"ACADEMIC politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small" This observation is routinely attributed to former Harvard professor Henry Kissinger. Well before Kissinger got credit for that thought in the mid-1970s, however, Harvard political scientist Richard Neustadt told a reporter, "Academic politics is much more vicious than real politics. We think it's because the stakes are so small." Others believe this quip originated with political scientist Wallace Sayre, Neustadt's onetime colleague at Columbia University. A 1973 book gave as "Sayre's Law," "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the stakes at issue--that is why academic politics are so bitter." Sayre's colleague and coauthor Herbert Kaufman said his usual wording was "The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low." In his 1979 book Peter's People, Laurence Peter wrote, "Competition in academia is so vicious because the stakes are so small." He called this "Peter's Theory of Entrepreneurial Aggressiveness in Higher Education." Variations on that thought have also been attributed to scientist-author C. P. Snow, professor-politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and politician Jesse Unruh (among others). According to the onetime editor of Woodrow Wilson's papers, however, long before any of them strode the academic-political scene, Wilson observed often that the intensity of academic squabbles he witnessed while president of Princeton University was a function of the "triviality" of the issues being considered.
Verdict: An old academic saw that may have originated with Woodrow Wilson but was put in modern play by Wallace Sayre.
"Half the money I spend on ADVERTISING is wasted. The trouble is I don't know which half." In the United States this business truism is most often attributed to department store magnate John Wanamaker (1838-1922), in England to Lord Leverhulme (William H. Lever, founder of Lever Brothers, 1851-1925). The maxim has also been ascribed to chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, adman George Washington Hill, and adman David Ogilvy. In Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963), Ogilvy himself gave the nod to his fellow Englishman Lord Leverhulme (Lever Brothers was an Ogilvy client), adding that John Wanamaker later made the same observation. Since Wanamaker founded his first department store in 1861, when Lever was ten, this seems unlikely. Fortune magazine thought Wanamaker expressed the famous adage in 1885, but it gave no context. While researching John Wanamaker, King of Merchants (1993), biographer William Allen Zulker found the adage typed on a sheet of paper in Wanamaker's archives, but without a name or source. Wanamaker usually wrote his own material longhand.
Verdict: A maxim of obscure origins, put in famous mouths.
"If you have to ask how much they cost, you can't AFFORD one." J. P. Morgan's alleged response to an inquiry about the cost of his yachts is considered the epitome of wealthy imperiousness. (Some attribute the thought to Cornelius Vanderbilt.) No dependable evidence exists that Morgan actually said this, however, and biographer Jean Strouse doubts that he did. Calling the mot "implausible," Strouse concluded, "Morgan was a singularly inarticulate, unreflective man, not likely to come up with a maxim worthy of Oscar Wilde." The closest analogue Strouse could find on the record was Morgan's response to oil baron Henry Clay Pierce: "You have no right to own a yacht if you ask that question."
Verdict: Morgan's sentiments, not his words.
"AFTER us, the deluge." ("Aprés nous le déluge.") This classic remark is generally thought to have been uttered by King Louis XV of France after his forces were defeated by those of Frederick the Great at the battle of Rossbach in 1757. Biographer Olivier Bernier calls the attribution "wholly apocryphal." At least two memoirs by contemporaries attributed these words in the plural to the king's mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour. Others to whom the saying has been attributed include Prince Metternich, Marie Antoinette, and Verdi. However "Aprés moi le déluge" was a French proverb in common use long before Louis XV or anyone else was alleged to have said it.
Verdict: An old proverb put in many mouths, especially that of Louis XV.
"AIN'T I a woman?" This is the phrase ex-slave Sojourner Truth used to bring an 1851 convention of feminists to its feet. Or so we like to imagine. Contemporary news accounts of her talk reported no such exclamation. After exhaustive research, biographer Carleton Mabee concluded that Truth's rallying cry was actually concocted by convention chair Frances Dana Gage, a poet and antislavery feminist who inserted the phrase "Ar'n't I a woman?" repeatedly into her subsequent account of Truth's speech. According to Mabee this account, which was published twelve years after the fact, is "folklore." Most likely Gage simply abridged an antislavery motto, "Am I not a Woman and a Sister?", and translated it into dialect for her report on Truth. Over time "Ar'n't I a woman?" mutated into "Ain't I a woman?" Far from being what Sojourner Truth actually said, concluded historian Nell Irvin Painter, these famous four words are "what we need her to have said."
Verdict: Credit Frances Dana Gage for this feminist saying, not Sojourner Truth.
