Tag Archives: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

Thank You for the Gift Book. I Shall Lose No Time In Reading It

Benjamin Disraeli? William Gladstone? William Makepeace Thackeray? Moses Hadas? A celebrated botanist? A Scotchman? Thomas Bailey Aldrich? Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.? Samuel Wilberforce? Max O’Rell?

disraeliholmes04Dear Quote Investigator: Aspiring authors sent numerous manuscripts to the statesman and novelist Benjamin Disraeli. Reportedly, he would send back a wittily ambiguous response:

Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it.

This statement might mean that Disraeli would immediately start to read the volume, or it might mean that he would never read the book. A similar response has been credited to William Makepeace Thackeray. Also, I have seen the following variant phrasing:

Your book has arrived, and I shall waste no time reading it.

Could you determine who is responsible for this type of quip?

Quote Investigator: This amusing remark has been attributed to a large and varied collection of individuals over the past 140 years including: French comedian Max O’Rell, author William Makepeace Thackeray, Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, statesman Benjamin Disraeli, and his opposition William Gladstone.

First, QI notes that the phrase can be used in a straight-forward manner without a comical overlay. For example, a letter dated September 11, 1784 from the poet William Cowper used the phrase with the assumption that the text would indeed be read quickly: 1

I know that you will lose no time in reading it, but I must beg you likewise to lose none in conveying it to Johnson, that if he chuses to print it, it may go to the press immediately…

The earliest instance located by QI of an individual wielding the phrase with a humorous intent appeared in an 1871 issue of the British Quarterly Review. The quipster was identified as a botanist, but no name was given: 2

A celebrated botanist used to return thanks somewhat in the following form:—’I have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it.’ The unfortunate author might put his own construction on this rather ambiguous language.

In 1883 a travel book titled “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” printed the joke and referred to it as “the old equivoque”. The word “equivoque” meant a pun or a phrase with a double meaning: 3

…they may adopt the old equivoque—”We have received your book, and shall lose no time in reading it!”

Also, in 1883 the witticism was printed in the science periodical Nature. The context was an article critical of testimonial letters which clearly indicated that the saying was being used sarcastically. The phrase was called a “well-known formula”: 4

Many testimonials are framed after that well-known formula for acknowledging the receipt of pamphlets which runs as follows:—”Dear Sir,—I beg to thank you for the valuable pamphlet which you have so kindly sent me, and which I will lose no time in reading.” And I heard the other day a testimonial praised because it showed the electors whom not to elect.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1805, The Port – Folio (1801-1827), Volume 5, Issue 45, Original Letters from Cowper to the Rev. William Unwin, Page 354, (Letter to Rev. William Unwin dated September 11, 1784), Published by H. Maxwell, Philadelphia. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  2. 1871 October 1, The British Quarterly Review, Article V, Letters and Letter Writing, Start Page 392, Quote Page 411, Hodder and Stoughton, London. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1883, “There and Back; or, Three Weeks in America” by J. Fox Turner [John Fox Turner], Section: Preface, Quote Page vii, Simpkin, Marshall, & Co., London. (Google Books full view; Thanks to Victor Steinbok for locating this citation) link
  4. 1883 August 9, Nature (Weekly), A Result of our Testimonial System, Start Page 341, Quote Page 342, Column 1, Macmillan and Co., London. (Google Books full view; HathiTrust) link

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.

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Notes:

  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