The Next Best Thing To Being Witty One’s Self, Is To Be Able To Quote Another’s Wit

Christian Nestell Bovee? Evan Esar? Laurence J. Peter?

Dear Quote Investigator: I once heard an observation that cogently explained the popularity of quotations. I do not recall the precise phrasing, but it was something like this:

If you are unable to be witty yourself, the next best thing is being able to quote another’s wit.

Would you please determine the name of the originator and the correct phrasing?

Quote Investigator: In 1862 Christian Nestell Bovee published a two volume compilation titled “Intuitions and Summaries of Thought”. Bovee worked hard throughout his life to construct epigrams and memorable passages. His work included a section about the benefits of employing quotations. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

At all events, the next best thing to being witty one’s self, is to be able to quote another’s wit. He presents me with what is always an acceptable gift who brings me news of a great thought before unknown. He enriches me without impoverishing himself.

The judicious quoter, too, helps on what is much needed in the world, a freer circulation of good thoughts, pure feelings, and pleasant fancies. Luminous quotations, also, atone, by their interest, for the dulness of an inferior book, and add to the value of a superior work by the variety which they lend to its style and treatment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Next Best Thing To Being Witty One’s Self, Is To Be Able To Quote Another’s Wit

Notes:

  1. 1862, Intuitions and Summaries of Thought by C. N. Bovee (Christian Nestell Bovee), Volume 2 of 2, Chapter: Questions and Answers: Quoters and Quoting, Quote Page 124 and 125, William Veazie, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Education Is What You Get from Reading the Small Print in a Contract. Experience Is What You Get from Not Reading It

Pete Seeger? Vesta M. Kelly? Mr. Minnick the Cynic? Old Timer? Bill Gold? Evan Esar? Saul Lavisky? Laurence J. Peter? Sydney J. Harris? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comprehending the details of a complex legal contract is a daunting task. Yet, entrapment by an unnoticed provision of an agreement is a terrible experience. Here is a pertinent saying:

Education is what you get from reading the small print. Experience is what you get from not reading it.

This saying has been attributed to folk singer activist Pete Seeger. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip can be expressed in many ways; hence, it is difficult to trace. The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Wall Street Journal” within the long-running humor column called “Pepper and Salt” in February 1961. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Candid Comment
People may get an education from reading the fine print, but what they get from not reading it is usually experience.— Vesta M. Kelly.

Currently, Vesta M. Kelly is the leading candidate for originator of this joke. Pete Seeger did use the expression during an interview published in October 1979. See the citation given further below:

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Education Is What You Get from Reading the Small Print in a Contract. Experience Is What You Get from Not Reading It

Notes:

  1. 1961 February 14, The Wall Street Journal, Pepper and Salt, Quote Page 12, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)

If Fifty Million People Say a Foolish Thing, It Is Still a Foolish Thing

Anatole France? Bertrand Russell? W. Somerset Maugham? Oliver Goldsmith? J. A. Schmit? Laurence J. Peter? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Fifty million people may parrot a false or foolish statement, but that will not metamorphose it into a true or sensible remark. Here are two instances in this family of statements:

  • If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.
  • If forty million people say a foolish thing, it does not become a wise one

This saying has been attributed to French Nobel Prize-Winning author Anatole France, British philosopher Bertrand Russell, and English novelist W. Somerset Maugham. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: A semantically similar remark was penned by novelist Oliver Goldsmith in “The Vicar of Wakefield” in 1766. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . the united voice of myriads cannot lend the smallest foundation to falsehood.

A separate QI article about the expression above is available here.

In 1874 another semantic match appeared in an article by J. A. Schmit published in the “Revue Catholique” of Louvain, Belgium. Here is the original statement in French followed by one possible translation into English: 2

. . . la vérité est qu’une sottise, même après avoir passé par un million de bouches, n’en reste pas moins une sottise.

. . . the truth is that a stupidity, even after having passed through a million mouths, does not become less foolish.