"It AIN'T so much the things we don't know that get us into trouble. It's the things we know that just ain't so." In various forms this popular observation gets attributed most often to Mark Twain, as well as to his fellow humorists Artemus Ward, Kin Hubbard, and Will Rogers. Others to whom it's been credited include inventor Charles Kettering, pianist Eubie Blake, and--by Al Gore--baseball player Yogi Berra. Twain did once observe, "It isn't so astonishing the things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren't so," but biographer Albert Bigelow Paine said he was paraphrasing a remark by humorist Josh Billings. (In Following the Equator Twain also wrote, "Yet it was the schoolboy who said, 'Faith is believing what you know ain't so.'") Billings, whose real name was Henry Wheeler Shaw, repeated this theme often in different forms. On one occasion Billings wrote, "I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain't so." A handbill for one of his lectures included the line "It iz better to kno less than to kno so much that ain't so." Across this handbill Billings wrote longhand, "You'd better not kno so much than know so many things that ain't so." Apparently the humorist considered this his signature "affurism."
Verdict: Credit Josh Billings.
"I want to be ALONE." Greta Garbo did say this, to John Barrymore, in the 1932 movie Grand Hotel, whose screenplay was written by William A. Drake. That movie was based on a 1929 novel with the same title by Austrian author Vicki Baum. In the English translation of Baum's novel, the character eventually played by Garbo says, "But I wish to be alone." In time that sentiment was attributed to the reclusive actress herself. Garbo was not happy about this at all. She once told a friend, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be let alone!' There is all the difference."
Verdict: Credit novelist Vicki Baum and screenwriter William A. Drake for Greta Garbo's most famous line.
"AMERICA is great because America is good. If America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great." Like presidents Eisenhower and Reagan before him, Bill Clinton was fond of attributing these words to Alexis de Tocqueville. Many another political figure, news commentator, and patriotic orator has cited this observation, said to have been made by America's most famous tourist. (The lines are thought to be preceded by "Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the greatness and genius of America.") Library of Congress researchers call the attribution "unverified." They did find the complete quotation, attributed to de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, in a 1941 book called The Kingdom of God and the American Dream by evangelist Sherwood Eddy (1871-1963). Claremont McKenna College political scientist John Pitney has devoted two essays to the misattributed quotation and its many uses. Who actually wrote these words remains a mystery. Sherwood Eddy gave no source for his de Tocqueville attribution. According to biographer Rick L. Nutt, Eddy tended to work from memory. Perhaps he'd read the 1908 copy of The Methodist Review in which de Tocqueville was quoted as saying he'd searched in vain for the sources of America's distinction until he entered a church: "It was there, as I listened to the soul-equalizing and soul-elevating principles of the Gospel of Christ as they fell from Sabbath to Sabbath upon the masses of the people, that I learned why America is great and free, and why France is a slave." These uncharacteristic words are not de Tocqueville's either.
Verdict: Words put in de Tocqueville's mouth.
"AMERICA is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization." In a 1945 magazine article, Danish writer Hans Bendix said his aunt told him French Premier Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929) made this observation about America. Bendix's article seems to be the only source for that attribution, which now appears in many a quotation collection. (The saying has also been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Henry James, H. L. Mencken, and John O'Hara.) Judging from France's often stormy alliance with America during and after World War I, Clemenceau might well have reached such a conclusion. It "sounds like" the irascible French politician. However, as a young man, Clemenceau spent several years in the United States. He married a local woman, and considered America his "second country." Whoever was the first to say this owed an intellectual debt to Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico (1688-1744), who concluded that societies progressed in cyclical stages from barbarism to civilization, then back again.
Verdict: Author unknown; possibly Georges Clemenceau.
"We are not AMUSED." The only evidence that Queen Victoria ever made this imperious statement consists of a 1900 diary entry in an anonymously authored 1919 book called The Notebooks of a Spinster Lady. This British book--now known to have been written by Caroline Holland (1878-1903)--included, as "a tale" once told to the author, the queen's "we are not amused" response to an inappropriate jest. Victoria's supposed comment was in circulation long before this book was published, however, having appeared in a magazine article as early as 1902. It did not take long for this reported remark to become synonymous with imperious gravitas. Biographer Stanley Weintraub could not verify that Victoria said any such thing, and doubted that she did. "In fact," Weintraub told a reporter, "she was often amused."
Verdict: Words put in Victoria's mouth.
"An ARMED society is a polite society." This slogan is beloved by opponents of gun control, few of whom know where it originated: Robert Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon. In this 1942 magazine serial, which became a 1948 novel, one character says to another, "Well, in the first place an armed society is a polite society."
Verdict: Credit Robert Heinlein.
"An ARMY travels on its stomach." This bedrock axiom of military science is generally attributed to Napoleon. No one knows where or when the French emperor made that observation, however. He may not have done so. An editor of Napoleon's many observations couldn't find this one and concluded it wasn't his. (The closest comment by Napoleon he could find was "The basic principle that we must follow in directing the armies of the Republic is this: that they must feed themselves on war at the expense of the enemy territory.") An earlier saying, "An army, like a serpent, travels on its belly," is credited to Frederick the Great, but probably was not original to him.
Verdict: Not Napoleon, possibly Frederick the Great, probably someone else.
"Be ASHAMED to die until you have won some victory for humanity." Educator Horace Mann made this stirring plea as the conclusion of his last "Baccalaureate Sermon," given to students at Antioch College in 1859, where Mann was president. It is often misquoted as "some great victory."
