Politician: Straddling the Fence With Both Ears To the Ground

H. L. Mencken? Arthur Stanwood Pier? L. Curry Morton? Life Magazine? Sylvester K. Stevens? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A startling and funny depiction of a politician has been constructed by mixing two vivid metaphors:

A politician is an animal who can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.

This remark has been credited to the influential Baltimore curmudgeon H. L. Mencken. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: When faced with a significant decision some people refuse to make a commitment. These indecisive people inspired three eloquent figurative phrases: “sitting on the fence”, “standing on the fence”, and “straddling the fence”. Widespread use of these phrases occurred in the nineteenth century.

People who carefully monitor trends and listen to rumors inspired the descriptive phrase “keeping an ear to the ground” which also achieved widespread use in the nineteenth century. Eventually, a physically impossible version emerged: “keeping both ears to the ground”.

The comical remark under examination evolved over time as the metaphors were combined, enhanced, and applied to politicians.

In 1901 teacher and novelist Arthur Stanwood Pier published “The Sentimentalists”. During one scene the character Virginia criticized her brother Vernon. She comically combined five different figurative phrases. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“You’re always straddling a fence, with one ear to the ground to see which way the wind blows,” said Virginia. “It’s a picturesque attitude, but you don’t get much leverage. You’d do better if you came out into the open and showed your hand.”

“My sister talks like a monologue artist in a vaudeville show,” complained Vernon.

The above instance cleverly combined metaphors, but it referred to one ear and not two. Also, the remark was not applied to politicians in general.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Politician: Straddling the Fence With Both Ears To the Ground

Notes:

  1. 1901, The Sentimentalists: A Novel by Arthur Stanwood Pier, Chapter 11: The Hero Gains in Knowledge and Loses in Wisdom Quote Page 125 and 126, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

“What’s Your Opinion of Civilization?” “It’s a Good Idea. Somebody Ought To Start It”

George Bernard Shaw? Albert Schweitzer? Life Magazine? Mohandas Gandhi? Ferdinand Pecora? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some thinkers believe that humanity has not yet achieved an advanced society worthy of the name “civilization”. This notion has been expressed with the following dialog:

“What’s your idea of civilization?”
“It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

This acerbic reply has been attributed to playwright George Bernard Shaw and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer, Yet, I have been unable to find any solid citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared as a filler item in the humor magazine “Life” in March 1923. The creator was unidentified. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

“What’s your opinion of civilization?”
“It’s a good idea. Somebody ought to start it.”

The quip has been ascribed to a series of individuals over the decades including: lawyer Ferdinand Pecora in 1933, the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) in 1934, George Bernard Shaw in 1977, and Albert Schweitzer in 1988. In addition, a variant was attributed to Mohandas Gandhi in 1967. Yet, these citations occurred long after the joke was circulating; hence, the value of this evidence is low.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “What’s Your Opinion of Civilization?” “It’s a Good Idea. Somebody Ought To Start It”

Notes:

  1. 1923 March 29, Life, Volume 81, Issue 2108, (Filler item), Quote Page 33, Column 1, Life Publishing Company, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

You Can’t Teach an Old Dogma New Tricks

Dorothy Parker? Life Magazine? Maxson Foxhall Judell? Edwin G. Nourse? Tom Lehrer? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about age and recalcitrance is familiar to many:

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I am trying to trace a comical wordplay variant:

You cannot teach an old dogma new tricks.

This statement is usually attributed to the notable acerbic writer Dorothy Parker. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The saying was ascribed to Dorothy Parker in the 1968 volume “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan. The section about Parker included a miscellaneous collection of her witticisms, and the following was listed without any additional context: 1

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

Parker died in 1967, and it would be nice to have an earlier linkage. Perhaps future research will discover a better citation for her. The earliest evidence of this wordplay schema located by QI employed a positive version of the saying instead of the common modern negative version.

In 1928 the humor magazine “Life” published a special issue that contained several sections that parodied popular contemporaneous periodicals such as “The Saturday Evening Post”, “True Stories”, “Collier’s”, “Time”, and “McCall’s”. The section based on the “Christian Herald” included an article titled “The Message of Clara Bow: How One Man Heard That Message and What He Did About It” that discussed the very popular movie star Clara Bow. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Clara Bow comes to us like a breath of fresh air at a time when the lungs of civilization are clogged with the accumulated backwash of centuries of age-old traditions, age-old concepts, age-old dogmas. She has proved that you can teach an old dogma new tricks!

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Can’t Teach an Old Dogma New Tricks

Notes:

  1. 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Section: Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 124, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1928 May 3, Life, (Special Parody Section: “With Apologies to ‘Christian Herald'”), The Message of Clara Bow: How One Man Heard That Message and What He Did About It, Start Page 63. Quote Page 63, Column 2, Published at the Life Office, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

Repentance on a Sunday for What One Has Done on Saturday

Thomas R. Ybarra? Contributor to Life Magazine? Victor L. Berger? Anonymous?

calendar06Dear Quote Investigator: Individuals who attend church services without sincerity have long been criticized with the following sardonic description:

Those who repent on Sunday,
For what they did on Saturday,
And plan to do again on Monday.

I have been unable to determine who first said this. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI was printed in the humor magazine “Life” in 1905, and the author was unidentified: 1

A Christian is a man who feels
Repentance on a Sunday
For what he has done on Saturday,
And is going to do on Monday.

This theme has a long history and QI conjectures that the above verse was inspired directly or indirectly by lines in a poem published in the eighteenth century. Details are given below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Repentance on a Sunday for What One Has Done on Saturday

Notes:

  1. 1905 December 14, Life, Volume 46, Number 1207, A Definition, Quote Page 746, Column 2, Life Publishing Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link