Tag Archives: Irving Fisher

Teach a Parrot to Say ‘Supply and Demand’ and You Have an Economist

Thomas Carlyle? Irving Fisher? Joseph Schumpeter? Anonymous?

carlyle02Dear Quote Investigator: There is a humorous saying about parrots and economists that is often attributed to the philosopher and satirist Thomas Carlyle. Sometimes the joke is simply ascribed to Anonymous. Here are three versions:

1: Teach a parrot the terms ‘supply and demand’ and you’ve got an economist.
2: It’s easy to train economists. Just teach a parrot to say ‘Supply and Demand’.
3: You can make even a parrot into a learned political economist. All he must learn are the two words ‘supply’ and ‘demand’.

I have not seen any precise references supporting the linkage to Thomas Carlyle. Would you be willing to attempt to trace this comical barb?

Quote Investigator: In the 1800s the words ‘supply and demand’ were sometimes derided as “parrot words”. In addition, disapproving terms such as “parrot-like” and “parrot-cries” were used in critiques aimed at economic analyses invoking “supply and demand”. In 1897 an individual using the phrase “supply and demand” was said to be acting “like a trained parrot”.

In 1907 the prominent Yale economist Irving Fisher included a version of the parrot joke in a book about interest rates. Fisher did not claim credit for the jibe, and he left the attribution anonymous. In 1931 an author used the following statement to present a tentative ascription for the parrot jest: “It was probably Thomas Carlyle’s none too gentle pen”. That was the earliest connection to Carlyle located by QI. Since Carlyle died in 1881 this late attribution provided very weak evidence.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

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