Verdict: Credit Mann, avoid "great."
"ASK not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." The most eloquent line in John Kennedy's inaugural address has a rich legacy. In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., asked an audience to "recall what our country has done for each of us, and to ask ourselves what we can do for our country in return." Nearly a decade later, in 1893, a British parliamentarian named St. John Broderick told a Leeds audience, "The first duty of a citizen is to consider what he can do for the state and not what the state will do for him." A decade after that, in 1904, Harvard professor LeBaron Russell Briggs said that when it came to their college, students should always ask, "not 'What can she do for me?' but 'What can I do for her?'" Warren Harding subsequently told the 1916 Republican convention, "We must have a citizenship less concerned about what the government can do for it and more anxious about what it can do for the nation." When Kennedy was a prep school student at Choate, its longtime headmaster, Rev. George St. John, continually exhorted students to consider not what their school did for them, but what they could do for their school. While admitting that the "ask not" line had antecedents, Kennedy aide Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., argued that this thought was the president's own. The historian thought it derived from a Rousseau quotation Kennedy recorded in his notebook at the end of World War II: "As soon as any man says of the affairs of the state, What does it matter to me? the state may be given up as lost." That is a stretch. More likely the thought was a rhetorical commonplace that wended its way into Kennedy's speech (speeches, actually; he used variations on this theme many times before the inauguration). In Ask Not, his book about Kennedy's inaugural address, Thurston Clarke concluded that the well-read president and his speechwriter Theodore Sorensen most likely were familiar with at least some of this line's antecedents. Nonetheless, Clarke reported, the final version was written with Kennedy's own hand. When it comes to a thought this pervasive, however, that act would be more transcription than invention.
Verdict: A thought in wide circulation long before JFK adopted it.
"My center is giving way, my right is in retreat. Situation excellent. I shall ATTACK!" By legend French General Ferdinand Foch sent such a message to Gen. Joseph Joffre as his position crumbled during the first battle of the Marne in 1914. Other versions include "My right gives way, my left yields, everything's fine--I shall attack!" and "My right has been rolled up. My left has been driven back. My center has been smashed. I have ordered an advance from all directions." Yet another version is mounted in a frame hung on a column in the entryway of Indiana University's Memorial Union Building: "My left is giving way, my right is falling back; consequently I am ordering a general offensive, a decisive attack by the center." This is a translation of the message General Foch wrote on a piece of paper while visiting the university in 1921. (The original French, handwritten, presumably by Foch, is "Ma gauche plie ma roite recule la consequence f'or donne nice appen jive générale, attaque decivise pour le centre. F Foch 4.11.21.") Beneath this, a typewritten addendum reads, "Message sent by Marshal Ferdinand Foch at the decisive moment of the first battle of the Marne, September, 1914. On the occasion of his visit to Indiana in 1921, Marshal Foch presented this autographed copy of his message to the undersigned for Indiana University. William Lowe Bryan [IU's president]." Although Foch was known for his sometimes suicidal emphasis on attacking the enemy, and apparently thought he'd made this vow during the Battle of the Marne, historians of the First World War consider the words more likely to be ones Foch wishes he'd conveyed than those he actually did. By one historian's account Foch's actual telegram read, "The situation is therefore excellent; the attack directed against the Ninth Army appears to be a means to assure the retreat of the German right wing."
Verdict: Revisionist Foch.
"Never ATTRIBUTE to malice what can be explained by ignorance." In Robert Heinlein's 1941 story "Logic of Empire," one character says to another, "You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity."
Verdict: Revised Heinlein.
"He has no more BACKBONE than a chocolate éclair." In early 2005, The New Yorker's drama critic wrote of a play's character, "Tom has the backbone of a chocolate éclair." He neglected to mention (and may not even have realized) that this comparison had been made a century earlier, by Theodore Roosevelt, with reference to William McKinley. Roosevelt, in turn, may have borrowed the thought from House Speaker Thomas Reed. Spinal similes were quite popular after the Civil War. TR was especially fond of this genre of invective, saying about Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., "I could carve out of a banana a justice with more backbone than that." Several decades before Roosevelt compared backbones to bananas and chocolate éclairs, Ulysses S. Grant said of his successor as president, "Garfield has shown that he is not possessed of the backbone of an angle worm."
Verdict: Longstanding fill-in-the-blank invective.
"If you've got them by the BALLS, their hearts and minds will follow." These words were inscribed on a plaque hanging in the home of Richard Nixon's counsel Charles Colson. According to Colson, a former Green Beret had that plaque made up, then gave it to him because he thought this saying applied to his work in the White House. The saying subsequently received so much attention in press coverage of Nixon's hardbitten aide that it was widely assumed to have been Colson's invention. Over the years this adage became a favorite among executives who considered themselves tough. Where did it originate? One possibility is a Vietnam-era congressional debate in which a liberal Democrat pleaded for programs designed to "win the hearts and minds of the downtrodden." Hawkish Rep. Mendel Rivers (D-S.C.) responded, "I say get 'em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow." It's doubtful that this rejoinder began with Rivers, however. It certainly didn't begin with Charles Colson.
