Long Enough to Cover the Subject and Short Enough to Create Interest

Winston Churchill? Ronald Knox? Gerald K. Rudulph? C. H. McNider? Richard N. Elliott? Louis Sobol? Frances Langford? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous statesman and orator Winston Churchill was asked about the length of an ideal address, and he supposedly said:

A speech should be like a woman’s skirt: long enough to cover the subject and short enough to create interest.

Yet, a similar remark about sermons is often attributed to the theologian Ronald Knox. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip is difficult to trace because it has many variants, and the phrasing is highly variable. The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in May 1920 in “The Buffalo Enquirer” of Buffalo, New York. The columnist Gerald K. Rudulph employed quotation marks to signal that the joke was already in circulation. This version used a simile comparing the length of a newspaper column and a woman’s skirt. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

. . . we will do our best and try to make this column like a woman’s skirt, “short enough to be attractive, but long enough to cover the subject.”

An instance was attributed to Churchill by 1942. He probably used it after it had been coined. Pertinent citations are presented further below. QI has been unable to find substantive evidence that Ronald Knox used the expression.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Long Enough to Cover the Subject and Short Enough to Create Interest


  1. 1920 May 21, The Buffalo Enquirer, The Port Side Column by Gerald K. Rudulph, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Buffalo, New York. (Newspapers_com)

I’ll Give You a Definite Maybe

Samuel Goldwyn? Jerry Wald? Jed Harris? Louis Sobol? Walter Winchell? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Making a weighty decision is difficult because one must be willing to forgo alternative choices and possibilities. The following equivocal statement comical illustrates this psychological tension:

I can give you a definite maybe.

The words above have been attributed to the powerful movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn who made a large number of multi-million dollar business decisions. Would you please explore this phrase?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI was printed in a column of the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle” of New York in November 1933. The quip was relayed to the columnist by Jerry Wald who was a screenwriter and producer; Wald ascribed the remark to another unnamed Hollywood producer: 1

From Jerry Wald, away out in Hollywood, comes the gag about the producer who was arguing with an actor about a contract. The actor insisted the producer come to a definite decision, one way or the other.

“What are you complaining about?” screamed the producer. “I have given you a definite decision…didn’t I give you a definite maybe?”

In December 1933 a very similar anecdote was printed in a newspaper in Amsterdam, New York with an acknowledgement to the periodical “Hollywood Times”: 2

To a movie actor who insisted on a definite decision the film producer roared: “What are you complaining about? I have given you a definite decision–didn’t I give you a definite ‘Maybe?'” — Hollywood Times.

By 1935 the expression was being attributed to the director and producer Jed Harris. Columnist Louis Sobol was credited in 1939; columnist Walter Winchell used the phrase in 1940; and Samuel Goldwyn was also credited in 1940.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I’ll Give You a Definite Maybe


  1. 1933 November 14, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Reverting to Type by Art Arthur, A Definite Perhaps, Quote Page 19, Column 8, Brooklyn, New York. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1933 December 30, Evening Recorder (Daily Democrat and Recorder),In Merrier Mood, Quote Page 4, Column 7, Amsterdam, New York. (Old Fulton)