Tag Archives: Tom Lehrer

You Can’t Teach an Old Dogma New Tricks

Dorothy Parker? Life Magazine? Maxson Foxhall Judell? Edwin G. Nourse? Tom Lehrer? Anonymous?

frisbee08Dear Quote Investigator: The following adage about age and recalcitrance is familiar to many:

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

I am trying to trace a comical wordplay variant:

You cannot teach an old dogma new tricks.

This statement is usually attributed to the notable acerbic writer Dorothy Parker. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The saying was ascribed to Dorothy Parker in the 1968 volume “The Algonquin Wits” edited by Robert E. Drennan. The section about Parker included a miscellaneous collection of her witticisms, and the following was listed without any additional context: 1

“You can’t teach an old dogma new tricks.”

Parker died in 1967, and it would be nice to have an earlier linkage. Perhaps future research will discover a better citation for her. The earliest evidence of this wordplay schema located by QI employed a positive version of the saying instead of the common modern negative version.

In 1928 the humor magazine “Life” published a special issue that contained several sections that parodied popular contemporaneous periodicals such as “The Saturday Evening Post”, “True Stories”, “Collier’s”, “Time”, and “McCall’s”. The section based on the “Christian Herald” included an article titled “The Message of Clara Bow: How One Man Heard That Message and What He Did About It” that discussed the very popular movie star Clara Bow. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Clara Bow comes to us like a breath of fresh air at a time when the lungs of civilization are clogged with the accumulated backwash of centuries of age-old traditions, age-old concepts, age-old dogmas. She has proved that you can teach an old dogma new tricks!

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1968, The Algonquin Wits, Edited by Robert E. Drennan, Section: Dorothy Parker, Quote Page 124, Citadel Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1928 May 3, Life, (Special Parody Section: “With Apologies to ‘Christian Herald'”), The Message of Clara Bow: How One Man Heard That Message and What He Did About It, Start Page 63. Quote Page 63, Column 2, Published at the Life Office, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)

If You Steal From One Author, It’s Plagiarism; If You Steal From Many, It’s Research

Wilson Mizner? Steven Wright? Wallace Notestein? Ralph Foss? Joseph Cummings Chase? Asa George Baker? Leslie Henson? Tom Lehrer? Bob Oliver? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some of the websites I come across seem to produce their content by using cut and paste. They do not even bother to collect information from multiple sources. I am reminded of a very funny one-liner:

To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism; to steal from many is research.

In recent times these words have been credited to the brilliantly out-of-kilter comedian Steven Wright, but I have also seen the quip attributed to the playwright and confidence man Wilson Mizner. Could you investigate this saying?

Quote Investigator: An enjoyable precursor of the expression was printed in 1820. In the following humorous statement from Reverend Charles Caleb Colton the era of the material being appropriated was considered decisive. Thanks to a commenter named Jutta for pointing out this citation: 1

If we steal thoughts from the moderns, it will be cried down as plagiarism; if from the ancients, it will cried up as erudition.

The earliest strong match identified by QI appeared in November 1929 within a newsletter of the U.S. Forestry Service in California. Wallace Notestein, a Professor of English History at Yale University, received credit. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

To Prof. Notestein of the Yale faculty is attributed the following definition for research: “If you copy from one book, that’s plagiarism; if you copy from many books, that’s research.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1820, Lacon: or, Many Things in Few Words; Addressed to Those Who Think by Rev. C. C. Colton (Charles Caleb Colton), Fifth Edition, Quote Page 229, Published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1929 November 1, California District News Letter, Volume 10, Number 44, Quote Page 4, Published by U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans from Library System of University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California)