In 1890 an article in a journal of the Theosophical Publishing Company in London contained a related observation: 3

. . . the fact remains that if a million people believe a thing, it neither makes it true nor false. What right, then, have we to found anything on an assumption?

In 1900 Anatole France printed a germane remark about foolishness within a piece in “Le Figaro” newspaper of Paris. 4 The piece was part of his novel titled “Monsieur Bergeret à Paris” which was published during the following year: 5 The crucial remark was spoken by a character named Henri Léon who was unhappy with the prevalence of foolishness, but he seemed resigned to its presence. Here is the original French followed by a translation:

Et si nous ne sommes pas bêtes, il faut faire comme si nous l’étions. C’est encore la bêtise qui réussit le mieux en ce monde. Les hommes d’esprit sont des sots. Ils n’arrivent à rien.

And if we are not stupid, we must act as if we are. It is still foolishness that succeeds the best in this world. Intelligent men are fools. They are not getting anywhere.

In 1901 W. Somerset Maugham penned a close match to the saying under examination in one of his personal notebooks: 6

If forty million people say a foolish thing it does not become a wise one, but the wise man is foolish to give them the lie.

The phrase “to give them the lie” here means “to show them that the foolish thing is inaccurate or untrue”. Maugham’s 1901 remark was published in 1949 many years after it was written.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If Fifty Million People Say a Foolish Thing, It Is Still a Foolish Thing

Notes:

  1. 1766, The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith, Part 2 of 2, Chapter 8, Quote Page 121, Printed by B. Collins for F. Newbery, London. (Eighteenth Century Collections Online ECCO) link
  2. 1874, Revue Catholique, Volume 37, La Dogmatique Révolutionnaire by J. A. Schmit, Start Page 513, Quote Page 525, Aux Bureaux De La Revue, Louvain, Belgium. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1890 February 15, Lucifer: A Theosophical Magazine, Volume 5, Number 30, Edited H. P. Blavatsky & Annie Besant, Metaphor by Charles E. Benham, Start Page 505, Quote Page 508, The Theosophical Publishing Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1900 July 11, Le Figaro, Histoire Contemporaine: Chez la Baronne by Anatole France, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Paris, France. (Gallica BNF Bibliothèque nationale de France)
  5. 1901, Histoire contemporaine: Monsieur Bergeret à Paris by Anatole France, Quote Page 366, Calmann Levy, Paris, France. (Gallica BNF Bibliothèque nationale de France)
  6. 1949, A Writer’s Notebook by W. Somerset Maugham, Year: 1901, Quote Page 76, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)

You Must Learn from the Mistakes of Others. You Will Never Live Long Enough to Make Them All Yourself

Hyman Rickover? Martin Vanbee? Eleanor Roosevelt? Harry Myers? Laurence J. Peter? Sam Levenson? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: These two simple adages have a long history:

  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Learn from the mistakes of others.

Some wit crafted a hilarious addendum for the second adage:

  • You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.

This construction has been attributed to U.S. Navy Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Rickover did employ this joke during a speech in 1983, but it was circulating decades earlier.

The first close match located by QI appeared in the 1932 book “Human Engineering” by Harry Myers and Mason M. Roberts. The words were credited to an unnamed person. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

Doctor, years ago I had a foreman who taught me a great deal. He was quite a philosopher. One day he said, “William, you must learn from the mistakes of others—you will never live long enough to make them all yourself.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Must Learn from the Mistakes of Others. You Will Never Live Long Enough to Make Them All Yourself

Notes:

  1. 1932, Human Engineering by Harry Myers and Mason M. Roberts, Quote Page 213, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Based on snippet match in Google Books; the citation is not yet verified; text visible in snippet; contemporaneous book review in “Tampa Bay Times” mentions the saying)

There Are Three Types of People: Those Who Make Things Happen, Those Who Watch Things Happen, and Those Who Wonder What Happened

Nicholas Murray Butler? Tommy Lasorda? John Newbern? Laurence J. Peter? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a humorous three-fold categorization of people. The first group contains those who make things happen. Are you familiar with this saying? Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: In March 1931 Nicholas Murray Butler who was the President of Columbia University in New York delivered a speech on Charter Day at the University of California. Butler split the population into thee sets, but he noted that individuals could move from one set to another. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The vast population of this earth, and indeed nations themselves, may readily be divided into three groups. There are the few who make things happen, the many more who watch things happen, and the overwhelming majority who have no notion of what happens. Every human being is born into this third and largest group; it is for himself, his environment and his education to determine whether he shall rise to the second group or even to the first.

