You Can’t Use Up Creativity. The More You Use, The More You Have

Maya Angelou? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

angelou03Dear Quote Investigator: Recently on Pinterest and Twitter I have seen the following quotation attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde:

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.

However, I thought these were the words of the acclaimed poet and memoirist Maya Angelou. Would you please resolve this conflict?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made this remark. It is not listed in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, an extensive collection compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a periodical in 1982 which was initiating a series of articles: 2

With this edition, Bell Telephone Magazine begins a series to profile those people whose attitudes and approaches to problems and challenges bear the mark of creativity — of courage, of talent, of innovative problem solving.

Maya Angelou was the first subject of the series, and her wide accomplishments as a writer, singer, dancer, actress, and teacher were discussed. Angelou commented on the inexhaustibility of creativity. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

“You can’t use up creativity,” she stresses. “The more you use, the more you have. It is our shame and our loss when we discourage people from being creative. We set apart those people who should not be set apart, people whom we assume don’t have a so-called artistic temperament, and that is stupid.

“Too often creativity is smothered rather than nurtured. There has to be a climate in which new ways of thinking, perceiving, questioning are encouraged. People also have to feel they are needed.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Can’t Use Up Creativity. The More You Use, The More You Have

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1982, Bell Telephone Magazine, Volume 61, Number 1, Creativity: It’s the Thought that Counts by Mary Ardito, Start Page 32, Quote Page 32, Published by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia, Athens library system)
  3. 1982, Bell Telephone Magazine, Volume 61, Number 1, Creativity: It’s the Thought that Counts by Mary Ardito, Start Page 32, Quote Page 33, Published by American Telephone and Telegraph Company, New York. (Verified with scans; thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia, Athens library system)

Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Already Taken

Oscar Wilde? Thomas Merton? Gilbert Perreira? Menards? America Ferrera? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have spent hours trying to determine whether Oscar Wilde wrote the following as commonly claimed:

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

I have not found a single good citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Oscar Wilde made this remark. It is not listed in “The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde”, an extensive collection compiled by quotation expert Ralph Keyes. 1

The earliest compelling thematic match known to QI appeared in the literary journal “The Hudson Review” in 1967. The influential spiritual thinker and mystic Thomas Merton published an essay titled “Day of a Stranger” which referred to “being yourself”: 2 3

In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.

Merton humorously stated that there was “very little chance of my being anybody else”, whereas the quotation under examination offered a different comical rationale: “everyone else is already taken”, but the crux was similar. Interestingly, Merton cautioned against self-consciously trying to be oneself.

The “Day of a Stranger” essay was reprinted multiple times in anthologies, journals, and collections. It may have facilitated the later construction of the quotation. Many thanks to adept researcher Bodhipaksa who told QI about this citation.

The first strong match located by QI was disseminated via the Usenet discussion system in December 1999. The words were appended to the end of a message posted to a newsgroup used primarily by residents of the Netherlands. The statement was enclosed in quotation marks signaling that it was already in circulation; also, no attribution was specified: 4

“Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”

Oscar Wilde did write several remarks about identity and appearance that were thematically related to this quotation, but the perspective was different.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Be Yourself. Everyone Else Is Already Taken

Notes:

  1. 1996, The Wit & Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Ralph Keyes, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1967 Summer, The Hudson Review, Volume 20, Number 2, Day of a Stranger by Thomas Merton, Start Page 211, Quote Page 211, Hudson Review, Inc., New York. (JSTOR) link
  3. 1991, Thomas Merton, Spiritual Master: The Essential Writings by Thomas Merton, Edited by Lawrence Cunningham, Day of a Stranger, Start Page 214, Quote Page 215, Paulist Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 1999 December 27, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroups: nl.markt.comp, dds.markt, nl.markt.overig, From: Erick T. Barkhuis @email.com, Subject: Re: comleet systeem, (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 31, 2016) link

History Does Not Repeat Itself. The Historians Repeat One Another

Max Beerbohm? Rupert Brooke? Philip Guedalla? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have heard two distinct, humorous, and antithetical sayings about the composition of history:

1) History repeats itself, and the historians repeat each other
2) History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat each other.

