Duty Comes Before Pleasure, But Only in the Dictionary

Harold L. Spence? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: You examined an adage about success and work that cleverly referred to their alphabetical order. I’ve seen a different joke about duty and pleasure:

Duty comes before pleasure, but only in the dictionary.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this type of remark known to QI was printed in several newspapers in 1912. For example, “The Iola Register” of Kansas published a set of “Quaker Meditations” with an acknowledgement to “The Philadelphia Record” which included the following three statements. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The world is always eager to give a man a boost when he gets close to the top.

The one place where duty always comes before pleasure is in the dictionary.

Few things are perfect. Even the longest way ’round has its shortcomings.

The above remark was an anti-proverb that slyly subverted the preexisting didactic sayings: “Duty before pleasure” and “Business before pleasure”. The initial instances were anonymous. Top language columnist Ben Zimmer who writes for “The Wall Street Journal” identified this early version of the anti-proverb and shared it with QI.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Duty Comes Before Pleasure, But Only in the Dictionary


  1. 1912 July 29, The Iola Register, Quaker Meditations (From the Philadelphia Record), Quote Page 4, Column 3, Iola, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)