Some periodicals and reference works identified Butler as the coiner of this expression, and researcher Barry Popik identified the pertinent speech.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Three Types of People: Those Who Make Things Happen, Those Who Watch Things Happen, and Those Who Wonder What Happened

Notes:

  1. 1931 March 29, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, THESE UNITED STATES–“A Nation Without Leaders or Political Parties; An Office-Seeking Class in Control” by Nicholas Murray Butler, Quote Page 6, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)

The Best Things in Life Are Not Things

Art Buchwald? Henry James Lee? Mrs. Kenneth Clarke? Linda Godeau? Laurence J. Peter? Anonymous?

Dear Quote investigator: A popular modern adage de-emphasizes materialism:

The best things in life aren’t things.

This phrase has been attributed to the humorist Art Buchwald and the quotation collector Laurence J. Peter. What do you think?

Quote investigator: This saying is difficult to trace because it can be expressed in many ways. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in the “Illinois State Journal and Register” of Springfield, Illinois in 1948. An editorial piece about “The Fine Things of Life” employed a version of the saying without a precise ascription. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A person recently bereaved of an only sister, wrote to a friend: “Isn’t it wonderful that the really fine things of life are not things at all.” And so it is. Love, friendship, appreciation, kindness, honesty, thrift, and a multitude of life’s finest qualities, are intangible and spiritual but nevertheless, very real.

Laurence J. Peter placed the saying in one of his collections in 1982, but it was already in circulation. Art Buchwald was connected to the saying by 1989, but there was no substantive evidence that he crafted it.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Best Things in Life Are Not Things

Notes:

  1. 1948 October 24, Illinois State Journal and Register, The Fine Things of Life, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)

If a Cluttered Desk Is a Sign of a Cluttered Mind, We Can’t Help Wondering What an Empty Desk Indicates

Albert Einstein? Truman Twill? Lyndon B. Johnson? Laurence J. Peter? Paul A. Freund? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Many sayings attributed to the scientific genius Albert Einstein concern the mind. Here is a funny example:

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

I haven’t been able to find a solid citation. Would you please help me to determine whether Einstein said this?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this quip. It was attributed to him in the 2000s many years after his death in 1955. The most comprehensive reference about the physicist’s pronouncements is the 2010 book “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press, and the expression is absent. 1

This comical riposte was inspired by a family of admonishments about messy desks, and this website has a pertinent entry here: “A Cluttered Desk Produces a Cluttered Mind”.

The earliest pertinent partial match in this family known to QI appeared in 1911. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Orderliness and cleanliness are two important factors in efficiency. A disordered desk is an evidence of a disordered brain and a disordered character.

In 1941 a newspaper in East Liverpool, Ohio printed a column titled “Confession” by Truman Twill who was critical of the common adage extolling well-organized desks: 3

A neat desk, they always say, is the sign of a well ordered mind. Important executives make it a point of pride never to have any clutter on their desks. Finally, the desk is immaculate. It is free of clutter as a bald head.

Yet, Twill thought that the cleanliness advice was inherently flawed:

There is a man who has cleaned himself out of the wherewithal to work with, whose empty desk reflects his empty mind, a man who won’t be worth his social security till his desk gets cluttered up again.

