The Optimist Who Fell from a Tall Building Said While Passing Each Story “All’s Well So Far”

Otto von Bismarck? Heinrich von Poschinger? Léon Gambetta? General Booth-Tucker? W. B. Bonnifield? Herbert S. Bigelow? S. E. Kiser? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to a comical legend, a positive thinker accidentally fell from the roof of a skyscraper. While passing each story on the way down, this optimistic person happily remarked, “Everything is fine so far.” Would you please trace this joke?

Quote Investigator: QI hopes that a rescue net was deployed in time to justify the equanimity.

This joke is difficult to trace because the phrasing is highly variable. Also, it has been told in multiple languages, e.g., French, German, and English. The earliest published instance located by QI occurred in the Paris newspaper “Le Figaro” in 1887. The statesman Léon Gambetta was speaking to the novelist Alphonse Daudet. Here is the passage in French followed by a rendering in English. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Rappelle-toi ce mot du maçon qui tombe du cinquième étage et à qui un locataire du troisième demande : comment cela va-t-il ? – Pas mal jusqu’à présent, répond le maçon, mais ça se verra au bout !

Remember the words of the mason who falls from the fifth floor and to whom a tenant on the third asks: how is it? – Not bad so far, says the mason, but we will see at the end!

The 1900 book “Conversations with Prince Bismarck” contained anecdotes collected by Heinrich von Poschinger about Otto von Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor” of Germany: 2

Count Beust, Aide-de-camp to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, congratulated Bismarck at Versailles, on January 15, 1871, on the excellent relations existing between the German Chancellor and his namesake. Count Beust, the Austrian Minister. “Yes,” said Bismarck, “that is all very well; but it always reminds me of the story of the slater who, in falling from a tower, remarked as he passed each story, ‘All’s well so far.'”

Thus, the tale entered English by 1900 and was probably circulating in German decades before this date. Bismarck disclaimed credit for the joke by using the phrase “reminds me of the story”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. Date: 14 Février 1887 (1887 February 14), Newspaper: Le Figaro, Article: Gambetta-Roumestan, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Newspaper Location: Paris, France. (Gallica)
  2. 1900, Conversations with Prince Bismarck, Collected by Heinrich von Poschinger, English Edition Edited by Sidney Whitman, Chapter 7: In Lighter Vein, Quote Page 269, Harper & Brothers, New York, (HathiTrust Full View) link

Never Believe Anything Until It Is Officially Denied

Otto von Bismarck? Cynical Broker? Hy Sheridan? Claud Cockburn? Edward Cheyfitz? Anonymous?

bismarck11Dear Quote Investigator: Cynicism regarding official edicts is not a new phenomenon. Reportedly, the powerful German leader Otto von Bismarck once said:

Never believe anything in politics until it has been officially denied.

Yet, these words have also been attributed to more recent political figures such as the journalist Claud Cockburn and the Washington attorney Edward Cheyfitz. Would you please help determine the proper ascription?

Quote Investigator: This sharp remark which borders on paradox can be expressed in many ways; hence, it has been difficult to trace. The earliest evidence located by QI was published in “The Tri-Weekly Gleaner” of Kingston, Jamaica in 1897. A writer suggested that pronouncements from the government in the Transvaal region of Africa were unreliable. The adage about official denials was credited to a “cautious observer”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The fact that the Government have once more pledged themselves to execute reforms is taken as quite sufficient reason for not believing in them. A cautious observer declared: “I never accept anything about the Government until it has been officially denied; then I know it is true.”

In 1900 “The Times” newspaper of London printed a letter from a correspondent with the moniker “Behind the Scenes” who presented the witticism as an axiom and provided no attribution. The same letter was reprinted in “The St. James Gazette” of London: 2 3

It is an axiom of practical politics never to believe anything until it has been officially denied.

Otto von Bismarck died in 1898, and an instance of the saying was attributed to him by 1911. Claud Cockburn included a version in his 1956 memoir, but he was relaying an unattributed remark. In 1958 a note in the “Reader’s Digest” cited “Look” magazine to credit Edward Cheyfitz. These citations were rather late, and the current evidence favors an anonymous origin.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Never Believe Anything Until It Is Officially Denied

Notes:

  1. 1897 August 31, The Tri-Weekly Gleaner (Kingston Gleaner), The Land of Gold: Affairs in the Transvaal, Quote Page 7, Column 7, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1900 December 10, The Times, Mr. Kruger and France, (Letter dated December 9 to the editor from “Behind the Scenes”), Quote Page 10, Column 6, London, England. (The Times UK Database from Gale)
  3. 1900 December 10, The St. James Gazette, France and Mr. Kruger, Quote Page 7, Column 2, London, England. (NewspaperArchive)

When the End of the World Comes, I Want To Be in Cincinnati. It Is Always Ten Years Behind the Times

Mark Twain? Heinrich Heine? Otto von Bismarck? George Bernard Shaw? James Boswell? Will Rogers?

Dear Quote Investigator: As a one-time resident of Cincinnati I knew that Mark Twain once worked in the city, and I always enjoyed the comment he reportedly made about it:

When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 20 years behind the times.

But this quip is also attributed to the popular humorist Will Rogers. Can you determine who created this joke?

Quote Investigator: The early evidence located by QI points to a different part of the globe. In 1886 The Atlantic Monthly printed an article about King Ludwig II of Bavaria that contained a version of the jape; however, the length of the time lag and the location were distinct [BVAM]:

It is a common saying in Germany that Bavaria will be the best place to emigrate to at the approaching end of the world, since that event, like everything else, will be sure to come off there fifty years later than in any other country. The Bavarians will be behind the times even as to the point when time shall be no more, and will enter as laggards upon the eternal life.

This citation suggests that a version of this gag expressed in the German language probably predates 1886.  Over a period of many decades multiple variants appeared. The remark was modified to target other locales, e.g., Dresden, Netherlands, Mecklenburg, Cincinnati and Ireland. The humor was credited to a variety of people including: Heinrich Heine, Otto von Bismarck, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw.

The earliest Cincinnati-based citation found by QI was dated 1978, and the words were attributed to Mark Twain. Details are given further below. Note that Twain died in 1910, so this is a very late piece of evidence.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When the End of the World Comes, I Want To Be in Cincinnati. It Is Always Ten Years Behind the Times

Laws are Like Sausages. Better Not to See Them Being Made

Otto von Bismarck? John Godfrey Saxe? Claudius O. Johnson?

Dear Quote Investigator: The quotation of Otto von Bismarck about laws and sausages has been a favorite of mine for years. I found several versions using Google, and here are two:

Laws are like sausages. It’s better not to see them being made.

To retain respect for sausages and laws, one must not watch them in the making.

I looked for some clear references to texts written by Otto von Bismarck and translated into English to justify the attributions. I could not find anything. Could you investigate this quotation to find out who really said it originally?

Quote Investigator: Quotation experts Fred Shapiro and Ralph Keyes have identified the most likely originator of the aphorism. Before presenting that evidence QI will give the details of a citation in an American history textbook from the 1930s. This post ends with information about a bizarre duel involving sausages that was reported in the 1860s.

Continue reading Laws are Like Sausages. Better Not to See Them Being Made