Verdict: Author unknown; not Charles Colson.
"I laughed all the way to the BANK." In 1954 the flamboyant musician Liberace capped a triumphal thirty-day tour with the first piano concert held at Madison Square Garden since Paderewski played there two decades earlier. His performance was a sellout. New York's music reviewers were underwhelmed by the winks, grins, and candelabra of this Gorgeous George of the keyboard. In response Liberace quipped, "I cried all the way to the bank." His cheeky retort caught the public's fancy. Over time it achieved cliché status. Liberace, who recalled first telling a San Francisco audience that bad reviews made him cry all the way the bank, said he regularly repeated this mantra to his staff. It became his signature line. As the years went by, however, Liberace's quip gradually morphed into "I laughed all the way to the bank." Today it is rare to see the lachrymose version in print.
Verdict: Credit Liberace, crying.
"Don't let the BASTARDS grind you down." ("Illegimati noli carborundum.") The literal translation of this mock-Latin motto is "Let there not be carborunduming by the illegitimate." (Carborundum derives from the abrasive carborundum, silicon carbide, and isn't Latin at all.) Alternative versions are, "Non Bastardum Carborundum" and "Ab illegitimis non carborundum est." Like introducing silly sayings with "Confucius say," creating inane "Latin" proverbs was a popular pastime in Depression-era America. This one dates back at least to World War II, when it was associated with American General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. Lexicographer Eric Partridge thought it originated with British intelligence officers during that war. (Partridge liked to think it was invented by his witty friend Stanley Casson, an Oxford classics scholar who directed England's army intelligence school early in the war before being killed in Greece.) Others recall hearing this slogan before the Second World War, or seeing it on placards at that time. After the war it became T-shirt-common in the English-speaking world. In 1962 the Royal Shakespeare Company mounted a play written by Henry Living called Nil Carborundum.
Verdict: Popular slogan invented by some unknown wit just before or during World War II.
"BEAM me up, Scotty." What Star Trek's Captain Kirk actually said to Lieutenant Commander Scott was "Beam us up, Mr. Scott." Kirk also sometimes said, "Enterprise, beam us up" during the 1966-1969 television series. In the fourth movie based on this series, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Captain Kirk did say, "Scotty, beam me up." In their rearranged form these words became bumper-sticker-common.
Verdict: A memory-enhanced Star Trek command.
"Your people, sir, is a great BEAST." Haughty Alexander Hamilton is notorious for having called the people "a great beast." Historian Barbara Tuchman thought he said this during an argument with Jefferson. The more common assumption is that Hamilton called the people beastly at a New York dinner party. This anecdote was first reported in Theophilus Parsons's 1859 memoir, fifty-five years after Alexander Hamilton was killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. According to Parsons, who was John Adams's attorney general, a friend told him that a guest at this party told him he heard Hamilton call the people a great beast. In his History of the United States (1891), Henry Adams referred twice to Hamilton's portrayal of the people as a great beast. Generally fastidious about citing sources, Adams gave none for this proclamation. After extensive research, historian William Ander Smith concluded that Adams's source could only have been the memoir by Theophilus Parsons. Henry Adams must have known this source was dubious but was intent enough on using the Hamilton remark that he did so anyway. Adams had a well-known antipathy toward Hamilton dating back to this man's conflicts with his great-grandfather, John Adams. Reporting Hamilton's portrayal of the people as a great beast hung him posthumously with his own words. Despite much searching, no historian has ever been able to verify the fourth-hand dinner-party rumor that was the probable basis of Adams's account. While researching the attribution of this thought to Hamilton, William Ander Smith uncovered an 1867 letter in which Henry Adams himself wrote to his brother Charles about the pressure of public opinion on writers, "It is the public which controls us, and in the long run we must obey the beast."
Verdict: Words put in Alexander Hamilton's mouth.
"BECAUSE it's there." During George Mallory's 1923 lecture tour of the United States, a New York Times article reported that the British mountain climber had said this was why he persisted in trying to reach the summit of Mount Everest. The unsigned Times article gave no context for this remark, which became Mallory's epitaph. On other occasions the mountaineer's depiction of his motives was more elaborate, even verbose. Those who knew Mallory puzzled over this uncharacteristically pithy comment. No other reporter ever heard him say such a thing, and Mallory himself never used the phrase with colleagues. Biographers Tom Holzel and Audrey Salkeld wondered if the terse remark might have been a compression of Mallory's thoughts by a reporter who knew a memorable quotation when he crafted one. Biographers Peter and Leni Gelman disagreed, concluding that the remark was consistent with others made by Mallory. In a 1986 letter to London's Daily Telegraph, Mallory's niece said he'd told his sister, her mother, that this silly response of his was suited to a silly question. The remark is sometimes credited to Sir Edmund Hillary.
Verdict: Credit Mallory, gingerly.
