Tortoises All the Way Down

Hester Lynch Piozzi? William James? Bertrand Russell? Mark Twain? Henry David Thoreau? Carl Sagan? Terry Pratchett? Samuel Purchas? John Locke? George B. Cheever? Joseph F. Berg? George Chainey? John Phoenix? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a prominent scientist once presented a lecture on cosmology which discussed the solar system and galaxies. Afterwards, a critical audience member approached and stated that the information given was completely wrong.

Instead, the world was supported by four great elephants, and the elephants stood on the back of an enormous turtle. The scientist inquired what the turtle stood upon. Another more massive turtle was the reply. The scientist asked about the support of the last turtle and elicited this response:

“Oh, it’s turtles all the way down.”

Some versions of this anecdote use tortoises instead of turtles. A variety of individuals have been linked to this tale including writer Hester Lynch Piozzi, psychologist William James, logician Bertrand Russell, humorist Mark Twain, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, astronomer Carl Sagan, and fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This anecdote evolved over time. It began with European interpretations of Hindu cosmography. Early instances featuring tortoises and elephants did not mention an infinite iteration; instead, the lowest creature was sitting upon something unknown or on nothing. In 1838 a humorous version employed the punchline “there’s rocks all the way down!” In 1854 a debater used the phrase “there are tortoises all the way down.” By 1886 another punchline was circulating: “it is turtle all the way down!” Here is an overview sampling showing pertinent statements with dates:

1626: the Elephants feete stood on Tortoises, and they were borne by they know not what.
1690: what gave support to the broad-back’d Tortoise, replied, something, he knew not what.
1804: And on what does the tortoise stand? I cannot tell.
1826: tortoise rests on mud, the mud on water, and the water on air!
1836: what does the tortoise rest on? Nothing!
1838: there’s rocks all the way down!
1842: extremely anxious to know what it is that the tortoise stands upon.
1844: after the tortoise is chaotic mud.
1852: had nothing to put under the tortoise.
1854: there are tortoises all the way down.
1867: elephants . . . their legs “reach all the way down.”
1882: the snake reaching all the way down.
1886: it is turtle all the way down!
1904: a big turtle whose legs reach all the way down!
1917: there are turtles all the way down
1927: he was tired of metaphysics and wanted to change the subject.
1967: It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tortoises All the Way Down

Only Monarchs, Editors, and People with Tapeworms Have the Right to Use the Editorial ‘We’

Mark Twain? Robert Ingersoll? Edgar Wilson Nye? John Phoenix? George H. Derby? Roscoe Conkling? John Fiske? Horace Porter? Henry David Thoreau? Hyman G. Rickover

Dear Quote Investigator: Some writers use “we” as a form of self-reference. For example, an author might state: We base our opinion on the highest authority. A comically reproachful remark about this practice has been attributed to Mark Twain:

Only kings, presidents, editors, and people with tapeworms have the right to use the editorial ‘we’.

Similar comments have been ascribed to humorist Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye), transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and orator Robert Ingersoll. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent citation known to QI appeared in the November 1855 issue of “The Knickerbocker” which contained an evaluation of a forthcoming book titled “Phoenixiana: Or Sketches and Burlesques” by John Phoenix. The reviewer reprinted a passage from the prospective volume by Phoenix that included a simple instance of the joke. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It will be perceived that I have not availed myself of the editorial privilege of using the plural noun in speaking of myself. This is simply because I consider it a ridiculous affectation. I am a ‘lone, lorn man,’ unmarried, (the LORD be praised for His infinite mercy!) and though blessed with a consuming appetite, which causes the keepers of the house where I board to tremble, I do not think I have a tape-worm; therefore I have no claim to call myself ‘WE:’ and I shall by no means fall into that editorial absurdity.

John Phoenix was the pen name of the writer George H. Derby who was a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army originally from California. When his book “Phoenixiana” was released in 1856 the printed text differed slightly from the passage above with the addition of the word “whatever” to yield the phrase “no claim whatever”. 2

Derby’s early version of the quip and other important citations were identified by linguist Ben Zimmer who currently writes a wonderful column about language for “The Wall Street Journal”. The jest has metamorphosed over the years, and a wide variety of risible rationales have been presented to justify the use of the pronoun “we” including these:

A person with a mouse in his or her pocket
A king, queen, emperor, or president
A pregnant woman
A newspaper or magazine editor
A person with a tapeworm
A schizophrenic individual

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Only Monarchs, Editors, and People with Tapeworms Have the Right to Use the Editorial ‘We’


  1. 1855 November, The Knickerbocker, Editor’s Table, Page 520, Volume XLVI, Number 5, Samuel Hueston, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1856 (Copyright 1855), Phoenixiana; or Sketches and Burlesques by John Phoenix (George Horatio Derby), Phoenix Installed Editor of the San Diego Herald, Quote Page 96, D. Appleton and Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link