Tired of Buttoning and Unbuttoning

Englishman? Frenchman? Lord Byron? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The quotidian activities of life induce lassitude and even despondency in some people. I have heard that an eighteenth century suicide note placed blame upon the following perpetual exercise:

I weary of all this buttoning and unbuttoning.

Is this tale genuine or apocryphal?

Quote Investigator: In 1758 “The Public Advertiser” of London printed a piece titled “On Life” by G. S. that highlighted the stupefying task of manipulating buttons. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

Life as a repetition of the same dull, insipid routine of insignificant actions of buttoning and unbuttoning, of sleeping and waking, of eating, and hunger returning, and these ditto, ditto repeated…

The article recommended spiritual faith and thoughts of Heaven to overcome unhappiness.

In 1792 a collection of anecdotes and wit published in London titled “Scrapeana: Fugitive Miscellany” edited by John Croft included a claim about a suicide note. The name of the deceased was omitted: 2

Colonel _______ shot himself, and left a paper on the table expressing that he was grown weary of life, and tired of buttoning and unbuttoning, adding this verse:

The very best remedy after all,
Is a good resolution and a ball.

The “ball” was probably a reference to early bullets which were spherical in that time period. QI does not know whether this story was based on an actual event or simply a morbid joke.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tired of Buttoning and Unbuttoning


  1. 1786 October 23, The Public Advertiser, For the Public Advertiser: On Life by G. S., Quote Page 1, Column 3 and 4, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1792, Scrapeana: Fugitive Miscellany, Editor: John Croft, Quote Page 97, Sans Souci, London. (Google Books Full View) link

He, Who Will Not Reason, Is a Bigot; He, Who Cannot, Is a Fool; and He, Who Dares Not, Is a Slave

Lord Byron? William Drummond? Marguerite Gardiner? Andrew Carnegie? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: My favorite quotation is a brilliant tripartite observation about rationality. Here are two versions:

(1) Those who will not reason, are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.

(2) He, who will not reason, is a bigot; he, who cannot, is a fool; and he, who dares not, is a slave.

This saying has confusingly been ascribed to two very different individuals: romantic poet Lord Byron and Scottish philosopher William Drummond. Would you please untangle this attribution?

Quote Investigator: In 1805 William Drummond published “Academical Questions”, and the target quotation appeared in the final lines of the preface. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Prejudice may be trusted to guard the outworks for a short space of time, while Reason slumbers in the citadel; but if the latter sink into a lethargy, the former will quickly erect a standard for herself. Philosophy, wisdom, and liberty, support each other; he, who will not reason, is a bigot; he, who cannot, is a fool; and he, who dares not, is a slave.

Lord Byron should not receive credit for this saying. There are two potential sources of confusion. Byron’s major poem “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” has usually been published together with notes. One of the notes for the fourth canto contains the quotation above. The words are credited to William Drummond, but careless readers may have reassigned the statement directly to Byron.

The other possible wellspring of confusion is a book by Lord Byron’s friend Marguerite Gardiner, Countess of Blessington. She described at length her conversations with the poet, and she stated that Byron recommended Drummond’s works while employing the quotation under analysis. Byron credited Drummond when he used the line, but careless individuals may have incorrectly credited Byron.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading He, Who Will Not Reason, Is a Bigot; He, Who Cannot, Is a Fool; and He, Who Dares Not, Is a Slave


  1. 1805, Academical Questions by the Right Honourable William Drummond Volume 1, Section: Preface, Start Page iii, Quote Page xv, Printed by W. Bulmer, and Company, London; Sold by Messrs. Cadell and Davies, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link

A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished by the Wisest Men

Roald Dahl? Willy Wonka? Gene Wilder? Horace? Lord Byron? Horace Walpole? Hudibras? Samuel Butler? Anonymous?

dahl08Dear Quote Investigator: The 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was an extraordinary confection. The candy-maker Wonka played by Gene Wilder used numerous literary quotations while leading a tour of his factory. One scene took place in a room with geese that produced enormous golden eggs of chocolate. Each egg was analyzed by an “eggdicator” to determine whether it was a good egg or a bad egg. One parent on the tour considered the situation ridiculous, and Wonka replied to his skepticism with a quotation: 1

Grandpa Joe: It’s an educated eggdicator.
Henry Salt: It’s a lot of nonsense.
Willy Wonka: A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.

