The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken

Warren Buffett? Samuel Johnson? Maria Edgeworth? Bertrand Russell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I recall seeing a lecture by the famed investor Warren Buffett during which he cautioned his audience to avoid falling into self-destructive behavior patterns. He used this eloquent analysis:

The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.

While searching for a source I found some other versions of the statement. Here are two that are credited to the brilliant dictionary-maker Samuel Johnson:

The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken

The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

I was unable to find a precise citation to Dr. Johnson’s works. Could you examine this adage?

Quote Investigator: Investor Warren Buffett did use this phrase more than once during speeches, but he did not claim credit for originating the saying. Detailed citations are given further below.

The expression has a long history, and the famous lexicographer and man of letters Samuel Johnson did write a prolix passage that was transformed and simplified in an evolutionary process that ultimately produced the concise modern aphorism used by Buffett.

In 1748 Johnson published an allegorical fable about the path to the Temple of Happiness titled “The Vision of Theodore”. The story warned readers using a symbolic figure named Habit who would bind the unwary in chains. A bound individual would be taken to a grim destination called the caverns of Despair. The following excerpt displayed a conceptual match to the modern saying. In addition, Johnson used the phrase “too strong to be broken” which was retained in some modern instances. Boldface has been added below: 1

It was the peculiar artifice of Habit not to suffer her power to be felt at first. Those whom she led, she had the address of appearing only to attend, but was continually doubling her chains upon her companions; which were so slender in themselves, and so silently fastened, that while the attention was engaged by other objects, they were not easily perceived. Each link grew tighter as it had been longer worn, and when, by continual additions, they became so heavy as to be felt, they were very frequently too strong to be broken.

In the early 1800s an influential Irish writer named Maria Edgeworth crafted a compact version of the sentiment expressed by Samuel Johnson. Her book “Moral Tales for Young People” (second edition 1806) included a story called “Forester”, and in one scene the title character picked up a pair of scissors and twirled them on his finger absentmindedly. The character believed that this habit was undesirable: 2

He was rather ashamed to perceive that he had not yet cured himself of such a silly habit. “I thought the lesson I got at the brewery,” said he, “would have cured me for ever of this foolish trick; but the diminutive chains of habit, as somebody says, are scarcely ever heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.

Maria Edgeworth placed a footnote asterisk after the phrase “chains of habit”, and in the footnote she referenced “Dr. Johnson’s Vision of Theodore.” Edgeworth’s concise summary statement was clearly derived from Johnson’s story, but her expression was distinctive and did not appear directly in the fable’s text. Her forthright acknowledgement of Johnson probably facilitated some later confusion.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Chains of Habit Are Too Light To Be Felt Until They Are Too Heavy To Be Broken

Notes:

  1. 1748 April, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 18, “The Vision of Theodore, The Hermit of Teneriffe, Found in His Cell” (by Samuel Johnson), Start Page 159, Quote Page 160, Printed by E. Cave, St John’s Gate, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1806, Moral Tales For Young People by Miss Edgeworth (Maria Edgeworth), Volume 1, Second Edition, Forester, Quote Page 86, Printed for J. Johnson, London. (Google Books full view) link

Your Manuscript Is Good and Original, But What is Original Is Not Good; What Is Good Is Not Original

Samuel Johnson? Martin Sherlock? Johann Heinrich Voss? Gotthold Ephraim Lessing? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? Daniel Webster? Samuel Wilberforce

Dear Quote Investigator: The great lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson is credited with a famously devastating remark about a book he was evaluating:

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

I have never found a source for this quotation in the writings of Johnson, and I have become skeptical about this attribution. Do you know if he wrote this?

Quote Investigator: No substantive evidence has emerged to support the ascription to Samuel Johnson. In this article QI will trace the evolution of this saying and closely related expressions which have been attributed to a variety of prominent individuals. The following four statements have distinct meanings, but they can be clustered together semantically and syntactically.

  • What is new is not good; and what is good is not new.
  • What is new is not true; and what is true is not new.
  • What is original is not good; what is good is not original.
  • What is new is not valuable; what is valuable is not new.

The earliest evidence known to QI of a member of this cluster appeared in 1781 and was written by Reverend Martin Sherlock who was reviewing a popular collection of didactic letters published in book form. Lord Chesterfield composed the letters and sent them to his son with the goal of teaching him to become a man of the world and a gentleman. Sherlock was highly critical: 1

His principles of politeness are unexceptionable; and ought to be adopted by all young men of fashion; but they are known to every child in France; and are almost all translated from French books. In general, throughout the work, what is new is not good; and what is good is not new.

