Dear Quote Investigator: The North American fur trade between First Nations and Europeans began in the 16th century. In the 19th century millions of beaver pelts were sold in Europe. The importance of this trade has been summarized with the following blunt statement:
Canada was built on dead beavers.
The famous Canadian author Margaret Atwood whose best known novel is “The Handmaid’s Tale” has received credit for this remark. Is this attribution accurate? Would you please help me to find a citation?
Quote Investigator: In 1972 Margaret Atwood published her second novel titled “Surfacing” which contains the following statement spoken by one of the main characters. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1983 (First Published 1972), Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, Chapter 4, Quote Page 43, General Publishing Company, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Verified with scans)
“Do you realize,” David says, “that this country is founded on the bodies of dead animals? Dead fish, dead seals, and historically dead beavers . . .”
The statement under examination was semantically contained within this prolix remark. An exact match for the shorter statement occurred several years later. “The Macmillan Dictionary of Political Quotations” included the following entry indicating that Atwood spoke the line in 1988:1993, The Macmillan Dictionary of Political Quotations, Edited by Lewis D. Eigen and Jonathan P. Siegel, Chapter 27: The Environment and Natural Resources, Quote Page 161, Macmillan Publishing … Continue reading
Canada was built on dead beavers.
Margaret Atwood, Canadian poet. Quoted on National Public Radio, Canada: True North, Sept. 19, 1988.
1993, The Macmillan Dictionary of Political Quotations, Edited by Lewis D. Eigen and Jonathan P. Siegel, Chapter 27: The Environment and Natural Resources, Quote Page 161, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
Dear Quote Investigator: Foolish actions can lead to disastrous results. It is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the actions of a stupid individual versus a malevolent individual. The prominent Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once made a statement of this type. Would you please help me to find it?
Quote Investigator: Margaret Atwood published the novel “Surfacing” in 1972. One of her characters expressed the notion under examination. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1983 (First Published 1972), Surfacing by Margaret Atwood, Chapter 3, Quote Page 31, General Publishing Company, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Verified with scans)
But I admit I was stupid, stupidity is the same as evil if you judge by the results, and I didn’t have any excuses, I was never good at them. My brother was, he used to make them up in advance of the transgressions; that’s the logical way.
Creator: Margaret Atwood, prominent Canadian novelist and essayist
Context: Atwood’s 2005 novella “The Penelopiad” re-envisioned the myth of Odysseus by re-centering the tale on Penelope who was the wife of the ancient hero. Penelope’s father was King Icarius of Sparta, and her mother was a Naiad, i.e., a water nymph. Commenting on her partially divine status, Penelope stated: 2005 Copyright, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood, Chapter 3: My Childhood, Quote Page 9, Canongate, New York. (Verified with scans)
Water is our element, it is our birthright. Although we are not such good swimmers as our mothers, we do have a way of floating, and we’re well connected among the fish and seabirds.
Penelope’s mother attended her wedding and delivered a short speech which her daughter described as “nothing if not oblique; but then, all Naiads are oblique”. The address included the following. Emphasis added to excerpts: 2005 Copyright, The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood, Chapter 7: The Scar, Quote Page 43, Canongate, New York. (Verified with scans)
Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.
A substantial fraction of the human body consists of water; estimates vary from 50 to 70 percent depending on age, gender, and measurement technique. Yet, Atwood was probably referring to the parentage of Penelope and not to the scientific evaluation of H2O in body tissue.
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Linda Carson who pointed to a sequence of tweets one of which mentioned a water bottle in London displaying the quotation.
Margaret Atwood? Posy Simmonds? Guy Bellamy? Marilyn Duckworth? R. D. Laing? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation may be morbid, but I still consider it cleverly humorous:
Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease.
Would you please explore its provenance?
Quote Investigator: Tracing this statement is difficult because it emerged from a family of related sayings. Here is a summary snapshot showing quotations with dates:
1656: Life is an Incurable Disease. —Abraham Cowley
1943: Some people think of life as a fatal disease. —Francis T. Cunningham
1968: Life is a hereditary disease. —Anonymous Graffito
1971: Life is a terminal disease. —Anonymous Graffito
1980: Life is a sexually transmitted disease. —Anonymous Graffito
1981: Life is just another sexually transmitted social disease. —Margaret Atwood
1982: Life is a sexually transmitted disease. — attributed to Posy Simmonds
1982: Life is a sexually transmitted disease. —Guy Bellamy
1984: Life is a sexually transmitted terminal disease. —Marilyn Duckworth
1985: Life is a sexually transmitted disease & there’s a 100% mortality rate. —R. D. Laing
The prominent New Zealand author Marilyn Duckworth combined expressions about transmission and mortality to yield the target quotation by 1984.