Would you please trace this saying?

Quote Investigator: The popular English author Roald Dahl published the children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in 1964. Dahl also wrote the screenplay for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” based on his book. The line spoken by Wonka in the movie is not in the 1964 book, but Dahl included it in the 1972 sequel called “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the newspaper “The New-York Mirror” in 1823. The reviewer of a new melodrama called “Undine, or the Spirit of the Waters” did not consider it a serious work, but he enjoyed it and recommended it. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

As a drama, it is not of the family of legitimates; but what then, who has not experienced the truth of that good old couplet, that

“A little nonsense, now and then,
Is relished by the wisest men!”

The reviewer disclaimed credit for the expression by labelling it an “old couplet”; hence, earlier citations probably exist. Nevertheless, quotation expert Nigel Rees deserves kudos for placing this valuable instance in his compilation “The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations”. 3

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Little Nonsense Now and Then is Relished by the Wisest Men


  1. 1971, Movie: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Screenplay by Roald Dahl, Based on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, Released by Paramount Pictures, Quote Location: 1 hour 20 minutes of 1 hour 39 minutes. (Amazon Video)
  2. 1823 December 6, The New-York Mirror, and Ladies’ Literary Gazette, The Drama: Undine, Quote Page 151, Column 1, Published by George P. Morris, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 2011, The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations by Nigel Rees, (Updated, expanded, and revised version of “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”, 2003), Publication Date: September 6, 2011, Topic: Nonsense, Kindle Location: 14964, Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC. (Kindle Ebook)

A Letter Is In Fact the Only Device for Combining Solitude and Good Company

Lord Byron? Jacques Barzun? Robert Halsband? Apocryphal?

byron08Dear Quote Investigator: On a Pinterest pin-board I saw a picture of the famous British poet Lord Byron accompanying the following quotation:

Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company.

I would like to use this expression in an article, but I have not been able to find a good citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron) crafted the statement above. The ascription was probably based on a mistake that will be explicated further below.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in 1953 in the introduction to “The Selected Letters of Lord Byron” which was edited and introduced by the prominent historian Jacques Barzun. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

It is obvious that letter writing often gave Byron the opportunity to be outrageous and gay in a degree that no civilized society allows. A letter is in fact the only device for combining solitude and good company. And for some obscure reason, letters are also the proper medium for extravaganza.

The original wording of the expression differed slightly from the popular modern versions. Barzun was presenting his viewpoint in this passage, and he was not using the words of Byron.

In October 1953 “The Saturday Review” published an examination of “The Selected Letters of Lord Byron” by the scholar Robert Halsband. He praised the introduction by Barzun and reprinted the statement under investigation. Unfortunately, the context was ambiguous, and QI believes that some readers incorrectly attributed the remark by Barzun to Byron: 2

The introduction, even if read after the letters (which is a test), stands out for its clarity and wit. Especially judicious is his distinction between the man Byron and the time-spirit Byronism; as a biographer and as a cultural historian he does justice to both. His epigrammatic style is no disadvantage: “A letter is in fact the only device for combining solitude and good company.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading A Letter Is In Fact the Only Device for Combining Solitude and Good Company


  1. 1953, The Selected Letters of Lord Byron by George Gordon Byron (Lord Byron), Edited by Jacques Barzun, Series: Great Letters Series, Introduction: Byron and the Byronic in History by Jacques Barzun, Start Page vii, Quote Page xxxvii and xxxviii, Farrar, Straus and Young, New York (Verified on paper)
  2. 1953 October 3, The Saturday Review, Writers Notes: A Poet’s Letters by Robert Halsband, (Review of The Selected Letters of Lord Byron edited by Jacques Barzun), Start Page 36, Quote Page 52, Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)

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

Easy Reading Is Hard Writing

Maya Angelou? Nathaniel Hawthorne? Thomas Hood? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Charles Allston Collins? Anthony Trollope? Lord Byron? William Makepeace Thackeray? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Writers should strive to create texts that are informative, interesting, stimulating, and readable. But one of my favorite sayings reveals that this can be a remarkably difficult task:

Easy reading is damned hard writing.