This expression was similar to the one attributed to Samuel Johnson. The word “new” was used instead of “original”. Yet, this passage did not include the humorous prefatory phrase which would have labeled the work “both new and good” before deflating it.

In the 1790s a German version of the saying using “new” and “true” was published in a collection by the translator and poet Johann Heinrich Voss. This instance did include a prefatory phrase stating that the “book teaches many things new and true”: 2 3

Dein redseliges Buch lehrt mancherlei Neues und Wahres,
Wäre das Wahre nur neu, wäre das Neue nur wahr!

Here is an English translation:

Your garrulous book teaches many things new and true,
If only the true were new, if only the new were true!

In 1800 a reviewer in “The British Critic” lambasted a book using a version of the brickbat with “new” and “good”: 4

In this part there are some good and some new things; but the good are not new, and the new are not good. Much time is employed in considering the opinion of the poet du Belloy, at present forgotten and of little consequence, who professed to prefer the French to the ancient languages.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Your Manuscript Is Good and Original, But What is Original Is Not Good; What Is Good Is Not Original

Notes:

  1. 1781, Letters on Several Subjects by The Rev. Martin Sherlock [Chaplain to the Right Honourable The Earl of Bristol], Volume 2, Letter XIV, Start Page 123, Quote Page 128 and 129, Printed for J. Nichols, T. Cadell, P. Elmsly, H. Payne and N. Conant, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1796, Gedichte, Johann Heinrich Voss, Volume 2, Section: Epigramme [Epigrams], (Standalone short saying titled “XVI: An mehrere Bücher” [16: Of several Books]), Quote Page 281, Frankfurt und Leipzig. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 2006, Brewer’s Famous Quotations, Edited by Nigel Rees, Section Harold MacMillan, Quote Page 305 and 306, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London. (Verified on paper) (This reference gives the following citation for the J. H. Voss quotation: Vossischer Musenalmanach (1792; some references give a date of 1772 which appears to be inaccurate)
  4. 1800 June, The British Critic, Foreign Catalogue: France, Article 56: (Review of Book: Lycée, ou, Cours de littérature ancienne et moderne, Book Author: J. F. Laharpe [Jean-Francois de La Harp]), Start Page 695, Quote Page 696, Printed for F. and C. Rivington, London. (Google Books full view) link

You Are Astonished. I Am Surprised

Noah Webster? Samuel Johnson? Chauncey Depew? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a ribald anecdote about one of the world’s greatest dictionary makers that I would like you to explore. The tale claims that the lexicographer Noah Webster had a secret libertine inclination. One day his wife returned home and was shocked to discover him caressing and osculating the chambermaid.

The wife cried out, “Noah! I am surprised!” The stunned man’s reflexive thought patterns were immediately engaged, and he replied, “My dear, you must study our beautiful language more closely. It is I who am surprised. You are astonished.”

There is a rival version of this story featuring another famous dictionary creator Samuel Johnson as the philanderer. Johnson lived between 1709 and 1784; Webster lived between 1758 and 1843. I would like to know which man was the true Lothario.

Quote Investigator: Tracing an anecdote is a difficult task, but QI will make an attempt and present a snapshot of the research results. The earliest discovered instance was printed in a newspaper in 1896. The raconteur was Chauncey Depew, a famous after-dinner speaker: 1

At a recent dinner in New York a new story was sprung by Chauncey M. Depew. Speaking of the importance of humor, Mr. Depew declared that Noah Webster, though a lexicographer, was humorist. “His wife,” Chauncey went on to say, “caught him one day kissing the cook.

“‘Noah,’ she exclaimed, ‘I’m surprised!’

“‘Madam,’ he replied, ‘you have not studied carefully our glorious language. It is I who am surprised. You are astounded.'”

In 1903 “Everybody’s Magazine” published a curious version of the story in which Webster’s transgression was not carnal. Instead, his wife was unhappy with the informality of his attire. This bowdlerized version was fit for everybody as suggested by the magazine name: 2

A story is told of Noah Webster, the dictionary maker, who one day was found by his wife at dinner without coat or collar while entertaining two guests. His wife’s sudden and unexpected return and entrance to the room brought those present to their feet. “I am surprised,” said Mrs. Webster. And Mr. Webster rejoined, “My dear, I am surprised—you are astonished.”

The originator of this joke was not a linguist, and its construction was based on an artifice. The rationale of the humorous rejoinder hinged on a sharp delineation between the meanings of words such as: surprised, astounded, and astonished. Yet the definitions given in the 1830 edition of Noah Webster’s dictionary revealed overlapping denotations: 3

SURPRISE v. t. 1. To come or fall upon suddenly and unexpectedly; to take unawares. 2. To strike with wonder or astonishment. 3. To confuse; to throw the mind into disorder by something suddenly presented to the view or to the mind.