"Where's the BEEF?" Americans of a certain age recall the classic 1984 Wendy's ad in which Clara Peller, an eighty-something, four-foot-ten retired manicurist, asked this question at the top of her bullfrog voice while patronizing THE HOME OF THE BIG BUN. Peller's question--composed by New York copywriter Cliff Freeman--quickly became a national catchphrase. It entered history books when Walter Mondale posed Peller's question to Gary Hart while pressing his fellow Democrat about the substance of his "new ideas" during 1984's Democratic presidential primaries. That rhetorical booster rocket made "Where's the beef?" one of America's best-remembered, most enduring advertising catchphrases.
Verdict: Credit Cliff Freeman as author, Clara Peller as spokesperson, Walter Mondale as publicist.
"I don't want to BELONG to any club that would have me as a member." According to Groucho Marx's son Arthur, this assertion was made in the comedian's letter of resignation from the Friars Club. Groucho's brother Zeppo confirmed this, as did his friend Arthur Sheekman. (Biographer Hector Arce gave a somewhat different version, also involving the Friars.) Hollywood chronicler Neal Gabler thought it was the Hillcrest Country Club Marx resigned from, with this explanation. In time it became Groucho's most famous line. In his own autobiography, Groucho said he wired a prominent theatrical group called the Delaney Club, PLEASE ACCEPT MY RESIGNATION. I DON'T WANT TO BELONG TO ANY CLUB THAT WILL ACCEPT ME AS A MEMBER. Groucho often used the name "Delaney" when referring to an apocryphal person. The voluminous Internet search engine Google has no record of an actual Delaney Club.
Verdict: Credit Groucho for concocting this line, even though he probably never used it.
Yogi Berra is one of the most quoted, and misquoted, figures in modern America. As Berra himself once asserted, "I really didn't say everything I said." This is because the demand for Berraisms by speakers and writers far exceeds the supply. As a result, creating spurious comments by the former Yankee catcher is something of a cottage industry. According to onetime New York Herald Tribune sportswriter Harold Rosenthal, putting words in the mouth of Yogi--whom he called "the least communicative of the Yankees in the [Casey] Stengel era"--was a popular pastime during the catcher's years in the major leagues.
In general, it is safe to assume that most of the most popular sayings attributed to Yogi Berra are spurious. They include:
"It's déjà vu all over again." Berra first denied, then agreed that he made this observation. He probably didn't. Aside from any lack of direct evidence that Yogi ever said such a thing, "déjà vu" is not a term he'd be likely to use. On the other hand, as quotographer Fred Shapiro discovered, "It's déjà vu all over again" did appear in a 1966 Chicago Tribune movie review.
"Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they won't go to yours." Berra also initially denied saying this one, and with good reason. That line appeared in slightly different form in Clarence Day's 1935 bestseller Life with Father.
"Nobody ever goes there anymore; it's too crowded." Yogi recalled saying this about Ruggeri's restaurant in St. Louis. His wife, Carmen, thought he said it about a restaurant in New York. According to quote compiler Phil Pepe, this Berraism referred to Charlie's in Minneapolis. Yogi's longtime friend Joe Garagiola said he'd heard it applied to restaurants in Boston, Kansas City, and Sarasota. In a 1943 New Yorker story, however, John McNulty wrote about a couple of characters: "They were talking about a certain hangout and Johnny said, 'Nobody goes there any more. It's too crowded.'"
"It ain't over 'til it's over." Yogi is renowned for saying this in 1973 while managing the New York Mets. While researching a profile of Berra for Sports Illustrated, the closest Berra remark Roy Blount, Jr., could find in news clippings was "We're not out till we're out," said about the 1974 National League pennant race. Blount traced the evolution of that remark from "You're not out of it till you're out of it," through "The game's never over till it's over," to, at last, "It ain't over 'til it's over."
Another unlikely Berraism is "The future isn't what it used to be," also attributed to Paul Valéry and Arthur C. Clarke (among others). On the other hand, "When you come to a fork in the road take it," is something Yogi recalls saying while giving directions to his friend Joe Garagiola.
During "Yogi Berra Night" in his hometown of St. Louis in 1947, the Yankees' catcher said, "I'd like to thank everyone who made this night necessary." Yogi thinks this was the original "Berraism." Another authentic example of the genre is: "You can observe a lot by watching." After being named manager of the New York Yankees in 1963, Yogi told reporters that this was why his previous year as a coach had prepared him to manage.
"The BEST and the brightest." The title of David Halberstam's 1972 bestseller is among the most repeated catchphrases of modern times. Although Halberstam thought it originated with him, at the time his book appeared, Episcopalians had long been singing "The Brightest and the Best," a hymn written in 1811 by Anglican Bishop Reginald Heber. Halberstam's own form had already been used by Junius (1769), Shelley (1822), Trollope (1858), Dickens (1855-1857), Henry Adams (1901), Kipling (1903), and Maxim Gorki (1921).
Verdict: David Halberstam's popularization of a phrase with a long heritage.
