the State University of Iowa, Volume 15, Number 4, An Interview with William Faulkner, Edited by Lavon Rascoe, (Interview was conducted in April 1947), Start Page 300, Quote Page 304, Published by the State University of Iowa, Iowa City. (Verified on paper in 1967 reprint from Kraus Reprint Corporation, New York)
  2. 1999, Conversations with William Faulkner, Edited by M. Thomas Inge, (Collection of William Faulkner interviews from miscellaneous publications), Series: Literary Conversations Series, Chapter: An Interview with William Faulkner, Edited by Lavon Rascoe, (Reprinted from Summer 1951 issue of “The Western Review”), Start Page 66, Quote Page 71, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, Mississippi. (Verified on paper)

The First Draft of Anything Is Shit

Ernest Hemingway? Arnold Samuelson? Bernard Malamud? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prose style of the famous author Ernest Hemingway was spare and direct, but to achieve that form he often worked through multiple drafts. A pungent remark about rewriting has been attributed to the Nobel Prize winner. Here are three versions:

The first draft of everything is shit.
The first draft of anything is shit.
The first draft of anything is rubbish.

What do you think? Authentic? Apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: Ernest Hemingway died in 1961, and the first published evidence of this remark known to QI appeared in the 1984 posthumous memoir “With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba” by Arnold Samuelson. In 1934 the nineteen-year-old Samuelson journeyed to Key West, Florida to meet Hemingway whose works had deeply impressed the young man. Hemingway needed a deck hand for his fishing boat, The Pilar, and Samuelson desired a literary tutor and guide. He accepted the job and worked with Hemingway for 10 months.

Samuelson created a manuscript that recorded his experiences, but it was not published during his lifetime. When he died in 1981 his sister found the document and edited it for publication which occurred in 1984. The following advice was given by Hemingway to the aspiring writer. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.

Apparently, this was written while the guidance was still fresh in the mind of Samuelson. The accuracy depends on the correctness and probity of Samuelson and his sister.

The key citation above was identified by top researcher Barry Popik, and his discussion of this topic is available here.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The First Draft of Anything Is Shit


  1. 1984, With Hemingway: A Year in Key West and Cuba by Arnold Samuelson, Quote Page 11, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)

There Are Only Two Plots: (1) A Person Goes on a Journey (2) A Stranger Comes to Town

Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Leo Tolstoy? Mary Morris? John Gardner? David Long? Ernest Hemingway? Deepak Chopra?

Dear Quote Investigator: A provocative remark about stories has been attributed to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, John Gardner, and others:

There are only two plots in all of literature:
1) A person goes on a journey.
2) A stranger comes to town.

Are you willing to follow plot number one and embark on a journey to discover the origin of this adage?

Quote Investigator: Writer and educator John Gardner died tragically at age 49 in a motorcycle accident in 1982. His influential work of tutelage “The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers” was released posthumously in 1984. Gardner included exercises “for the development of technique”, and the following was listed fifth. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Write the opening of a novel using the authorial-omniscient voice, making the authorial omniscience clear by going into the thoughts of one or more characters after establishing the voice. As subject, use either a trip or the arrival of a stranger (some disruption of order—the usual novel beginning).

The exercise above did not assert that the two possibilities referenced exhausted all plot choices. Also, the statement was only about the beginning of a novel. Nevertheless, these words were the earliest pertinent published evidence known to QI.

In September 1986 “Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter” published an article by writer David Long titled “Notes from a Contest Judge”. The excerpt below included the first articulation located by QI of the eccentric claim that collapsed all plots to two archetypes: 2

John Gardner once observed that there are only two plots: A stranger rides into town, and A man goes on a journey. I think he’s right: there’s no such thing as a new plot, and I don’t expect to find one in the stack of manuscripts. But I do crave an original telling—one of our shared stories done again, ablaze with new detail.

The phrasing used to express the assertion has varied considerably suggesting that later propagators were not referencing a fixed textual source.

A citation in 1998 claimed that Gardner made a remark similar to the one under investigation circa 1978 during a “Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference”. Yet, memories of events twenty years in the past are often malleable. Details are presented further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Only Two Plots: (1) A Person Goes on a Journey (2) A Stranger Comes to Town


  1. 1984, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner, Section: Exercises, Quote Page 203, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. Year: 1986 September/October, Periodical: Coda: Poets & Writers Newsletter, Volume 14, Number 1, Article: Notes from a Contest Judge, Article Author: David Long, Article Subsection Number: 7, Start Page 20, Quote Page 21, Publisher: Poets & Writers, Inc, New York. (Verified with scans thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)