A Dramatic Critic Is a Guy Who Surprises the Playwright by Informing Him What He Meant

Creator: Wilson Mizner, playwright, entrepreneur, adventurer

Context: Mizner died in 1933. A biography of his colorful life appeared in 1935 called “The Fabulous Wilson Mizner” by Edward Dean Sullivan. The chapter “Miznerisms” was dedicated to his witticisms. Here were three. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

I am a stylist—and the most beautiful sentence I have ever heard is: “Have one on the house.”

A dramatic critic is a guy who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.

I’ve known countless people who were reservoirs of learning yet never had a thought.

In 1949 Evan Esar, the industrious collector of sayings, placed a slightly modified version in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”. The words “dramatic” and “guy” were changed to “drama” and “person”: 2

MIZNER, Wilson, 1876-1933, American dramatist, bon vivant, and wit.
A drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.

In 1989 “Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter” printed another version of the quip: 3

Critic: A person who surprises an author by informing him what he meant.
Wilson Mizner

Nowadays, it is commonplace to find critics who claim superior knowledge or insight when disagreeing with the creator of an artwork.


  1. 1935, The Fabulous Wilson Mizner by Edward Dean Sullivan, Chapter 17: Miznerisms, Quote Page 270, The Henkle Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Wilson Mizner, Quote Page 145, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on hardcopy in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  3. 1989, Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter: The greatest jokes, one-liners, bloopers, and stories for everyone who loves to laugh by Leo Rosten (Leo Calvin Rosten), Topic: Criticism, Quote Page 124, Bonanza Books, New York. (Verified with scans)

I Don’t Believe in Astrology; I’m a Sagittarian and We’re Skeptical

Arthur C. Clarke? Bob Thaves? Evan Esar? Jonah Peretti? Paul Heskett? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke was once asked whether he believed in astrology, and he gave a facetious self-contradictory answer. I have not been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence linking the quip to Clarke known to QI appeared in the April 1997 issue of the U.K. magazine “Astronomy Now”. A letter from Paul Heskett of Somerset, England sympathetically suggested that astrology addressed social needs that were not treated by astronomy. Heskett stated that he heard the remark from Clarke. The variant spelling “sceptical” for “skeptical” was used in the magazine. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

This is a point that all of us would do well to bear in mind; as perhaps, is that made by Arthur Clarke when he told me “I don’t believe in astrology; I’m a Sagittarian and we’re sceptical.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading I Don’t Believe in Astrology; I’m a Sagittarian and We’re Skeptical


  1. 1997 April, Astronomy Now, Volume 11, Number 4, Section: Your Views, (Letter from Paul Heskett, Somerset, England), Quote Page 10, Column 1, Intra Press, London. (Now published by Pole Star, Tonbridge, Kent) (Verified with scans; thanks to Space Telescope Science Institute Library, Baltimore, Maryland)

What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?

Napoléon Bonaparte? Voltaire? Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Claude Adrien Helvétius? Wendell Phillips? Ralph Waldo Emerson?

Dear Quote Investigator: A popular skeptical viewpoint about history can be expressed in a few different ways:

1) What is history but a fable agreed upon?
2) History is a set of lies agreed upon.
3) History is a set of lies that people have agreed upon.

These cynical adages have been linked to several major figures including: the military and political leader Napoléon Bonaparte, the French philosopher and firebrand Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet), and the author and wit Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI appeared in a 1724 essay about historiography titled “L’Origine des Fables” (“Of the Origin of Fables”) by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle. The French excerpt below from a 1728 collection is followed by a translation into English. Boldface has been added: 1 2

A quel dessein nous l’auroit-on donné pour faux? Quel auroit été cet amour des hommes pour des faussetés manifestes & ridicules, & pourquoi ne dureroit-il plus? Car les Fables des Grecs n’étoient pas comme nos Romans qu’on nous donne pour ce qu’ils sont, & non pas pour des Histoires; il n’y a point d’autres Histoires anciennes que les Fables.

Why would they have bequeathed us a mass of falsehoods? What could this love of men for manifest and ridiculous falsehood, have been, and why did it not last longer? For the Greek fables were not like our novels, which are intended as stories and not as histories; there are no ancient histories other than these fables.

