May You Live In Interesting Times

Chinese Curse? Austen Chamberlain? Frederic R. Coudert? Joseph Chamberlain? Diplomatic Staff? Albert Camus? Arthur C. Clarke? Robert F. Kennedy? Hillary Rodham Clinton?

Dear Quote Investigator: The most fascinating periods in history were filled with tumult and upheaval. Tales of treachery, wars, and chaos provide compelling reading, but the participants who were living through the momentous changes were probably experiencing trepidation, hunger, and pain. Here are three versions of a saying that has commonly been described as a Chinese curse:

May you live in interesting times.
May you live in an interesting age.
May you live in exciting times.

I asked a Chinese friend about this expression, and she said that she had never heard it before. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Fred R. Shapiro who is the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations” has noted that: “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found”. 1 In addition, Ralph Keyes stated in “The Quote Verifier” that nobody has ever been able to confirm the Chinese origin claim. 2

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a March 1936 newspaper report in “The Yorkshire Post” of West Yorkshire, England. The expression was used in a speech by an influential British statesman. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

Sir Austen Chamberlain, addressing the annual meeting of Birmingham Unionist Association last night, spoke of the “grave injury” to collective security by Germany’s violation of the Treaty of Locarno.

Sir Austen, who referred to himself as “a very old Parliamentarian,” said:—

“It is not so long ago that a member of the Diplomatic Body in London, who had spent some years of his service in China, told me that there was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us.”

“We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”

Many thanks to top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake who located and shared the above citation with QI.

Other citations presented below also pointed to British diplomatic personnel who had spent time in China as the primary locus for dissemination. Intriguingly, the saying seems to be closely connected to the Chamberlain family.

Perhaps this notion of a curse originated with some form of miscommunication. A Chinese adage contrasting times of peace and war and displaying thematic similarities to the saying under examination is shown below. However, this distinct adage featured a dog and was not formulated as a curse.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading May You Live In Interesting Times


  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Sayings, Quote Page 669, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 99 and 100, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1936 March 21, The Yorkshire Post, Lesson of the Crisis: Sir A. Chamberlain’s Review of Events, Quote Page 11, Column 7, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

People are Like Tea Bags. You Never Know How Strong They Are Until You Put Them in Hot Water

Hillary Clinton? Eleanor Roosevelt? Rita Mae Brown? Phyllis Schlafly? Lowell Bruce Laingen? Armand J. Gariepy? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I read in the New York Times that one of the favorite adages of Hillary Clinton, former Senator and Secretary of State, is the following statement attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt:

Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.

When did Roosevelt use this expression? Was she the person who coined it?

Quote Investigator: Precursors to this expression were in circulation in the 19th century. Instead of tea bags the sayings were based on similes with eggs and potatoes in hot water. For example, in 1858 the Irish Miscellany newspaper of Boston, Massachusetts printed the following: 1

Relieve misfortune quickly. A man is like an egg, the longer he is kept in hot water the harder he is when taken out.

Also, in 1870 The Shamrock newspaper of Dublin, Ireland printed this adage: 2

Men are like potatoes—they do not know how soon they may be in hot water.

Both these expressions have meanings that are distinct from the adage being explored, but they do share similarities and may have facilitated the emergence of variants. QI thanks researcher Barry Popik for notifying him about these precursors.

The earliest evidence of a strong match located by QI was published in 1915 in a Seattle, Washington newspaper. This version referred simply to tea instead of tea bags and was applied to men: 3 4

“Men are like tea.”
“How so?”
“Their real strength is not drawn out until they get into hot water.”—Times-Picayune.

The maxim obtained further distribution in 1916 when it was printed in the book “Wit and Humor for Public Speakers”: 5

The Boston Transcript says men are like tea—their real strength isn’t drawn out until they get into hot water.

In 1958 a version using the term “tea bags” was spoken during a training speech for sales people. The phrasing was closer to modern instances, but the maxim applied to men and women: 6

“People are like tea bags,” a specialist on salesmanship declared here Thursday: “They never know their own strength until they get into hot water.”
Too many salesmen never get into hot water, said Armand J. Gariepy, director of Sales Training International, Barre, Mass. They simply sell by accident, he declared.

Top researcher Ralph Keyes discussed this saying in “The Quote Verifier”, and he was unable to find support for the linkage to Eleanor Roosevelt. Keyes stated that the archivists at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York have searched for the expression in the writings of Roosevelt and have not found it. 7

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading People are Like Tea Bags. You Never Know How Strong They Are Until You Put Them in Hot Water


  1. 1858 February 20, Irish Miscellany, Volume 1, Number 2, The Odd Corner, Quote Page 26, Column 1, Boston. Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1870 December 31, The Shamrock, Volume 8, Diamond Dust, Quote Page 207, Column 2, Irish National Newspaper and Publishing Company, Limited, Dublin, Ireland. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1915 January 15, Seattle Daily Times, Where They Resemble, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 13, Column 7, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1915 November 1, The Sabbath Recorder, Volume 79, Number 18, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 550, Column 2, A Seventh Day Baptist Weekly Published by The American Sabbath Tract Society, Plainfield, New Jersey. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1916, Wit and Humor for Public Speakers by Will H. Brown (William Herbert Brown), Section: Pithy Points, Quote Page 324, Standard Publishing Company, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link
  6. 1958 December 4, Milwaukee Journal, Section: Part 2, Leap Before You Look–Sales Advice, Quote Page 23, Column 5, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  7. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 97, 98 and 298, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

Would You Ever Ask a Man that Question?

Hillary Clinton? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw on Facebook recently a supposed quotation from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. While visiting some country in Central Asia she was asked by a reporter about fashion and she replied:

Would you ever ask a man that question?

No details were given about when or where this remark was made. Is this a real quote?

Quote Investigator: The official U.S. State Department website has a transcript for Hillary Clinton’s visit to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan on December 2, 2010. The following interchange is listed [HCKG]:

MODERATOR 1: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?
SECRETARY CLINTON: What designers of clothes?
SECRETARY CLINTON: Would you ever ask a man that question? (Laughter.) (Applause.)
MODERATOR 1: Probably not. Probably not. (Applause.)
MODERATOR 2: How many hours do you sleep?
SECRETARY CLINTON: That’s my answer.
MODERATOR 1: Yeah, I got it. I got it. That was a tough one.

In conclusion, the quotation is accurate, and the interaction took place in 2010 in Kyrgyzstan.

(Thanks to Brandi Sperry whose tweet inspired this exploration, and thanks to James Callan who notified QI of Sperry’s interrogative.)

[HCKG] U.S. Department of State website, Transcript, Townterview Hosted by KTR, Remarks: Hillary Rodham Clinton – Secretary of State, KTR Studio: Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Date: December 2, 2010. (Accessed at on September 6, 2012) link