Paradox Is Truth Standing On Its Head To Attract Attention

Oscar Wilde? G. K. Chesterson? Richard G. Moulton? Coulson Kernahan? William Thomas Stead? Richard Le Gallienne? C. Ranger Gull? Leonard Cresswell Ingleby? Guy Thorne? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The contemplation of a seemingly self-contradictory statement can help to illuminate a larger truth. This notion may be expressed with figurative language:

Paradox is merely truth standing on its head to attract attention.

The famous Irish wit Oscar Wilde and the English literary figure G. K. Chesterton have received credit for this remark. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match known to QI appeared in April 1898 within the London periodical “The Review of Reviews” edited by William Thomas Stead. A piece titled “The Jubilee of the Awakening of 1848” that was probably written by the editor began with the following discussion. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

“Success is a bad word!” said Victor Hugo once in his magnificently paradoxical fashion. “Success is a bad word. Its false resemblance to merit deceives mankind.” Richard Le Gallienne, who has recently been airing his ambrosial locks in the heated air of American lecture-rooms, once told his audience that “a paradox was a truth standing on its head in order to attract attention.” Victor Hugo’s paradox is a truth that hardly needs to be stood on its head to command attention.

QI believes that English author Richard Le Gallienne is the leading candidate for crafter of this expression. Le Gallienne was a close friend of Oscar Wilde. Further below in this article QI presents a 1923 citation in which Le Gallienne took credit for this saying, and he applied it to Oscar Wilde.

The attribution of this saying to Wilde may have occurred due to the following known misquotation mechanism: A well-known name appears near a vivid statement, and a careless reader incorrectly reassigns the statement to the prominent person.

G. K. Chesterton employed an instance of this saying in a 1935 short story. Chesterton’s story narrator disclaimed credit for the remark. Details are given further below.

The attribution to Chesterton may have occurred due to the following known misquotation mechanism: A famous person uses a quotation which is already in circulation. A cavalier reader reassigns the quotation to the famous person.

Here are additional selected citations and comments.

Continue reading Paradox Is Truth Standing On Its Head To Attract Attention


  1. 1898 April, The Review of Reviews, Volume 17, Edited by W. T. Stead (William Thomas Stead), Section: The Topic of the Month, Article: The Jubilee of the Awakening of 1848, Start Page 339, Quote Page 339, Column 1, Published at the Office of the Review of Reviews, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link

There Are Really No Dull Subjects, Only Dull Writers

H. L. Mencken? Raymond Chandler? Woodrow Wilson? Richard Le Gallienne? George Horace Lorimer?

dulcimerDear Quote Investigator: Successful scribblers believe that all writing should be engaging. A popular adage places the onus squarely on the shoulders of the author:

There are no dull subjects, just dull writers.

This expression has been attributed to the curmudgeon essayist H. L. Mencken, the detective novelist Raymond Chandler, and others. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance located by QI appeared in “The New York Times” in April 1921. The English poet and author Richard Le Gallienne employed the saying within a book review. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The first duty of a book, however serious its theme, is to be entertaining. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is entertaining—otherwise it would long since have been forgotten. There are really no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.

Currently, Le Gallienne is the leading candidate for creator of this saying. The main rival candidate was George Horace Lorimer who was the editor of “The Saturday Evening Post”, a very popular long-lived periodical. Lorimer used an instance in December 1922, and he often receives credit. He did help popularize the expression, but evidence indicates Le Gallienne’s use occurred earlier.

Raymond Chandler did use the expression in 1944, but it was already in circulation. Also, the statement was attributed to H. L. Mencken by 1970, but he died in 1956. Thus, this linkage was probably spurious.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading There Are Really No Dull Subjects, Only Dull Writers


  1. 1921 April 24, New York Times, Section: Book Review & Magazine, A Transcendental Laborite: A Review by Richard Le Gallienne, (Book Review of “The Passion of Labour” by Robert Lynd, Scribner’s Sons), Start Page BRM4, Quote Page BRM4, New York. (ProQuest)

Missionaries and Cannibals

Oscar Wilde? Richard Le Gallienne? Reverend Sydney Smith? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: One of the more outrageous remarks attributed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde concerned missionaries, cannibals, and the supply of food. Did Wilde really make this facetious remark?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and the earliest evidence located by QI appeared in 1907 when a posthumous multi-volume collection of his works was published. A friend of Wilde’s named Richard Le Gallienne wrote the introduction to one of the volumes, and he described a conversation he heard while dining with Wilde. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To startle and shock the bourgeoisie was an amusement of which he never tired. He delighted to watch for the “Do you really mean it, Mr. Wilde?” look on the face of some guileless or stupid listener. I remember being at a dinner-party on one occasion when he gravely propounded the theory that missionaries were the divinely provided food for those desolate cannibal islands where other food was scarce. “O are you really serious, Mr. Wilde?” said an innocent young thing at his side. Anything more profoundly serious than Wilde’s expression in answer cannot be conceived.

Although this testimony was given after Wilde’s death QI believes the ascription was plausible. Le Gallienne later wrote that the remark was made by Wilde in the presence of his wife, and she responded with incredulity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Missionaries and Cannibals


  1. 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde: Uniform Edition, Poems: Including Ravenna, the Ballad of Reading Gaol, the Sphinx, Etc, Section: Introduction by Richard Le Gallienne, Quote Page 14 and 15, Published by A. R. Keller & Co., London. (Google Books Full View) link