Fontenelle’s comment above provided only a partial match to the saying under examination. He was referring to ancient history and not all history. Nevertheless, prominent figures such as the French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius and Voltaire ascribed the adage to Fontenelle. Perhaps Fontenelle wrote or spoke an expression that provided a closer match elsewhere, but QI has not yet located it.

Many years later Napoléon Bonaparte used an instance of the saying, but he disclaimed credit. The transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson also used an instance, but he credited Napoléon. The well-known orator Wendell Phillips employed a version with the word “lies” in 1881. Detailed illustrations for these assertions are given in the chronological citations below.

QI thanks previous researchers on this topic including Fred R. Shapiro, editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations”, Professor William C. Waterhouse, and Barry Popik.

Continue reading What Is History But a Fable Agreed Upon?


  1. 1728, Oeuvres Diverses by M. De de Fontenelle, (Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle), Volume 1, De L’Origine des Fables, Start Page 329, Quote Page 329, A La Haye, Chez Gosse & Neaulme. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1961, French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre, Selected and edited by Leonard M. Marsak (Leonard Mendes Marsak), The Origin of Myths by Bernard de Fontenelle, Start Page 108, Quote Page 108, Meridian Books: The World Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (Verified on paper)

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


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

Fanatic: One Who Can’t Change His Mind and Won’t Change the Subject

Winston Churchill? Evan Esar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following humorous definition is often attributed to the statesman Winston Churchill:

A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.

Could you explore the accuracy of this ascription?

Quote Investigator: There is some evidence that Winston Churchill employed this phrase circa 1952 because it is listed in an important compilation of quotations created by Churchill’s friend Kay Halle who was a journalist. Details for this citation are given further below.

Yet, the first evidence of this saying located by QI was printed nearly a decade earlier in the 1943 volume “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” by Evan Esar. Entries in this collection were formatted as definitions; for example, here were two humorous explications listed for the word “fanatic”: 1

A person who redoubles his efforts after having forgotten his aims.
One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.

No attribution was provided by Esar, and the wording was slightly different in this instance: “opinion” was used instead of “mind”.

In 1945 the quip appeared in a column titled “Dizzy Daffynitions” by Paul H. Gilbert published in the “Oakland Tribune” of Oakland, California: 2

FANATIC: One who can’t change his opinion and won’t change the subject.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Fanatic: One Who Can’t Change His Mind and Won’t Change the Subject


  1. 1943, Esar’s Comic Dictionary by Evan Esar, Quote Page 101, Harvest House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1945 May 23, Oakland Tribune, Dizzy Daffynitions by Paul H. Gilbert, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Oakland, California. (NewspaperArchive)

“Did You Lose the Keys Here?” “No, But the Light Is Much Better Here”

Boy’s Life magazine? Mutt and Jeff comic strip? Mulla Nasreddin? Esar’s Joke Dictionary?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a brilliant comical allegory that depicts the biases inherent in many types of scientific research:

A police officer sees a drunken man intently searching the ground near a lamppost and asks him the goal of his quest. The inebriate replies that he is looking for his car keys, and the officer helps for a few minutes without success then he asks whether the man is certain that he dropped the keys near the lamppost.

“No,” is the reply, “I lost the keys somewhere across the street.” “Why look here?” asks the surprised and irritated officer. “The light is much better here,” the intoxicated man responds with aplomb.

Some scientific research is shaped by the need to perform replicable measurements. But these measurements do not always accurately reflect the phenomenon that is being investigated. The term “streetlight effect” is sometimes used to name this form of observational bias. Can you determine who crafted this clever story?

Quote Investigator: Trying to find the earliest instance of a tale is very difficult. But QI will make an effort and share the provisional results. On May 24, 1924 a Massachusetts newspaper printed an instance with a Boston setting. A police officer saw a man on his hands and knees “groping about” around midnight and asked him about his unusual behavior: 1

“I lost a $2 bill down on Atlantic avenue,” said the man.

“What’s that?” asked the puzzled officer. “You lost a $2 bill on Atlantic avenue? Then why are you hunting around here in Copley square?”

“Because,” said the man as he turned away and continued his hunt on his hands and knees, “the light’s better up here.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Continue reading “Did You Lose the Keys Here?” “No, But the Light Is Much Better Here”


  1. 1924 May 24, Boston Herald, Whiting’s Column: Tammany Has Learned That This Is No Time for Political Bosses, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)

Kiss: A Trick of Nature to Stop Speech When Words Are Superfluous

Ingrid Bergman? Evan Esar? Paul H. Gilbert? Hal Boyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of my favorite websites recently presented a collection of “Ten Favorite Quotations about Words”. Number one was about osculation:

A kiss is a lovely trick, designed by nature, to stop speech when words become superfluous.