SURPRISED pp. Come upon or taken unawares; struck with something novel or unexpected.

ASTONISH v. t. To stun or strike dumb with sudden fear, terror, surprise, or wonder; to amaze; to confound with some sudden passion.

ASTONISHED pp. Amazed; confounded with fear, surprise, or admiration

ASTOUND, v. t. To astonish; to strike dumb with amazement.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Are Astonished. I Am Surprised

Notes:

  1. 1896 April 21, Daily Iowa Capital, A New One by Chauncey, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Des Moines, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1903 September, Everybody’s Magazine, With “Everybody’s” Publishers, A Surprising Letter, Quote Page 419, Column 2, Volume 9, The Ridgway-Thayer Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1830, An American Dictionary of the English Language: Exhibiting the Origin, Orthography, Pronunciation, and Definitions of Words by Noah Webster, (Abridged from the Quarto edition by the author), Entry SURPRISE: Page 813, Entry ASTONISH and ASTOUND: Page 58, Published by S. Converse, New York. (Google Books full view) link

You Don’t Have to Know Everything. You Just Have to Know Where to Find It

Albert Einstein? Samuel Johnson? Sophonisba Breckinridge? John Brunner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The depth and breadth of information available on the internet is wondrous. Here are three examples from a family of pertinent sayings I came across recently:

1) I don’t need to know everything; I just need to know where to find it, when I need it.
2) Never keep anything in your mind that you can look up.
3) Never memorize what you can look up in books.

These sayings express a fundamental insight into this age of vast knowledge bases and high-speed networks. The words were credited to Albert Einstein, but I cannot find any precise reference. There so much junk and misinformation about quotations. The prevalence of inaccurate data makes it harder to find correct information. Can you trace this general saying?

Quote Investigator: These quotations were not listed in the key reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1 Also, QI has not located any evidence of an exact match in the words written by the illustrious scientist.

Einstein did make a remark in 1921 that was conceptually related to the quotation. While visiting Boston he was asked whether he knew the value of the speed of sound, and he demurred. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

He was asked through his secretary, “What is the speed of sound?” He could not say off-hand, he replied. He did not carry such information in his mind but it was readily available in text books.

Einstein’s remark was about a single fact; hence, it differed from the statement under investigation. Nevertheless, it was possible to generalize and reformulate his comment to apply to the wider set of knowledge available in books. Indeed, another version of Einstein’s response that was published in 1947 was closer to the sayings being examined. (Details are given further below.) Hence, the modern expressions may have evolved from Einstein’s comment in 1921.

The idea presented in the quotation does have a long history before the computer age. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Don’t Have to Know Everything. You Just Have to Know Where to Find It

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1921 May 18, New York Times, Einstein Sees Boston; Fails on Edison Test: Asked to Tell Speed of Sound He Refers Questioner to Text Books (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 15, New York. (ProQuest)

You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him

Ann Landers? Abigail Van Buren? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Samuel Johnson? Malcolm Forbes? Paul Eldridge? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? James D. Miles? Dan Reeves?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am attempting to verify the following quotation because it will appear in a forthcoming book, but I have discovered multiple attributions:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

As I searched further I found a similar quotation with additional attributions:

The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.

Can you help determine the origin of this saying?

Quote InvestigatorQI agrees that these two expressions and several others can be grouped together because they are semantically closely aligned. Interestingly, members of this set have been employed by (or attributed to) a wide variety of individuals including: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, Malcolm Forbes, Paul Eldridge, James D. Miles, and Dan Reeves.

The earliest close match for this saying that QI has located appeared in the popular newspaper column of Earl Wilson. He credited the well-known magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1972 [EWMF]:

Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.

In 1978 Forbes published a collection of his own quotations called “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” [SCMF]. This title was constructed as wordplay on the well-known doctrinal work “The Sayings of Chairman Mao” also called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” or “The Little Red Book”.

A close variant of the saying under investigation was presented in the book and featured prominently in multiple advertisements that appeared in the New Yorker magazine for the collection in 1979 [SCMF] [NYMF]:

“You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them.”

—from The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm

Today a visitor to the Forbes magazine website can search a quotation database maintained by the publisher called “Thoughts on the Business of Life” that contains more than 10,000 entries. The version of the adage in “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” is available in the database [TBMF].

The famous advice giving sisters Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers used versions of this saying in the 1970s. But QI has not yet located any evidence of use before 1974 for either woman. The attachment of the quotation to the notable figures Samuel Johnson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe appears to be unsupported by current evidence.

QI has also examined a related saying: If you want to know what a man’s like, look at how he treats his inferiors. Click here to read the other article.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him