I thought this adage was coined by the prominent author Maya Angelou, but recently I learned that she credited Nathaniel Hawthorne. Would you please explore this statement?

Quote Investigator: This topic is complicated by the existence of two complementary statements that are often confused. Many different versions of these statements have circulated over the years. Here are two expository instances:

1) Easy writing results in hard reading.
2) Easy reading requires hard writing.

An extended discussion of the first maxim is available under the title “Easy Writing’s Vile Hard Reading” located here. This entry will focus on the second maxim.

The earliest evidence of a strong match located by QI appeared in the London periodical “The Athenaeum” in 1837. The humorist, poet, and essayist Thomas Hood wrote a letter to the editor which was printed under the title “Copyright and Copywrong”. Hood commented on the process of writing. In the original text the word “damned” was partially censored to yield “d__d”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

And firstly, as to how he writes, upon which head there is a wonderful diversity of opinions; one thinks that writing is “as easy as lying,” and pictures the author sitting carefully at his desk “with his glove on,” like Sir Roger de Coverley’s poetical ancestor. A second holds that “the easiest reading is d__d hard writing,” and imagines Time himself beating his brains over an extempore.

Hood placed the adage between quotation marks suggesting that it was already in use. In fact, variant statements containing the phrases “hard reading” and “easy writing” were already being disseminated, and the expression probably evolved from those antecedents. Hence, apportioning credit for the formulation of this maxim is a difficult task.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Easy Reading Is Hard Writing


  1. 1837 April 22, The Athenaeum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, Copyright and Copywrong, (Letter to the Editor of the Athenaeum from Thomas Hood), Start Page 285, Quote Page 286 and 287, Printed by James Holmes, London, Published at the Office of The Athenaeum, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Easy Writing’s Vile Hard Reading

Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Lord Byron? Ernest Hemingway? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There are two complementary and intertwined statements about reading and writing that I would like you to investigate:

1) Easy writing results in hard reading.
2) Easy reading requires hard writing.

Many different phrases have been used to express these two thoughts, and sometimes the phrases are confused with one another. The formulations above were selected to make the two concepts more straightforward. Here is my gloss of the first: If one composes a passage in an easygoing thoughtless manner then the result will be difficult to read. My gloss of the second is: One must work hard to compose a passage that a reader will be able to grasp readily.

Various well-known names have been connected to these adages including: Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Lord Byron, Samuel Johnson, Maya Angelou, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thomas Hood, William Makepeace Thackeray, Ernest Hemingway, and Wallace Stegner. Would you please explore the provenance of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: This entry will focus on the first maxim listed above. A separate entry for the second maxim with the title “Easy Reading Is Hard Writing” is located here.

The prominent Irish poet Richard Brinsley Sheridan composed “Clio’s Protest or, the Picture Varnished” in 1771 and it was distributed in 1772. Sheridan’s name was not listed in the original publication which harshly satirized the efforts of a poetaster. The word “show” was spelled “shew” in the following excerpt: 1

You write with ease, to shew your breeding;
But easy writing’s vile hard reading.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Easy Writing’s Vile Hard Reading


  1. Year: 1772 (Date of introductory letter January 26, 1772), Title: The Rival Beauties; A Poetical Contest, Poem Information: Clio’s Protest; Or, The Picture Varnished, Addressed to The Honourable Lady M-rg-r-t F-rd-ce, Start Page: 5, Quote Page: 16, Imprint: London: Printed for W. Griffin, at Garrick’s Head, in Catharine-Street, Strand; and sold by R. Cruttwell, in St. James’s-Street, Bath, Database: ECCO Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was a Summer in San Francisco

Locale: San Francisco, California? Paris, France? Duluth, Minnesota? Milwaukee, Wisconsin?

