Roald Dahl? Willy Wonka? Gene Wilder? Horace? Lord Byron? Horace Walpole? Hudibras? Samuel Butler? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was an extraordinary confection. The candy-maker Wonka played by Gene Wilder used numerous literary quotations while leading a tour of his factory. One scene took place in a room with geese that produced enormous golden eggs of chocolate. Each egg was analyzed by an “eggdicator” to determine whether it was a good egg or a bad egg. One parent on the tour considered the situation ridiculous, and Wonka replied to his skepticism with a quotation: 1
Grandpa Joe: It’s an educated eggdicator.
Henry Salt: It’s a lot of nonsense.
Willy Wonka: A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.
Would you please trace this saying?
Quote Investigator: The popular English author Roald Dahl published the children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in 1964. Dahl also wrote the screenplay for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” based on his book. The line spoken by Wonka in the movie is not in the 1964 book, but Dahl included it in the 1972 sequel called “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”.
The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the newspaper “The New-York Mirror” in 1823. The reviewer of a new melodrama called “Undine, or the Spirit of the Waters” did not consider it a serious work, but he enjoyed it and recommended it. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
As a drama, it is not of the family of legitimates; but what then, who has not experienced the truth of that good old couplet, that
“A little nonsense, now and then, Is relished by the wisest men!”
The reviewer disclaimed credit for the expression by labelling it an “old couplet”; hence, earlier citations probably exist. Nevertheless, quotation expert Nigel Rees deserves kudos for placing this valuable instance in his compilation “The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations”. 3
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
1971, Movie: Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Screenplay by Roald Dahl, Based on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by Roald Dahl, Released by Paramount Pictures, Quote Location: 1 hour 20 minutes of 1 hour 39 minutes. (Amazon Video) ↩
1823 December 6, The New-York Mirror, and Ladies’ Literary Gazette, The Drama: Undine, Quote Page 151, Column 1, Published by George P. Morris, New York. (Google Books Full View) link↩
2011, The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations by Nigel Rees, (Updated, expanded, and revised version of “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”, 2003), Publication Date: September 6, 2011, Topic: Nonsense, Kindle Location: 14964, Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC. (Kindle Ebook) ↩
Carl Sagan? Arthur Hays Sulzberger? Marianne Moore? E. E Cummings? William Allan Neilson? Walter Kotschnig? Samuel Butler? G. K. Chesterton? Max Radin? James Oberg? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a desirable balance between exploring novel ideas with an open mind and maintaining a healthy skepticism. The following humorous cautionary statement exemplifies the tension:
Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.
I have heard this expression attributed to New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Smith College President William Allan Neilson, and astronomer Carl Sagan. Do you know who should be credited?
Quote Investigator: The earliest published close match located by QI appeared in a newspaper report in January 1940 about a speech by Walter Kotschnig given at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kotschnig worked with refugee organizations early in his career and subsequently joined the United States State Department. Boldface has been added: 12
Prof. Walter Kotschnig told Holyoke College students to keep their minds open—“but not so open that your brains fall out.”
He condemned the purpose of students who go to college merely to learn skill and urged his listeners to find the “real aim of education, to acquire a philosophy of life, intellectual honesty, and a constant search for truth.”
QI has also located an article published in February 1940 describing a speech delivered by Kotschnig in November 1939. This citation had the second earliest publication date for a close match; however, the date of the speech was the earliest. Details are given further below.
The same metaphor was used in 1937; however, the phrasing was condemnatory instead of cautionary. Details for this citation are given further below. The comical notion that an open mind might lead to a mind with “nothing in it at all” was suggested much earlier in 1886.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
Dear Quote Investigator: I’ve always wanted to be an artist. But digitization and the internet have upended so many domains, e.g., music, photography, graphic art, and books. Now there are artists raising money on Kickstarter. Apparently, you cannot simply create a work of art; you must personally market and promote it. I’m trying to recall a statement by the controversial nineteenth century novelist Samuel Butler. Here is my vague memory:
Any fool can create a piece of art. Only a wise person can sell it.
The cogency of this adage has grown over the years. Can you tell me what Butler actually said?
Quote Investigator: Butler did make a remark of this type about painting. The statement was published posthumously in a book titled “Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler”. The introduction explained that Butler filled a sequence of notebooks over a long period of time with miscellaneous jottings: 1
Early in life Samuel Butler acquired the habit of carrying a Note-Book and of writing down in it anything he wanted to remember; it might be something he heard someone say, more often it was something he said himself. Or perhaps it was the germ of a passage in whatever book he happened to be writing at the moment.
Butler consolidated material on small notebooks by copying it to larger notebooks, and he sometimes revised his writings. The adage about painting was the following: 2
Any fool can paint a picture but it takes a wise man to be able to sell it.
The above text was written in a notebook sometime between 1883 and 1887, and it may have been revised sometime between 1897 and 1898. Butler died in 1902, and the notebook extracts containing the quotation were published in 1934.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
1934, Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Samuel Butler, Chosen and edited by A. T. Bartholomew,”Art Note”, Chapter: Introduction, Quote Page 5, Published by Jonathan Cape, London. (Questia) ↩
1934, Further Extracts from the Note-Books of Samuel Butler by Samuel Butler, Chosen and edited by A. T. Bartholomew,”Art Note”, Quote Page 175, Published by Jonathan Cape, London. (Questia) ↩