Tag Archives: Honore de Balzac

Behind Every Great Fortune There Is a Crime

Honoré de Balzac? Mario Puzo? Pierre Mille? Frank P. Walsh? Samuel Merwin? James Henry Yoxall? C. Wright Mills? Jane Bryant Quinn? Apocryphal?

balzac06Dear Quote Investigator: The popular 1969 novel “The Godfather” by Mario Puzo recounted the violent tale of a Mafia family, and the epigraph selected by the author was fascinating:

Behind every great fortune there is a crime.
—Balzac

While searching I found a few different versions of this saying. Yet, I have been unable to locate this maxim in a work written by Honoré de Balzac:

Behind every great fortune lies a great crime
Every great fortune begins with a crime
At the root of every great fortune there was a crime.

Should Balzac really be credited with this saying?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this adage was inspired by a sentence that was written by Honoré de Balzac, but the expression has been simplified in an evolutionary process. Here is the original in French from a serialization of “Le Père Goriot” published in “Revue de Paris” in 1834: 1

Le secret des grandes fortunes sans cause apparente est un crime oublié, parce qu’il a été proprement fait.

Balzac published a series of interlinked novels called “La Comédie Humaine” or “The Human Comedy”, and “Le Père Goriot” was part of this series. Eventually all were translated into English, and here is a rendering of the statement above published in 1896: 2

The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.

Here is another translation into English that was published in 1900: 3

The secret of a great fortune made without apparent cause is soon forgotten, if the crime is committed in a respectable way.

Note that Honoré de Balzac did not pronounce a general rule that larceny was at the root of all large fortunes. However, the simplified statement that is popular in modern times is arguably more provocative and consequently more memorable.

The simplification process is illustrated by an instance of the saying printed in a periodical in 1912. The following words were credited to an unidentified “French writer”. QI hypothesizes that they were inspired by a schematic memory of Balzac’s words: 4

At the base of every great fortune there is a great crime.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1834, Revue de Paris, Volume 12, Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac, Seconde Partie: L’entrée dans le monde, Start Page 237, Quote Page 258, Au Bureau De La Revue De Paris, Paris, France. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1896, Comédie Humaine by Honoré de Balzac, Edited by George Saintsbury, Old Goriot (Le Père Goriot), Translated by Ellen Marriage, Quote Page 124, J. M. Dent and Co., London and New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1900, The Standard Wormeley Edition: La Comédie Humaine of Honoré de Balzac, Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley, Père Goriot, Quote Page 142, Hardy, Prat & Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  4. 1912 May 18, Charleston News and Courier, Conan Doyle’s Yarn, (Paris Correspondence New York Sun), Quote Page 8, Column 5, Charleston, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)

You Only Live Once – YOLO

Drake? Schlitz Beer? Fritz Lang? Honoré de Balzac? Joe E. Lewis? Frank Sinatra? Fyodor Dostoevsky? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 2011 a song called “The Motto” by Drake was released, and it contained this expression:

You only live once.

The acronym YOLO was popularized by this song, I think. But I have heard the catch phrase for decades. I recall that the famous crooner Frank Sinatra entertained concert goers with the following version:

You only live once, and the way I live, once is enough.

Could you tell me about the history of this aphorism?

Quote Investigator: The actor and hip hop artist Aubrey Drake Graham records music under the name Drake. The song “The Motto” by Drake featuring Lil Wayne was released in November 2011 and was a hit. The lyrics included the phrase “You only live once” and the term YOLO along with the following repeated chorus “We bout it every day, every day, every day.”

The acronym YOLO was popularized by Drake, but it has been circulating for decades. The Associated Press news service in 1968 published an article titled “Fort Lauderdale: The City of Boats” which included a discussion of the creative names assigned to yachts and other watercraft. Emphasis in excerpts added by QI: 1

Naming the vessels, plain or fancy, is a chore that delights some owners. One fad is acronyms, initials of a phrase that spell a word of sorts.

The Pitoa translates “Patience is the Only Answer.” Tica is not named for an Aztec chieftain: It means, “This I Can’t Afford.” Yolo is short for “You Only Live Once.”

The above citation is the earliest evidence known to QI of the acronym together with its modern meaning. Thanks to top researcher Peter Reitan who located it and shared it with QI.

The general expression: “You only live once” (without YOLO) has a very long history. The precise phrasing of the sentiment is variable. For example, sometimes the pronoun “we” is used instead of “you” to yield: “We only live once”. Also, sometimes the word order is altered to produce: “We live only once”.

The earliest exact match for “You only live once” found by QI occurred in an 1896 English translation of the French work “La Comédie Humaine” (“The Human Comedy”) by the famed novelist Honoré de Balzac. The statement appeared in a passage describing a free-spending pair of characters: 2

… the couple made up, counting their New Year’s gratuities an income of sixteen hundred francs, all of which they spent, for they lived better than the majority of the common people. “You only live once,” said Madame Cibot.

Here are additional selected citations and details in chronological order.
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Notes:

  1. 1968 June 30, Florida Today, Fort Lauderdale: The City of Boats (Associated Press), Quote Page 42, Column 3, Cocoa, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1896, The Edition Definitive of the La Comédie Humaine by Honoré de Balzac, Translated into English, [The Human Comedy], Volume 5, Page 74, Printed for Subscribers only by George Barrie & Son, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books full view) link