Ah, Would That I Were Only 80 Years Old!

Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle? Samuel Rogers? Walter Besant? Helmuth von Moltke the Elder? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Georges Clemenceau?

fontenelle07Dear Quote Investigator: An amusing remark about longevity and libido has been ascribed to septuagenarians, octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians. A venerable gentleman was sitting on a park bench with a friend, and he gazed at a beautiful woman who walked by them. He turned to his companion and said one of the following:

1) Oh, to be sixty again!
2) Ah! To be seventy again, with thirty years more to live!
3) Ah! What wouldn’t I give to be seventy again!
4) If I could only be eighty once more.

This type of comment has been attributed to the French author Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, the English poet Samuel Rogers, and the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1813 a collection of letters was published under the title “Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique”. A letter dated February 1, 1757 discussed Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, and his place in the exclusive salons of France. Fontenelle had died during the previous month when he was 99 years old. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Sans sa surdité qui l’empêchait de prendre part à la conversation, il eût été aussi agréable dans la société qu’il l’avait été à l’âge de trente ans. Il disait, il n’y a pas longtemps à une jeune femme, pour lui faire sentir l’impression que sa beauté faisait sur lui: Ah! si je n’avais que quatre-vingts ans.

Here’s one possible translation into English:

If his deafness hadn’t kept him from participating in conversation, he would have been as pleasant in society as he was at the age of 30. Not long ago he said to a young woman, to show her how impressed he was by her beauty, “Ah, would that I were only 80 years old!”

The remark above was the earliest instance in this family located by QI. During the 1800s, 1900s, and 2000s the expression was often ascribed to Fontenelle though the precise phrasing and circumstances varied. QI conjectures that other members in the family were derived directly or indirectly from the words of Fontenelle.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Ah, Would That I Were Only 80 Years Old!


  1. 1813, Title: Correspondance Littéraire, Philosophique et Critique: Adressée à Un Souverain d’Allemagne, depuis 1753 jusqu’en 1769, Part 1, Volume 2, Letter Date: 1er Février 1757 (February 1, 1757), Letter Location: Paris, Start Page 147, Quote Page 151 and 152, Publisher: Longchamps, F. Buisson, Paris. (Google Books Full View) link

You Should Share the Passion and Action of Your Time at Peril of Being Judged Not To Have Lived

Plotinus? Herodotus? Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.? Anonymous?

cannon11Dear Quote Investigator: Many are familiar with the ancient Latin injunction of the poet Horace: “Carpe diem” or “Seize the day”. The following thematically similar statement has been attributed to other figures of the ancient world: the philosopher Plotinus and the historian Herodotus:

Not to be involved with the actions and passions of your time is to run the risk of having not really lived at all.

Oddly, the same saying has been ascribed to the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence linking the statement above to Plotinus or Herodotus. Unsupported attributions appeared in the 2000s, i.e., very recently.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. delivered a Memorial Day address on May 30, 1884 in Keene, New Hampshire. He spoke about a pivotal event in U.S history, the Civil War, which had ended nineteen years earlier. The speech of Holmes included the original instance of the saying. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

When it was felt so deeply as it was on both sides that a man ought to take his part in the war unless some conscientious scruple or strong practical reason made it impossible, was that feeling simply the requirement of a local majority that their neighbors should agree with them? I think not: I think the feeling was right—in the South as in the North. I think that as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time at peril of being judged not to have lived.

Over the decades the phrasing has evolved. Many instances in circulation have been simplified and streamlined.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Should Share the Passion and Action of Your Time at Peril of Being Judged Not To Have Lived


  1. 1884, Dead, Yet Living: An Address Delivered at Keene, New Hampshire on Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, Speaker: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 5, (Reprinted from the Boston Daily Advertiser by the Author’s Permission), Published by Ginn, Heath, and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

The Common Law Consists of About Half A Dozen Obvious Propositions, But Unfortunately …

Judge Dowdall? William Pickford? Lord Sterndale? Anonymous? Apocryphal?

commonlaw01Dear Quote Investigator: Some lawyers take pride in their use of rigorous logical and legal reasoning. I once heard a hilarious remark about the body of law accumulated over the centuries. I do not remember the exact wording, but it was something like this:

The entire body of law and legal precedents may be derived from six obvious propositions; unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Have you heard this saying before? Could you explore it?

