Ambrose Bierce? Henry Ward Beecher? Laurence J. Peter? Groucho Marx? Harry H. Jones? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The rant of an enraged person often contains statements that necessitate contrite apologies later. Here is an adage reflecting this insight:
Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.
These words have been attributed to the preacher Henry Ward Beecher, the humorist Ambrose Bierce, and the quotation compiler Laurence J. Peter. Do you know who should receive credit?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI points to a famous comedian who is rarely mentioned in conjunction with this saying. In June 1954 a column titled “Inside TV” by Eve Starr was published in a North Carolina newspaper, and Starr reported on two jokes told by Groucho Marx during his show. Boldface has been added: 1
Groucho quips: “It takes a heap of spending to make a house a home.” His best advice to contestants is: “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”
Ambrose Bierce did write a parody fable that was tangentially related to this theme, and a detailed citation for this short tale is given below. However, QI has found no substantive evidence that Bierce wrote or spoke this quotation. Oddly, a major reference work stated that the expression appeared in Bierce’s “The Cynic’s Word Book” of 1906 which is better known under its later title “The Devil’s Dictionary”. However, QI has examined multiple editions of this book and the quotation was absent.
The misattribution to Henry Ward Beecher was based on an incorrect reading of an entry in a 1977 quotation collection created by Laurence J. Peter. Details are given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1954 November 3, Greensboro Record, Inside TV by Eve Starr, Quote Page B3, Column 4, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) ↩