These words were attributed to the lovely Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman, but no citation was given. Oddly, most of the other ten quotes incorporated precise citations. Can you tell me when and where this was said?

Quote Investigator: This statement was credited to Bergman in a syndicated newspaper column written by Hal Boyle in 1970, and this was the earliest connection to Bergman located by QI. The actress lived until 1982, so it was possible that she did speak or write this line.

However, the clever definition was in circulation a few decades earlier. In 1943 Evan Esar, the inveterate phrase collector, published “Esar’s Comic Dictionary” which included the following meaning for the word kiss [EECD]:

kiss. A trick of nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.

Esar did not list credits for any of the definitions in his book proclaiming that the contents were “of popular origin and therefore unattributed”. He also complained about the ubiquity of false attributions in his Foreword [EECF]:

Now more than ever is it a wise crack that knows its own father, for the general practice of apocryphal ascription has been aggravated by the rise of radio.

Yet, Esar also admitted that some of the jokes in his book should have been ascribed:

Some of the unattributed items in this work doubtless derive from present-day humorists and men of letters, and for their inadvertent inclusion the writer wishes to apologize in advance.

The humorous remark about kissing was reprinted without ascription for many years until a version was finally assigned to Bergman by 1970.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Kiss: A Trick of Nature to Stop Speech When Words Are Superfluous

Theatrical Review: I Saw It Under Adverse Conditions. The Curtain Was Up

Groucho Marx? Walter Winchell? George S. Kaufman? George Jean Nathan?

Dear Quote Investigator: When a friend asked me my opinion of a terrible play that I saw recently I answered:

I did not like it, but perhaps this judgment is unfair. I saw it under adverse conditions — the curtain was up.

Eventually she coaxed me into admitting that this joke is from Groucho Marx. However, my memory is imperfect so I decided to check with a Google search, and I found that a playwright named George S. Kaufman is also listed as the originator. Could you determine if this is a real Groucho quote or a fake one? Also, can you ascertain which show was being ridiculed?

Quote Investigator: Evidence indicates that Groucho did utter a version of this quote in 1931 to Walter Winchell who promptly reported it in his widely-read and highly-influential newspaper column. The confusion about the attribution arises because Groucho gave credit to the playwright and humorist George S. Kaufman for the quip when he told it to Winchell. In fact, the initial newspaper report in 1931 mentions only Kaufman’s name.

The target of the jest was a show called “Vanities” by the major Broadway producer Earl Carroll, and he was not happy to hear the mocking comment. His anger was primarily directed at Winchell, but there were repercussions over a period of years including: strained relationships, publicly traded insults, and a theater attendance ban.

Continue reading Theatrical Review: I Saw It Under Adverse Conditions. The Curtain Was Up

Definition: Anecdote – A Revealing Account of an Incident That Never Occurred in the Life of Some Famous Person

Evan Esar? Jan Harold Brunvand? Bennett Cerf?

Dear Quote Investigator: I was speaking with a friend about all the misinformation and misattributions in the world of quotations, and he said that he was familiar with this phenomenon of unreliability because he enjoys reading about urban-legends. He also gave his own quotation on this theme which he thinks might be from the urban-legend specialist Jan Harold Brunvand. The quote is a facetious definition:

Anecdote: A revealing account of an incident that never occurred in the life of some celebrity.

We both would like you to investigate this funny saying.

Quote Investigator: QI will be happy to try and trace this humorous description for you. Jan Harold Brunvand did include a variant of this quote in an article he wrote in 1991, but he did not take credit for it. The words are sometimes attributed to the humorist and quotation collector Evan Esar.

QI could weave an entertaining story about the precise circumstances that caused Esar to create this jest. But he won’t because the tale would just be another imagined anecdote of the type mentioned above since Esar did not craft the quotation nor did he claim to have done so. The earliest instance of this remark that QI has found is dated 1912, and the words have no attribution. Here are selected citations in reverse-chronological order.

Continue reading Definition: Anecdote – A Revealing Account of an Incident That Never Occurred in the Life of Some Famous Person