Statements of this type have been attributed to two famously witty individuals: Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in an article from 1868 in the Louisville Journal which was reprinted by newspapers in Atlanta, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. The phrasing was somewhat different, but the meaning matched the first expression listed above. The unnamed author was greatly impressed by the number and diversity of books that had already been published and wondered what type of book might appear in the future. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2

For taking into account the vast library of standard history, philosophy, fiction, poetry, which the genius of every language, ancient and modern, has furnished us, what else remains to be written? History will, of course, go on repeating itself, and the historians repeating each other.

In 1896 the illustrator and humorist Max Beerbohm wrote an essay titled “1880”. Some confusion is inevitable when a year is used as a title, so please note that the essay was written 16 years after 1880. Beerbohm employed the second expression listed above, but he did not claim coinage. The phrase “it has been said” indicated that the saying was already in circulation: 3

“History,” it has been said, “does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.” Now, there are still some periods with which no historian has grappled, and, strangely enough, the period that most greatly fascinates me is one of them.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading History Does Not Repeat Itself. The Historians Repeat One Another

Notes:

  1. 1868 June 30, The Constitution (Atlanta Constitution), A Live Newspaper (From the Louisville Journal), Quote Page 4, Column 1, Atlanta, Georgia. (Digital newspaper image shows degraded text. Hence the text was determined by simultaneously examining the article copies in the Atlanta Constitution and The Charleston Daily News) (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1868 June 30, The Charleston Daily News, A Live Newspaper (From the Louisville Journal), Quote Page 1, Column 2 and 3, Charleston, South Carolina. (Chronicling America)
  3. 1896, The Works of Max Beerbohm by Sir Max Beerbohm, Essay: 1800, (Date and location given for the composition at the end of the essay: London, 1894), Start Page 41, Quote Page 41, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) link

It Is the Best Play I Ever Slept Through

Oscar Wilde? Myron W. Reed? Will Rogers? Charlie Carter?

Dear Quote Investigator: Several weeks ago I saw an article with the following humorous title:

Why Arianna’s Talk Was the Best I’ve Ever Slept Through

The piece was actually a very positive assessment and summary of a talk delivered by Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post. 1 I was reminded of a one-line critique of a drama attributed to Oscar Wilde:

It is the best play I ever slept through.

Is this really one of Wilde’s witticisms?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest ascription to Wilde located by QI was published in 1911. The prominent actor and producer Seymour Hicks knew Wilde and socialized with him. The memoir he published reported several remarks credited to Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 2

Innumerable are the witticisms laid at his door. What could be more delightful than his remark to the gushing female admirer who, shaking him warmly by the hand, said: “Oh, but Mr. Wilde, you don’t remember me. My name is Smith.” “Oh yes,” said Wilde, “I remember your name perfectly—but I can’t think of your face.”

It was Wilde who, on being asked on returning from a fashionable premiere how he liked the piece, replied: “My dear friend, it is the best play I ever slept through.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is the Best Play I Ever Slept Through

Notes:

  1. Website: Huffington Post, Article title: Why Arianna’s Talk Was The Best I’ve Ever Slept Through, Article author: Dharmesh Shah, Author description: Co-founder and CTO of HubSpot, Date on website: August 27, 2013, Website section: The Third Metric. (Accessed huffingtonpost.com on October 15, 2013) link
  2. 1911, Seymour Hicks: Twenty-Four Years of an Actor’s Life by Seymour Hicks, Quote Page 132, John Lane Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

“I Wish I Had Said That” “You Will, Oscar, You Will”

Oscar Wilde? James McNeill Whistler? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I would like to learn more about a famous anecdote involving James McNeill Whistler, the painter who is known for his iconic portrait of his mother. Apparently, Whistler was able to trump Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest wits of the nineteenth century who was occasionally accused of appropriating the clever expressions spoken by others.

During a party Whistler made a humorous remark and the following statements were exchanged:

Oscar Wilde: I wish I had said that.
James McNeill Whistler: You will, Oscar, you will.

The accounts of this story I have read were written after the death of Oscar Wilde in 1900. Do earlier reports exist? Also, what was the quip that inspired Wilde’s compliment?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI was published in January 1886 in “The Sunday Herald” of Boston, Massachusetts. James McNeill Whistler was planning to visit the United States and conduct a lecture tour. William M. Chase, a friend of Whistler’s, was asked about the content of the forthcoming lectures and responded with caustic words about Oscar Wilde. The article included a version of the anecdote. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Was his talk on art similar in any respect to Mr. Wilde’s?”

