“Is Your New Baby a Boy Or a Girl?” “Yes”

Bertrand Russell? Leo Rosten? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent British philosopher and essayist Bertrand Russell co-wrote an important book of classical logic titled “Principia Mathematica”. An anecdote about Russell is based on a humorously rigorous logical interpretation of a question. A colleague spoke to Russell shortly after his wife had a baby:

“Congratulations. Is it a girl or a boy?”

Do you think this story is genuine or apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this anecdote is apocryphal; however, it was probably derived from a passage that appeared in Bertrand Russell’s 1940 book “An Inquiry Into Meaning And Truth” which discussed the interpretation of logical disjunction. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The following conversation might occur between a medical logician and his wife. “Has Mrs. So-and-So had her child?” “Yes.” “Is it a boy or a girl?” “Yes.” The last answer, though logically impeccable, would be infuriating.

The answerer would normally understand that the questioner wished to know the sex of the child. Instead, the answerer unhelpfully indicated that the sex of the child fell within the set {male, female}. Nowadays, there is greater awareness of intersex children, so the interpretation of this scenario would be more complex.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “Is Your New Baby a Boy Or a Girl?” “Yes”


  1. 1940 (1956 Fifth Impression), An Inquiry Into Meaning And Truth by Bertrand Russell, The William James Lectures for 1940 Delivered at Harvard University, Chapter 5: Logical Words, Quote Page 85 and 86, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London. (Verified with scans)

Fashions, After All, Are Only Induced Epidemics

George Bernard Shaw? Gloria Steinem? W.H. Auden? Leo Rosten? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A style, jingle, gif, graffito, saying, or idea that rapidly mutates and propagates through a culture and achieves popularity is called a “meme” nowadays. The coinage of “meme” was based on “gene”, but a different biological metaphor was employed in the past. Here are two statements that have been attributed to the influential playwright George Bernard Shaw.

  • Fashions are induced epidemics.
  • A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.

Would you please help me to find a citation together with the correct phrasing?

Quote Investigator: George Bernard Shaw’s play “The Doctor’s Dilemma” was first staged in 1906. Shaw published the text of the play combined with a preface in 1911. A section of the preface titled “Fashions and Epidemics” cogently discussed fads in clothing and in medical procedures: 1

A demand, however, can be inculcated. This is thoroughly understood by fashionable tradesmen, who find no difficulty in persuading their customers to renew articles that are not worn out and to buy things they do not want. By making doctors tradesmen, we compel them to learn the tricks of trade; consequently we find that the fashions of the year include treatments, operations, and particular drugs, as well as hats, sleeves, ballads, and games.

Tonsils, vermiform appendices, uvulas, even ovaries are sacrificed because it is the fashion to get them cut out, and because the operations are highly profitable. The psychology of fashion becomes a pathology; for the cases have every air of being genuine: fashions, after all, are only induced epidemics, proving that epidemics can be induced by tradesmen, and therefore by doctors.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Fashions, After All, Are Only Induced Epidemics


  1. 1911, The Doctor’s Dilemma with Preface on Doctors by Bernard Shaw, Fashions and Epidemics, Start Page lxxii, Quote Page lxxii, Brentano’s, New York. (Verified with scans)

The Most Fun You Can Have Without Laughing

H. L. Mencken? Woody Allen? Walter Winchell? Alfred Lunt? Sarah Bernhardt? E. V. Durling? Jim Bishop? Colonel Stoopnagle? Frederick Chase Taylor? Leo Rosten? Humphrey Bogart? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following declaration of high praise has been applied to love making:

The most fun you can have without laughing.

Influential commentator H. L. Mencken and popular comedian Woody Allen have both received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: H. L. Mencken did place a version of this saying into his massive 1942 compendium of quotations, but he did not take credit; instead, he asserted that the author was unidentified. More than three decades later Woody Allen employed an instance in his 1977 Oscar-winning movie “Annie Hall”.

The earliest match located by QI occurred in the widely-syndicated column of Walter Winchell in January 1938. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The latest definition of necking: How you can have the most fun without laughing.