"The BIGGER they are, the harder they fall." This maxim is sometimes attributed to boxer John L. Sullivan, occasionally to his colleague James Corbett, but most often to Bob "Ruby Robert" Fitzsimmons. Fitzsimmons popularized the slogan at the turn of the century when, on the eve of a heavyweight title fight with big Gus Ruhlin, he said, "You know the old saying, 'The bigger they are, the further they have to fall.'" (Fitzsimmons won.) Author Albert Payson Terhune later reported seeing a version of this saying on an old English sporting print. Among various related proverbs recorded in medieval England was "Who climbeth highest most dreadful is his fall." In the fourth century A.D. the Latin poet Claudian wrote, "Men are raised on high in order that they may fall more heavily."
Verdict: An old boxing saw based on longtime proverbial wisdom.
"A BILLION here, a billion there. Pretty soon you're talking about real money." This witticism is so routinely attributed to Illinois Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen (1896-1969) that it's virtually his epitaph. No Dirksen biographer or archivist has ever found a reliable source for this quotation, however. The Dirksen Center's director has scoured the senator's writing, notes, and speeches on the Senate floor looking for the statement. He has read transcripts of Dirksen's press conferences and media interviews as well as newspaper articles about him, and even listened to recordings of the senator's observations--all to no avail. Dirksen is on record as having said, "A billion for this, a billion for that, a billion for something else." On another occasion he said, "A billion here, a billion there..." but not the clever conclusion. A caller to the Dirksen Center said that while seated next to Dirksen on an airplane, he'd asked the Illinois senator about the quotation so associated with him. "Oh, I never said that," the man said Dirksen responded. "A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so good that I never bothered to deny it." So where did the quip originate? It actually evolved from a common catchphrase that predates the Depression. In 1925, a New York Times article included the line "A billion here and a billion there might be piled up..." Thirteen years later, in 1938, the Times ran this unsigned observation about the federal budget: "It's a billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money." (The Los Angeles Times reprinted that item a few days later.) In 1954 a Saturday Evening Post cartoon by Edwin Lepper portrayed two senatorial-looking men walking past the Capitol building. One says to the other, "You save a billion here, a billion there, and the first thing you know it adds up." Two years later former president Herbert Hoover was quoted as saying that if the government saved a billion here and a billion there, it would soon add up.
Verdict: A Depression-era gag that gained currency after World War II, landing in a cartoon, in Herbert Hoover's mouth, and in Everett Dirksen's.
"From BIRTH to age 18, a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55, she needs a good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash." Biographer Michael Freedland is one among many who have attributed this saying to Sophie Tucker (1884-1996). According to Bartlett's the singer said these words when she was sixty-nine. But in 1948, when Tucker was sixty-four, this saying ran without attribution in a newspaper's humor column. Other versions have been credited to novelist Kathleen Norris (1880-1966).
Verdict: Possibly Tucker, or Norris, or an author yet to be determined.
"When a dog BITES a man, that isn't news. When a man bites a dog, that's news." By legend this was the response of New York Sun city editor John Bogart (1845-1921) to a cub reporter who, in the early 1880s, asked him to define "news." The author of a 1918 history of the Sun credited Bogart with this comment. It was recalled when he died in 1921. The observation has also been attributed to Sun editor Charles A. Dana, to its first managing editor, Amos Cummings, and to early-twentieth-century British press baron Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth). Whoever first defined news as "man-bites-dog" may have got that notion from Oliver Goldsmith's "An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog." In this 1766 poem, a kindly man in Islington is bitten by a dog whom he'd befriended. To the consternation of all, "The man recovered of the bite, / The dog it was that died." This popular bit of doggerel was adapted in many forms, including one in which a man actually bit a dog. Lexicographer Eric Partridge believed that this might have inspired the classic definition of news.
Verdict: Someone at the New York Sun apparently said this in the late nineteenth century, John Bogart being the leading suspect, perhaps inspired by an Oliver Goldsmith poem.
"BLOOD and iron." ("Blut und Eisen.") During an 1862 debate in the Prussian Diet, Otto von Bismarck--Prussia's "Iron Chancellor"--uttered the words that became his epitaph: "Not by speeches and majorities will the great questions of the day be decided...but by iron and blood." As would later happen with Churchill's "blood, toil, tears, and sweat," the order of Bismarck's words was quickly revised in the popular mind, in this case to "blood and iron." Eventually Bismarck himself adopted the more popular form. Perhaps this was because in the first century Quintilian had observed, "Warfare seems to signify blood and iron."
Verdict: Credit Bismarck, and Quintilian.