“Well, as Oscar Wilde cribbed from Whistler almost everything he said in his lecture here about art that was worth saying, there may be some remote resemblance between the two lectures as to their matter, but that is certainly all.”

Whistler pricked this bubble of Wilde very neatly and epigrammatically at a Paris salon last season presided over by a well known and popular lady. Whistler had been notably witty during the evening and finally made a bon mot more than usually pointed and happy that convulsed his listeners.

Wilde, who was present, approved Mr. Whistler’s brightness, and wondered why he had not thought of the witticism himself. ‘You will,’ promptly replied Whistler, ‘you will.’ This lightning comment on Mr. Wilde’s wonderful ability to think of other people’s bright things and to repeat them as his own had, you may imagine, an immediate and most discomforting effect on Mr. Wilde.

Thanks to top researcher Stephen Goranson who located the above citation.

In May 1886 a version of the Wilde and Whistler anecdote was printed in a Wichita, Kansas newspaper. This instance was very similar to one given in “The Sunday Herald” above. The text was extracted from the longer article and slightly condensed. 2

The next earliest evidence known to QI was printed in the “Jamestown Weekly Alert” of the Dakota Territory in February 1887. The same story was reprinted in “Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly” in May 1887: 3 4

A Boston artist tells this story of Whistler and Oscar Wilde, who has the reputation of borrowing Whistler’s bright speeches. Having heard the artist say an unusually good thing Oscar exclaimed, deploringly: “I wish I could have said that.” “Oh,” replied Whistler derisively, “but you know you will say it.”

This short description did not specify the comment initially made by Whistler, and most early descriptions were similarly incomplete. The precise phrasing of Whistler’s rejoinder was variable. Intriguing versions of the tale were published years later; in 1913 Douglas Sladen published an instance and claimed that he was present when the words were spoken. Sladen stated that the witticism that inspired Wilde’s initial compliment was spoken by a “pretty woman”. In 1946 a biographer named Hesketh Pearson presented another interesting example of the anecdote. The details of these cites are given further below.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading “I Wish I Had Said That” “You Will, Oscar, You Will”

Notes:

  1. 1886 January 24, The Sunday Herald (Boston Herald), J. M’Neill Whistler: The London Artist Coming to America to Lecture, Quote Page 14, Column 7, Boston, Massachusetts. (The spelling “epigramatically” in the original text was replaced by “epigrammatically”) (America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex, NewsBank)
  2. 1886 May 12, Wichita Daily Eagle, Wit and Humor: Mr. Whistler and Oscar Wilde, (Acknowledgement to The Argonaut), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Wichita, Kansas. (Chronicling America)
  3. 1887 February 10, Jamestown Weekly Alert, Whistler and Wilde, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Jamestown, Dakota Territory (later North Dakota) (Chronicling America)
  4. May 1887, Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, Volume 23, Entertaining Column, Quote Page 639, Column 2, Frank Leslie’s Publishing House, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Every Time I Smell It, I Shall Be Reminded of You

Oscar Wilde? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw an article on the web about brilliant repartee that listed the “Top 10 Best Comebacks”. One of the response lines was from the famous wit Oscar Wilde who addressed an audience from the stage after the performance of a play he had written. The acclamation for his work was great, but it was not universal. One unhappy and agitated person threw a bouquet with a rotten cabbage at the playwright. Wilde reportedly picked up the bouquet and without hesitation delivered the following riposte:

Thank you my friend. Every time I smell it, I shall be reminded of you.

I have been unable to find solid support for this entertaining story. Could you explore this anecdote?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that this tale is inaccurate; however, it was created by modifying and embellishing an incident that did occur on the opening night of Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. One version of the fictionalized story was depicted in the 1960 film “The Trials of Oscar Wilde”. This movie popularized the tale of a caustic encounter, and the screenwriters may have even concocted the clever riposte.

The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an undated letter sent by Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas who was the son of Lord Queensberry. The person attempting to insult and humiliate Wilde was Lord Queensberry, and in Wilde’s letter he was referred to as “the Scarlet Marquis”: 1

Yes! the Scarlet Marquis made a plot to address the audience on the first night of my play !! Algy Burke revealed it and he was not allowed to enter. He left a grotesque bouquet of vegetables for me! This of course makes his conduct idiotic—robs it of dignity.

In this version of the tale the bouquet was not given directly to Wilde, and he did not speak to Lord Queensberry.

Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the next published evidence known to QI appeared in the 1914 book “Oscar Wilde and Myself” by Lord Alfred Douglas: 2

Failing to make disruption between myself and Wilde, Lord Queensberry adopted a different line of tactics; and, I believe, with the sincere view of saving me from what he knew was an undesirable entanglement, he went ahead to disgrace Wilde publicly. At a theatre where one of Wilde’s plays was running he caused a bouquet of carrots to be handed up to Wilde over the footlights, and he left his card on him at his club with certain odious remarks written on the back of it.

In this version the bouquet was composed of carrots, and it was not thrown. No jocular retort from Wilde was reported by Douglas.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Every Time I Smell It, I Shall Be Reminded of You

Notes:

  1. 1920, The Oscar Wilde Collection of John B. Stetson, Jr., (To be sold April 23), Twenty-Five Letters to Lord Alfred Douglas from Oscar Wilde, (First offered at auction as one lot), Letter number 304, No date, (Excerpt is from the description of letter), Quote Page 56, The Anderson Galleries, [Mitchell Kennerley, President], New York. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1914, Oscar Wilde and Myself by Lord Alfred Douglas, Quote Page 76 and 81, Duffield & Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

Quotation Is a Serviceable Substitute for Wit

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.

Continue reading Quotation Is a Serviceable Substitute for Wit

Notes:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

There Are Three Rules for the Writing of a Novel

Somerset Maugham? Oscar Wilde? Mark Twain? Bret Harte? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: With the rapid growth of ebooks it seems that everyone is writing a book. Here is the funniest advice I have heard on this topic:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Several prominent authors have offered writing advice in the form of three rules. Could you explore the background of these sayings?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI of this comical piece of non-advice was published in a 1977 volume providing guidance to neophyte authors titled “Maybe You Should Write a Book” by Ralph Daigh. This volume was not designed to teach the reader how to write, and Daigh illustrated that point with the following anecdote: 1

Somerset Maugham is credited with summing it all up when in addressing a friend’s class on English literature he was asked by a student how to write a novel.

Maugham’s answer was:
“There are three rules for the writing of a novel.
“Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”

Popular author, Maugham, died in 1965, so the documentation for this attribution is not ideal. Perhaps future discoveries will provide further substantiation.

Further below, this article will discuss writing advice that has been attributed to the prominent authors Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Oscar Wilde. In each case the guidance utilized a three-fold structure. The article will also present several variants of the quotation credited to Maugham in domains such as: politics, moviemaking, and aviation. Immediately below, an antecedent of the jest in the realm of card games is discussed.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Three Rules for the Writing of a Novel

Notes:

  1. 1977, Maybe You Should Write a Book by Ralph Daigh, Quote Page 7, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)

It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics

George Bernard Shaw? Bertrand Russell? Oscar Wilde? John H. Gibbons? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following quotation is used by speakers who are planning to project a series of slides that are filled with statistics. The words are credited to the famous dramatist and intellectual George Bernard Shaw. Here are two versions:

The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.

It is the mark of a truly intelligent person to be moved by statistics.

The second version was printed in the Congressional Record in 2008. I have been unable to identify the original source of this remark, and I think knowing the context is essential. Neither expression sounds like something that Bernard Shaw would say. But perhaps it was employed by a character in one of his plays, and the words were satirical. Could you examine this quote?

Quote Investigator: QI believes that the origin of this saying can be traced back to a book authored by another prominent intellectual. In 1926 Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and essayist, published “Education and the Good Life” which included a chapter titled “The Aims of Education”.

Russell listed four characteristics forming the basis of an ideal character: vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence. Education, he believed, should develop and enhance these qualities. His discussion of sensitiveness included a phrase mentioning statistics. Boldface is used to highlight key phrases in the following: 1 2

The next stage in the development of a desirable form of sensitiveness is sympathy. There is a purely physical sympathy: a very young child will cry because a brother or sister is crying. This, I suppose, affords the basis for the further developments.

The two enlargements that are needed are: first, to feel sympathy even when the sufferer is not an object of special affection; secondly, to feel it when the suffering is merely known to be occurring, not sensibly present. The second of these enlargements depends mainly upon intelligence. It may only go so far as sympathy with suffering which is portrayed vividly and touchingly, as in a good novel; it may, on the other hand, go so far as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics. This capacity for abstract sympathy is as rare as it is important.

