Three Things in Human Life Are Important. The First Is To Be Kind. The Second Is To Be Kind. And the Third Is To Be Kind

Henry James? Fred Rogers? Billy James? Leon Edel? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent American literary figure Henry James apparently crafted an expression with a three-fold repetition of the phrase “be kind”. The influential children’s television personality Fred Rogers has been credited with a similar statement. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A landmark biography of Henry James provides substantive evidence that he did construct this saying. There is also evidence that Fred Rogers employed an instance of this remark; however, Rogers credited James. See the 2003 citation given further below for details.

Henry James died in 1916, and in 1953 Leon Edel released the first installment of his monumental five volume biography of James. The final book titled “Henry James: The Master: 1901-1916” appeared in 1972. One chapter discussed Billy James who was the second son of William James; thus, Billy was the nephew of Henry James. Billy came to England to visit with his uncle in October 1902. Years later Billy spoke directly to Leon Edel while he was composing the biography; hence, the following passage about the visit was probably based on the testimony Billy gave to Edel. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

His vision was of a short, rotund man, with a quick sensibility and a boundless capacity for affection. What he carried away from his elderly uncle was the memory of hearing him say, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Three Things in Human Life Are Important. The First Is To Be Kind. The Second Is To Be Kind. And the Third Is To Be Kind


  1. 1978 (1972 Copyright), Henry James: The Master: 1901-1916 by Leon Edel, Book Two: The Beast in the Jungle, Chapter: Billy, Quote Page 124, A Discus Book: Avon Books, New York. (Verified with scans)

The Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language Are “Check Enclosed”

Dorothy Parker? Douglass Malluch? Douglas Malloch? Henry James? Credit Man for a New York Hat House? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During a recent discussion with friends we tried to construct a list of great jokes that will be obsolete within a few decades. Here is one that is credited to the famous wit Dorothy Parker who worked as a freelance writer and received payments via the mail:

The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘cheque enclosed’.

With the growth of electronic payments and the reduction in mail delivery this quip may become anachronistic. I was unable to find a good citation. Could you tell me when Parker wrote this?

Quote Investigator: In 1932 an Associated Press article reported on a list of words compiled by Wilfred J. Funk, the president of the dictionary company Funk & Wagnalls. The list presented Funk’s conception of the “10 most beautiful words in the English language”: dawn, hush, lullaby, murmuring, tranquil, mist, luminous, chimes, golden, and melody. Many commentators criticized the collection and when the reporter queried Parker she suggested an alternative: 1

Dorothy Parker, poet, said she considered cellar-door the most beautiful word but that those she liked to see best were cheque and enclosed.

Note that Parker did not actually claim that cheque and enclosed were beautiful words. She simply indicated that she liked to see them. Nevertheless, by 1958 Parker’s name was attached to the common modern version of the quip. Here is an example in the “Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor”: 2

DOROTHY PARKER, when asked for the two most beautiful words in the English language: “Check enclosed.”
—Bernardine Kielty in Book-of-the-Month Club News

Many years before Parker’s 1932 remark several versions of the basic joke were already in circulation. In December 1903 the monthly trade publication The American Hatter published an instance. The adjective “sweetest” was used instead of “most beautiful” and the key phrase was four words instead of two: 3

A good story is being told of a prominent credit man for a New York hat house which runs thus: A Philadelphia magazine having offered a prize for the best answer to the question “Which are the four sweetest words in the English language?” our friend the credit man secured the prize by sending in a slip on which he wrote these words: “Enclosed please find check.”

This same witticism about the “four sweetest words” was further disseminated in the Washington Post on December 10, 1903 and in other newspapers. 4 5 Special thanks to Andrew Steinberg who identified and located this early version of the joke.

In March 1906 the Boston Globe of Massachusetts printed a version which used three words for the key phrase: 6

The sweetest words of typewriter or pen: “Inclosed find check.”

In the same month of 1906 the quip was presented in a short poem format in a Maryland paper which acknowledged a Wisconsin paper: 7

I love to get letters,
But the sweetest, by heck,
Are the ones that begin with:
“Inclosed please find check.”
Milwaukee Sentinel.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Two Most Beautiful Words in the English Language Are “Check Enclosed”


  1. 1932 December 12, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Poet’s ’10 Most Beautiful Words’ Start an Argument, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1958, Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor, Selected by the Editors of the Reader’s Digest, Quote Page 362, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1903 December, The American Hatter, (Freestanding short article), Quote Page 54, Column 1, The Gallison & Hobron Company, 13 Astor Place, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1903 December 10, Washington Post, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1903 December 31, The Warren Republican (Williamsport Warren Republican), (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 1, Column 3, Williamsport, Indiana. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1906 March 4, Boston Sunday Globe (Boston Globe), Editorial Points, Quote Page 36, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) (The newspaper image shows “Inclosed”)
  7. 1906 March 23, Baltimore American, In the Best of Humor, Quote Page 8, Column 8, Baltimore, Maryland. (GenealogyBank)

The Great Use of a Life Is to Spend It for Something That Outlasts It

William James? Ralph Barton Perry? Henry James? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been working to confirm the source and accuracy of a quotation that is attributed to the famous philosopher and educator William James. Here are three versions:

  1. The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  2. The best use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
  3. The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.

A version of this saying was listed in the Wikipedia entry for James, but more recently it has been removed. Perhaps you can verify this quote and determine the correct version.

Quote Investigator: William James died in 1920, and the earliest evidence QI has located for this statement is in the reference work “The Thought and Character of William James: As Revealed in Unpublished Correspondence and Notes, Together with His Published Writings” which was released in 1935. This massive two volume compendium included a large amount of material written by James that was not published during his lifetime. Extensive notes and annotations were provided that carefully listed sources and dates. A version of the quotation was presented together with a year, but oddly no source was given by the editor Ralph Barton Perry. The precise wording differed from the three instances given by the questioner: 1

“The great use of a life,” James said in 1900, “is to spend it for something that outlasts it.” This outlasting cause was then, as in earlier days, the happiness of mankind.

QI has not yet identified a text dating to 1900 containing the quote, and does not know why the editor did not provide a footnote or annotation for the saying.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Great Use of a Life Is to Spend It for Something That Outlasts It


  1. 1935, “The Thought and Character of William James: As revealed in unpublished correspondence and notes, together with his published writings”, Edited by Ralph Barton Perry, Volume II: Philosophy and Psychology, Quote Page 289, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little, Brown, and Company, Boston. (Verified on paper) (Internet Archive has an Oxford University Press edition in full view) link  link