QI hypothesizes that a comparable statement referring to sex was circulating at the time. Winchell or his informant bowdlerized the remark to yield the version about “necking”. Taboos of the period restricted depictions of carnality in newspapers.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Most Fun You Can Have Without Laughing


  1. 1938 January 25, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, On Broadway Walter Winchell, Quote Page 24, Column 6, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)

A Dramatic Critic Is a Guy Who Surprises the Playwright by Informing Him What He Meant

Creator: Wilson Mizner, playwright, entrepreneur, adventurer

Context: Mizner died in 1933. A biography of his colorful life appeared in 1935 called “The Fabulous Wilson Mizner” by Edward Dean Sullivan. The chapter “Miznerisms” was dedicated to his witticisms. Here were three. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

I am a stylist—and the most beautiful sentence I have ever heard is: “Have one on the house.”

A dramatic critic is a guy who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.

I’ve known countless people who were reservoirs of learning yet never had a thought.

In 1949 Evan Esar, the industrious collector of sayings, placed a slightly modified version in “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”. The words “dramatic” and “guy” were changed to “drama” and “person”: 2

MIZNER, Wilson, 1876-1933, American dramatist, bon vivant, and wit.
A drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him what he meant.

In 1989 “Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter” printed another version of the quip: 3

Critic: A person who surprises an author by informing him what he meant.
Wilson Mizner

Nowadays, it is commonplace to find critics who claim superior knowledge or insight when disagreeing with the creator of an artwork.


  1. 1935, The Fabulous Wilson Mizner by Edward Dean Sullivan, Chapter 17: Miznerisms, Quote Page 270, The Henkle Company, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Wilson Mizner, Quote Page 145, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on hardcopy in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  3. 1989, Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter: The greatest jokes, one-liners, bloopers, and stories for everyone who loves to laugh by Leo Rosten (Leo Calvin Rosten), Topic: Criticism, Quote Page 124, Bonanza Books, New York. (Verified with scans)

Truth Is Stranger than Fiction, But It Is Because Fiction Is Obliged to Stick to Possibilities; Truth Isn’t

Mark Twain? Lord Byron? G. K. Chesterton? Edward Bellamy? Humphrey Bogart? Leo Rosten? Tom Clancy?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful quotation by Mark Twain about the implausibility of truth versus fiction. Here are four versions:

1) Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.
2) It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction must be credible.
3) Truth is stranger than fiction. It has to be! Fiction has to be possible and truth doesn’t!
4) The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.

Would you please explore this topic and determine what Twain actually said? Some versions have been credited to humorist Leo Rosten and top-selling author Tom Clancy.

Quote Investigator: In 1897 Mark Twain released a travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, and the fifteenth chapter presented the following epigraph. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book. Thus, Twain was the actual crafter of the remark given above. Over the years many variant phrasings have evolved.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Truth Is Stranger than Fiction, But It Is Because Fiction Is Obliged to Stick to Possibilities; Truth Isn’t


  1. 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Chapter 15 Epigraph), Quote Page 156, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

The Purpose of Life Is Not To Be Happy But To Matter

Ralph Waldo Emerson? Leo Rosten? Thomas Carlyle? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: On Facebook and the web the following quotation has been circulating widely:

The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.

The words are attributed to the famous philosophical essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I have not been able to find a proper citation to an essay by the transcendentalist. Would you please explore this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Ralph Waldo Emerson crafted the words above. Instead, QI believes that the passage was derived from a series of similar statements written and spoken by Leo Rosten who was a teacher and humorist.

In 1962 “The Sunday Star” newspaper of Washington D.C. published the text of an address recently delivered by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards held in New York. The following excerpt strongly matched the target quotation though it was not identical: 1

The purpose of life is not to be happy—but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you lived at all.

Rosten restated this anti-hedonic proposition multiple times, and he used similar language to communicate his ideas. Detailed references are provided further below.

Continue reading The Purpose of Life Is Not To Be Happy But To Matter


  1. 1962 April 8, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: E-Editorial, On Finding Truth: Abandon the Strait Jacket of Conformity (Text of an address by Leo Rosten at the National Book Awards in New York), Quote Page E-2, Column 7, Washington (DC), District of Columbia. (GenealogyBank)