The phrase about statistics was memorable, and in May 1926 the reviewer of Russell’s book in the New York Times selected the words and reprinted them: 3

Sensitiveness is the capacity for emotional response. Nor is there anything mawkish about it: “The emotional reaction must be in some sense appropriate; mere intensity is not what is needed.” Sympathy, yes, but a discriminating sympathy. It should not only be refined, but extended by the intellect—even so far “as to enable a man to be moved emotionally by statistics.”

In June 1926 Glenn Frank published an editorial calling for action against the high rate of illiteracy in the United States. Frank was the President of the University of Wisconsin and the former editor of Century Magazine. His piece mentioned Russell’s remark about statistics: 4

As Bertrand Russell has suggested, the test of the quality of our sympathy comes when we are called upon to aid suffering or need when the needy one is neither an object of special affection nor sensibly present.
Are we great enough to be “moved emotionally by statistics?”
I do not know a statistical figure that is freighted with more human drama than this: 5,000,000 illiterate Americans.

The citations below trace the evolution of the quotation over the decades. For many years, different iterations of the saying were credited to Bertrand Russell, but curiously the expression was reassigned to George Bernard Shaw by 1981. Both men were noteworthy intellectuals residing in England, and they had overlapping life spans. QI believes that the similarity of names “Bernard” and “Bertrand” facilitated the mistaken transition of the attribution to Shaw.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Is the Mark of a Truly Intelligent Person To Be Moved By Statistics

Notes:

  1. 1926, Education and the Good Life by Bertrand Russell, The Aims of Education, Start Page 47, Quote Page 71, Liveright Publishing Group, New York. (Reprint created after 1954 renewal of copyright) (Verified on paper)
  2. 1961, The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell: 1903-1959, Edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn, The Aims of Education, Start Page 413, Quote Page 423, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1926 May 30, New York Times, Bertrand Russell Depicts the Intelligent Radical: He Offers New Lamps for Old in a Scheme for Educating the Post-War Child by Evans Clark (Review of “Education and the Good Life” by Bertrand Russell), Page BR7, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1926 June 3, Washington Post, Let’s Read and Write by 1930 by Glenn Frank, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children

Amish Saying? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Native American Proverb? Wendell Berry? Oscar Wilde? Chief Seattle? Moses Henry Cass? Dennis J. Hall? Helen Caldicott? Lester Brown? David R. Brower? Taghi Farvar? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In my opinion the most thoughtful and poignant quotation about the environment is the following:

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children

No one seems to know the origin of this saying. Perhaps it was constructed in recent decades, or perhaps it encapsulates the wisdom of previous centuries. Could you attempt to trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: A precursor statement was attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde in the 1936 book “Oscar Wilde Discovers America” by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith. The remark appeared in a section of the book discussing Wilde’s visit to Canada in 1882. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“The things of nature do not really belong to us,” he said; “we should leave them to our children as we have received them.”

A separate QI article about the quotation above is available here.

The earliest close match appeared in the 1971 book “The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge” by influential environmental activist Wendell Berry who emphasized the desirability of preserving natural areas and adapting a long-range perspective about the environment: 2

We can learn about it from exceptional people of our own culture, and from other cultures less destructive than ours. I am speaking of the life of a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children; who has undertaken to cherish it and do it no damage, not because he is duty-bound, but because he loves the world and loves his children…

The wording in the passage above did not exactly match the modern instance of the saying, but QI conjectures that later expressions evolved from Berry’s remark.

In May 1971 Berry published an essay in “Audubon” magazine titled “The One-Inch Journey” which was based on chapter 2 of the book mentioned above. The excerpt above was reprinted in the essay, and thus it achieved wider dissemination. This appearance also linked the saying to the Audubon Society. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Do Not Inherit the Earth from Our Ancestors; We Borrow It from Our Children

Notes:

  1. 1936, Oscar Wilde Discovers America [1882] by Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith, Book 4: Eastward, Southward, Northward, Chapter 2: Adds a New Horror To Death, Quote Page 350, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1971, The Unforeseen Wilderness: An Essay on Kentucky’s Red River Gorge by Wendell Berry, Photographs by Gene Meatyard, Chapter 2: The One-Inch Journey, Start Page 11, Quote Page 26, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1971 May, Audubon, The One-Inch Journey by Wendell Berry, Start Page 4, Quote Page 9, Column 1, National Audubon Society, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)