So, Twill articulated the idea of the quotation under examination. He employed two concise counterpoint phrases, but the overall column was prolix.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If a Cluttered Desk Is a Sign of a Cluttered Mind, We Can’t Help Wondering What an Empty Desk Indicates

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not By Einstein, (No page number because statement is absent), Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1911 December, The Mediator, Volume 3, Number 12, Editor: J. K. Turner, Section: Editorial, Two Men and a Pin, Quote Page 34, The Mediator Publishing Company, Cleveland, Ohio. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1941 April 9, East Liverpool Review (The Evening Review), Confession by Truman Twill, Quote Page 4, Column 7, East Liverpool, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

The Only Thing More Painful Than Learning from Experience Is Not Learning from Experience

Archibald MacLeish? Laurence J. Peter? Earl Wilson? Eleanor Hoyt? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The American poet Archibald MacLeish apparently said that learning from experience was painful, but the alternative of not learning was worse. A similar remark has been ascribed to quotation collector Laurence J. Peter. Would you please examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1966 in the widely syndicated column of Earl Wilson who presented it as an anonymous “Remembered Quote”: 1

“The only thing more painful than learning from experience is not learning from experience.”
–Anon.

More than a decade later in 1978 Archibald MacLeish received credit, and in 1982 Laurence J. Peter included an instance in one of his books.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading The Only Thing More Painful Than Learning from Experience Is Not Learning from Experience

Notes:

  1. 1966 April 28, Reno Gazette-Journal, It Happened Last Night: Oscar-Winner Lee Marvin Has Bit of Bogart in His Style by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Reno, Nevada. (Newspapers_com)

Money Can’t Buy Love, But It Improves Your Bargaining Position

Christopher Marlowe? Laurence J. Peter? Evan Esar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Christopher Marlowe was a brilliant poet and dramatist of the 1500s whose works influenced the luminary William Shakespeare. I was astonished to find the following statement attributed to him:

Money can’t buy love, but it improves your bargaining position.

In my opinion, this expression is not from the 1500s and crediting Marlowe is nonsensical. Nevertheless, many websites dedicated to quotations present this dubious ascription. Would you please explore this quotation? Perhaps you could uncover the source of this inanity.

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was published in the twentieth century and not the sixteenth. In 1954 a newspaper in Iowa printed an instance of the saying in a humor column. The phrasing differed somewhat from the common modern expression, and no attribution was given: 1

Money cannot buy love, but it places one in an excellent bargaining position.

QI believes that the flawed attribution to Christopher Marlowe originated with the misreading of an influential book of quotations that was compiled by Laurence J. Peter and published in 1977. The details of this citation are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Money Can’t Buy Love, But It Improves Your Bargaining Position

Notes:

  1. 1954 March 18, The Elgin Echo, Rich’s “Pipe Dreams”, Quote Page 2, Column 1, Elgin, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)

Speak When You’re Angry and You’ll Make the Best Speech You’ll Ever Regret

Ambrose Bierce? Henry Ward Beecher? Laurence J. Peter? Groucho Marx? Harry H. Jones? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The rant of an enraged person often contains statements that necessitate contrite apologies later. Here is an adage reflecting this insight:

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

These words have been attributed to the preacher Henry Ward Beecher, the humorist Ambrose Bierce, and the quotation compiler Laurence J. Peter. Do you know who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI points to a famous comedian who is rarely mentioned in conjunction with this saying. In June 1954 a column titled “Inside TV” by Eve Starr was published in a North Carolina newspaper, and Starr reported on two jokes told by Groucho Marx during his show. Boldface has been added: 1

Groucho quips: “It takes a heap of spending to make a house a home.” His best advice to contestants is: “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.”

Ambrose Bierce did write a parody fable that was tangentially related to this theme, and a detailed citation for this short tale is given below. However, QI has found no substantive evidence that Bierce wrote or spoke this quotation. Oddly, a major reference work stated that the expression appeared in Bierce’s “The Cynic’s Word Book” of 1906 which is better known under its later title “The Devil’s Dictionary”. However, QI has examined multiple editions of this book and the quotation was absent.

The misattribution to Henry Ward Beecher was based on an incorrect reading of an entry in a 1977 quotation collection created by Laurence J. Peter. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Speak When You’re Angry and You’ll Make the Best Speech You’ll Ever Regret

Notes:

  1. 1954 November 3, Greensboro Record, Inside TV by Eve Starr, Quote Page B3, Column 4, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)