Oscar Wilde? Somerset Maugham? George Bernard Shaw? Voltaire? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: I thought you might enjoy the following remark attributed to Oscar Wilde:
Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit.
I saw this on the goodreads website, but the source of the saying was not listed. Further searching led to the following similar comment attributed to Somerset Maugham:
The ability to quote is a serviceable substitute for wit.
This situation is confusing. Is either of these quotations genuine?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde said or wrote either of these statements.
A version of the expression was included in the story “The Creative Impulse” by W. Somerset Maugham. This popular tale was reprinted several times and was even made into a television episode. Interestingly, the quote was not included in the first publication of the short story in Harper’s Bazaar magazine in 1926. 1
The story was revised, expanded, and published again in a 1931 collection called “Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular”. The expression was used when a character named Mrs. Albert Forrester was described. Boldface has been added: 2
She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit, and having for thirty years known more or less intimately a great many distinguished people, she had a great many interesting anecdotes to tell, which she placed with tact and which she did not repeat more than was pardonable.
Note that the phrasing of the sentence above was awkward if one desired a concise and witty stand-alone quotation. Over time multiple versions of the saying were advanced.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1926 August, Harper’s Bazar (Harper’s Bazaar), The Creative Impulse by W. Somerset Maugham, Start Page 41, Hearst Corp., New York. (In 1926 the magazine used the name “Harper’s Bazar”. Later it switched to the name “Harper’s Bazaar”) (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1977 (Reprint of 1931 Doubleday, Doran & Company, Garden City, New York edition), Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular by W. Somerset Maugham, (This volume is part of a series: The Works of W. Somerset Maugham), Short story: The Creative Impulse, Start Page 249, Quote Page 255, Arno Press: A New York Times Company, New York. (Quote verified in 1977 reprint) ↩