"BLOOD, sweat, and tears." During his first speech as prime minister, in 1940, Winston Churchill said, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat." In time our memory rearranged his words to "blood, sweat, and tears." This phrase had a distinguished heritage. Cicero and Livy wrote of "sweat and blood." A 1611 John Donne poem included the lines "That 'tis in vaine to dew, or mollifie / It with thy Teares, or Sweat, or Bloud." More than two centuries later, Byron wrote, "Year after year they voted cent per cent / Blood, sweat, and tear-wrung millions--why?--for rent!" In his 1888 play Smith, Scottish poet-playwright John Davidson wrote of "Blood-sweats and tears, and haggard, homeless lives." By 1939, a Lady Tegart reported in a magazine article that Jewish communal colonies in Palestine were "built on a foundation of blood, sweat, and tears." That same year, Churchill (who had previously used the phrases "blood and tears," and "their sweat, their tears, their blood" in his writing) himself used the "blood, sweat, and tears" version in an article on the Spanish Civil War. Since this phrase was obviously familiar when Churchill gave his memorable speech the following year, even though he rearranged the words and added "toil" for good measure, our ears and our memory quickly returned them to the more familiar form. Churchill himself (or his publisher) called a 1941 collection of his speeches Blood, Sweat and Tears.
Verdict: An old phrase given new life by Winston Churchill.
"A man is known by the BOOKS he reads, by the company he keeps, by the praise he gives...." In 1830, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal, "A man is known by the books he reads, by the company he keeps, by the praise he gives, by his dress, by his tastes, by his distastes, by the stories he tells, by his gait, by the motion of his eye, by the look of his house, of his chamber; for nothing on earth is solitary but every thing hath affinities infinite." This has been long known. Digging deeper, however, a librarian discovered that an updated version of William Law's Christian Perfection (1726, revised 1973) included the line "We say that a man is known by the friends he keeps; but a man is known better by his books." Law's original words were "We commonly say, that a man is known by his Companions; but it is certain, that a Man is much more known by the Books that he converses with." In various forms the thought that "a man is known by his company" is longtime proverbial wisdom in many cultures. According to Euripides, "Every man is like the company he is wont to keep."
Verdict: Credit William Law, Euripides, and proverbial wisdom for the basic idea, Ralph Waldo Emerson for its most common expression.
"The man who does not read good BOOKS has no advantage over the man who can't read them." Advice columnist Abigail Van Buren once made this observation in her column. A reader said she should have credited the thought to Mark Twain. Abby apologized, explaining that she genuinely thought the idea was her own. Perhaps it was. Although this saying is often attributed to Twain, no one has ever confirmed that he wrote or said it.
Verdict: Possibly Abby Van Buren.
"He was BORN on third base and thinks he hit a triple." When Texas agriculture commissioner Jim Hightower said this about George H. W. Bush in a speech at the 1988 Democratic convention, he was hailed for his wit. After Hightower was voted out of office and made an unsuccessful attempt to host a radio show, this quip was more often attributed to Texas governor Ann Richards. When Richards lost her reelection bid to George W. Bush, it was introduced by the phrase "as Democrats say," or attributed to no one at all. It's unlikely that the quip originated with Hightower, however, let alone with Richards. This observation had appeared in print--attributed to an unnamed Texan--five years before the 1988 convention, and was credited to Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer in 1986. The catchphrase "born on third base," signifying inherited privilege, dates back to the Depression era. In 1935 a conservative speaker charged that Franklin Roosevelt's "Brain Trust" was filled with "professors and others...who were born on third base..."
Verdict: An old American saw.
"When I was a BOY of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could barely stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." Reader's Digest attributed this thought to Mark Twain in 1937, without giving a source. Twain's own father died when he was eleven. When the Library of Congress asked Twain scholars whether the author had ever said this, none could confirm that he did. Its true source remains a mystery.
Verdict: Author undetermined; not Twain.
"The Pottery Barn rule: You BREAK it, you own it." In his 2004 book Plan of Attack, Bob Woodward credited Secretary of State Colin Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage with warning President George W. Bush in 2002 that if he invaded Iraq, he would own it. "Privately," wrote Woodward, "Powell and Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it." As a result, Powell is often credited with the "Pottery Barn rule." But New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has taken every opportunity to remind others that it was he who originated this concept and fed it to the secretary of state via Armitage (as Powell confirmed). As early as September 2002, Friedman told National Public Radio interviewer Scott Simon that he had a "Pottery Barn view" of invading countries such as Afghanistan or Iraq, based on the sign BREAK IT AND YOU OWN IT, which he thought was posted in those stores. When Pottery Barn pointed out that no such sign appears in any of their stores, Friedman conceded his mistake. In his February 12, 2003, New York Times column, Friedman wrote, "The first rule of any Iraq invasion is the pottery store rule: You break it, you own it."
Verdict: Credit Thomas Friedman; delete "Pottery Barn."
"Nobody ever went BROKE underestimating the intelligence of the American public." H. L. Mencken's most familiar quotation takes various forms. "Taste" and "idiocy" are sometimes substituted for "intelligence," depending on what point the quoter is trying to make. Mencken citers have a lot of latitude on this quotation because it does not appear in his published works. According to quotation compiler George Seldes, Mencken's actual words--made in reference to the success of Reader's Digest--were "There's no underestimating the intelligence of the American public." His associate Charles Angoff wrote Seldes that Mencken had repeatedly made that observation in conversation. But the closest known Mencken comment on the record did not even mention Americans. This was recorded in the Chicago Tribune in 1926: "No one in this world, so far as I know,--and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me--has ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."
