Oscar Wilde? Thomas Merton? Gilbert Perreira? Menards? America Ferrera? Apocryphal? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: I have spent hours trying to determine whether Oscar Wilde wrote the following as commonly claimed:
Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.
I have not found a single good citation. What do you think?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made this remark. It is not listed in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, an extensive collection compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1
The earliest compelling thematic match known to QI appeared in the literary journal “The Hudson Review” in 1967. The influential spiritual thinker and mystic Thomas Merton published an essay titled “Day of a Stranger” which referred to “being yourself”: 2 3
In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.
Merton humorously stated that there was “very little chance of my being anybody else”, whereas the quotation under examination offered a different comical rationale: “everyone else is already taken”, but the crux was similar. Interestingly, Merton cautioned against self-consciously trying to be oneself.
The “Day of a Stranger” essay was reprinted multiple times in anthologies, journals, and collections. It may have facilitated the later construction of the quotation. Many thanks to adept researcher Bodhipaksa who told QI about this citation.
The first strong match located by QI was disseminated via the Usenet discussion system in December 1999. The words were appended to the end of a message posted to a newsgroup used primarily by residents of the Netherlands. The statement was enclosed in quotation marks signaling that it was already in circulation; also, no attribution was specified: 4
“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
Oscar Wilde did write several remarks about identity and appearance that were thematically related to this quotation, but the perspective was different.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1967 Summer, The Hudson Review, Volume 20, Number 2, Day of a Stranger by Thomas Merton, Start Page 211, Quote Page 211, Hudson Review, Inc., New York. (JSTOR) link ↩
- 1991, Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings by Thomas Merton, Edited by Lawrence Cunningham, Day of a Stranger, Start Page 214, Quote Page 215, Paulist Press, New York. (Google Books Preview) ↩
- 1999 December 27, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: nl.markt.comp, dds.markt, nl.markt.overig, From: Erick T. Barkhuis @email.com, Subject: Re: comleet systeem, (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 31, 2016) link ↩