Quote Investigator: In 1931 a judge named Dowdall presented a paper titled “The Psychological Origins of Law” at the Centenary Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He included a saying about the common law that matched your description. But he enclosed the remark in quotation marks to indicate that the words were not his. Boldface has been added to the passages below: 1

Man’s rational nature looks to find some presiding genius or logical principle behind, and giving consistency to, these decisions—a god of justice, a law of nature, etc. But such is not easily found even in these days, and the discovery is fragmentary. ‘The English common law consists of half a dozen obvious propositions, but unfortunately no one knows what they are.’

In 1932 Judge Dowdall wrote a letter to The Times of London and stated that he heard the saying from William Pickford who became Lord Sterndale, a British judge appointed to the High Court. In the following excerpt the phrase “taken silk” referred to a barrister becoming a Senior counsel: 2

Lord Sterndale once said, “The common law consists of about half a dozen obvious propositions, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are.” He was reading a case I had looked up for him, and I did not know whether he was speaking to himself or enlightening a junior barrister in the mysteries of the law, and as his clerk immediately called him into Court the matter dropped. He was a leader at the time, and I think it was not long after he had taken silk. The observation is so witty and true that, unless it is already familiar, it deserves record; but as the number of those who knew, Lord Sterndale diminishes it would be interesting if any of your readers ever heard him make a similar observation.

Here are two more citations and the conclusion.

Continue reading The Common Law Consists of About Half A Dozen Obvious Propositions, But Unfortunately …


  1. 1932, British Association for the Advancement of Science: Report of the Centenary Meeting, (Held in London on September 23 through 30, 1931), Sectional Transactions – H – Anthropology, (Paper presented Saturday, September 26, 1931), “The Psychological Origins of Law” by His Honour Judge Dowdall, Start Page 448, Quote Page 449, Published at the Office of the British Association, London. (Biodiversity Heritage Library at biodiversitylibrary.org) link
  2. 1932 January 26, The Times (UK), Points from Letters: Lord Sterndale on Common Law, [Letter from Judge Dowdall], Page 8, Column 6, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive Cengage)

Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout

Bertrand Russell? William James? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.?

Dear Quote Investigator: The eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell discussed visions and experiences in his major opus “A History of Western Philosophy” in 1945. Russell noted that subjective experiences were not always reliable: 1

William James describes a man who got the experience from laughing-gas; whenever he was under its influence, he knew the secret of the universe, but when he came to, he had forgotten it. At last, with immense effort, he wrote down the secret before the vision had faded. When completely recovered, he rushed to see what he had written. It was

“A smell of petroleum prevails throughout.”

What seems like sudden insight may be misleading, and must be tested soberly when the divine intoxication has passed.

Can you determine who experienced this eccentric revelation?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this passage can be traced back to an episode described by the prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who on June 29, 1870 delivered an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University. The New York Tribune reported on the speech two days after it occurred. Holmes discussed his experiments with ether and not nitrous oxide, and the curious insight he wrote down was about “turpentine” and not “petroleum”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.

Here is an extended excerpt from the 1870 lecture of Holmes which was published in 1879: 3

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

An individual using the handle “joculum” investigated this quotation and posted a valuable analysis here on LiveJournal in 2008. The address by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. was located by joculum before QI found it independently.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Secret of the Universe: A Strong Smell of Turpentine Prevails Throughout


  1. 1945, A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, Book One, Part II, Chapter XV: The Theory of Ideas, Page 123-124, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper in 1976 paperback reprint: A Touchstone Book: Simon and Schuster)
  2. 1870 July 01, New York Daily Tribune, [New York Herald-Tribune], Harvard: Meeting of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Page 5, Column 1, [Quote in Column 2], New York. (Genealogybank)
  3. 1879, Mechanism in Thought and Morals: An Address Delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, June 29, 1870, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Quote Page 46-47, Houghton, Osgood and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link