Toby Keith? Charles Jewett? W. Adam? Seneca the Younger? Waylon Jennings? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: A song by the country music superstar Toby Keith includes the following words in the chorus:
Ain’t no right way,
To do the wrong thing,
The song is on the album “White Trash With Money” which was released in 2006. More than a decade ago I started to use the same saying:
There’s no right way to do the wrong thing.
Yet, I do not recall hearing this phrase before 2000. Is this a modern proverb?
Quote Investigator: Some researchers thought the phrase might be modern, i.e., twentieth century, but a major new reference work: “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs” by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R Shapiro dispelled that notion. The authors found a citation before 1900 and placed the phrase in a special appendix listing: “No Longer Modern Proverbs” [DMRW].
In fact, the aphorism has a long history. In 1850 an article about the relationship between Britain and India was published in the U.S. periodical “De Bow’s Southern and Western Review”. The article criticized the dominance of Britain [DBWA]:
They stand in the relation of conquerors and conquered; of arbitrary rulers and subject masses; of masters and slaves-without common associations, …
The phrase was used when the author discussed how Britain should rule India [DBWA]:
There is no right way of doing a wrong thing; and while the relation itself is allowed to continue, the mode of acting under that relation must partake of its vicious and unnatural character.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.