Originator: Mark Twain? Horace Walpole? James Quin? R. Q. Grant? Lord Byron? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Living in Menlo Park near San Francisco I have heard the following witticism credited to Mark Twain many times:

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.
The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.

I actually enjoy the weather here, so this saying always seemed implausible to me. Also, the San Francisco Chronicle once printed an article that cast doubt on the Twain attribution. Can you figure out who created this joke? Also, was the remark originally about SF or some other locale?

Quote Investigator: There is no evidence in the papers and speeches of Mark Twain that he ever made this remark about San Francisco. There is a letter discussed below from Twain in which he commented on a similar type of jest, but he expressed unhappiness with the weather of Paris and not San Francisco.

Top-flight researcher Stephen Goranson located the earliest known evidence of this joke-type in a letter written by Horace Walpole, a prominent literary figure and politician in England. Walpole attributed the remark to James Quin, a leading actor in London in the 1700s. This jest is distinct but it is closely related to the quip given by the questioner. The location of the cold weather was not specified. The letter was written during the summer of 1789 in July [HWJQ]:

Quin, being once asked if he had ever seen so bad a winter, replied, “Yes, just such an one last summer!”—and here is its youngest brother!

This comical observation and its ascription reached the attention of Mark Twain who mentioned it in a letter in 1880 while criticizing Parisian climate. The text of the letter is viewable at the authoritative Mark Twain Project Online [MTJQ]:

… for anywhere is better than Paris. Paris the cold, Paris the drizzly, Paris the rainy, Paris the Damnable. More than a hundred years ago somebody asked Quin, “Did you ever see such a winter in all your life before?” “Yes,” said he, “Last summer.” I judge he spent his summer in Paris.

Several fine researchers have noted the existence of this letter linking Twain to the quip about cold weather including Ralph Keyes [NGRK] [QVRK], Fred Shapiro [YQMT], and Barbara Schmidt [TQSF].

The modern phrasing of the saying was used by the beginning of the 1900s, but the initial target of the barb was not San Francisco. Instead, the joke was directed at a genuinely frosty locale: Duluth, Minnesota. The Duluth News-Tribune in 1900 recounted a version of the saying while using a belligerently defensive tone [DNDM]:

One of these days somebody will tell that mouldy chestnut about the finest winter he ever saw being the summer he spent in Duluth, and one of these husky commercial travelers, who have been here and know all about our climate, will smite him with an uppercut and break his slanderous jaw. The truth will come out in time.

The above instance in 1900 used the word “finest” instead of “coldest”. In June 1901 in a Kentucky newspaper an employee of the weather bureau deployed a version of the saying that closely matched a modern template. Once again the weather in Duluth was the subject [KYDM]:

In a recent conversation with Mr. R. Q. Grant, of the State College Weather Bureau, a Herald reporter learned that the life of the employes of the United States Weather Bureau service is one filled with interesting experiences. …

Later Mr. Grant was sent to Pike’s Peak, where he established the station now there. Another assignment was to Duluth, Minn., where he learned to appreciate rapid changes in temperature. He says the coldest winter he ever experienced was the summer he spent in Duluth.

Over a span of more than one hundred years many locations were substituted into this jest including: Milwaukee, Two Harbors, Grand Marais, Puget Sound, Buffalo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco.

Note that Mark Twain lived until 1910, so the expression was being used while he was still alive. Yet, the words were not attributed to him in any of the early instances. The first citation found by QI in which Twain’s name was invoked was dated 1928 and the subject was Duluth. The details are recorded further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Coldest Winter I Ever Spent Was a Summer in San Francisco