Verdict: Credit Mencken for this general idea, and some version of the words.
"The BUCK stops here." This comment is so associated with Harry Truman that it's easy to conclude the words came straight from his mouth. They didn't. Early in Truman's presidency, a friend of his saw a sign on the desk of an Oklahoma prison warden that read, THE BUCK STOPS HERE. This friend had a replica made for the president and gave it to him in October 1945. Truman displayed this sign on his desk off and on for most of his presidency, and sometimes referred to it in speeches. The sign's message became central to Truman's credo. (It plays off the expression "pass the buck," which originated among poker players who passed a buck knife among themselves to indicate whose turn it was to deal.) The original sign is now on display at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. According to a mid-1946 press account, the desk of Oklahoma governor Robert Kerr also sported a sign reading, THE BUCK STOPS HERE.
Verdict: Credit an anonymous sloganeer as originator, Harry Truman as primary publicist.
"We shape our BUILDINGS, then they shape us." In the fall of 1943, members of Britain's parliament debated how to rebuild the House of Commons, which had been destroyed by German bombs two years earlier. Some wanted to replace it with a roomier building that had enough seats for every member. Others, including Prime Minister Winston Churchill, wanted to re-create the original structure, which could seat only about two-thirds of all parliamentarians. Churchill thought that being a bit overcrowded lent intensity, drama, and a sense of history to parliamentary proceedings. "We shape our buildings," said the prime minister, "and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than forty years in the late Chamber, and having derived very great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity." Churchill's position carried the day, and in 1950 the House of Commons was rebuilt in its traditional form. Churchill's famous words are sometimes misquoted as "We shape our dwellings and afterwards our dwellings shape us."
Verdict: Credit Churchill, for buildings.
"The BUSINESS of America is business." The remark for which Calvin Coolidge is best remembered is an unfair condensation of his actual words. During a 1925 speech to the Society of American Newspaper Editors, Calvin Coolidge said, "After all, the chief business of the American people is business." Coolidge's actual words are similar to the terser version, but their meaning is quite different.
Verdict: An unfair revision of Coolidge's actual words.
"The BUTLER did it." While investigating a famous 1835 crime case in London, detective Henry Goddard was able to prove that a butler had faked a robbery. Goddard did this by making a cast of a bullet from the butler's own gun, then comparing the imperfection revealed in this cast with an identical imperfection in a bullet that the butler said had been fired at him. That was the first known use of this type of forensic evidence, and may have inspired the phrase "the butler did it." We don't know who first used the phrase in fiction (if it was ever used at all), on stage, or in a movie. No one has ever confirmed the widespread assumption that Mary Roberts Rinehart used the line in one of her many mystery novels, although the butler did do it in Rinehart's 1930 novel The Door. A butler was also guilty in any number of other mysteries--including an 1893 Sherlock Holmes case called "The Musgrave Ritual" (in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes). Damon Runyon's 1933 story "What, No Butler?" in Collier's magazine, and the appearance of "The butler did it" as a throwaway line in a 1938 Punch cartoon, suggest how familiar this concept was by then. P. G. Wodehouse satirized the literary cliché in his 1957 novel The Butler Did It.
Verdict: A catchphrase of unknown origins.
"How can you BUY or sell the sky, the land?" During his fabled conversations with Bill Moyers on public television in 1988, mythologist Joseph Campbell recited a long, eloquent statement by Chief Seattle of the Suquamish and Dwanish tribes. This began: "The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land, but how can you buy or sell the sky, the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people." Though the Indian leader to whom they're attributed had been dead for well over a century, his reverence for the earth spoke to our times. That could be because Seattle's famous words were written in 1971 by screenwriter Ted Perry for an ABC-TV documentary on the environment. Unable to find any authentic speech by a prominent Native American to illustrate his point, Perry made one up and put it in Seattle's mouth (incorporating a few of the Indian's own words). Only when he watched the program did the writer realize that "written by Ted Perry" did not appear in its credits. When Perry complained, the program's producers explained that they felt deleting his name from the credits lent authenticity to Chief Seattle's words. The film was widely distributed with the name "Chief Seattle" included in its writing credits.
Verdict: Credit Ted Perry.
"Let them eat CAKE," ("Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.") Marie Antoinette's supposed solution for the shortage of bread among peasants predated her 1770 arrival in France by quite a few years. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Confessions, which was written in the late 1760s and drew on journal entries he wrote long before Antoinette's birth in 1755, included this passage: "Finally I remembered the way out suggested by a great princess when told that the peasants had no bread: 'Well let them eat cake.'" (It was not actually cake that the unnamed princess recommended, but the pastry called brioche.) A French book published in 1760 credited the Duchess of Tuscany with offering the same advice. In 1823, Louis XVIII fingered Marie Therese, wife of Louis XIV, who supposedly said that the poor could eat pâté. Versions of this comment have also been attributed to John Peckham, an Archbishop of Canterbury during the thirteenth century, and to an ancient Chinese emperor who said of his rice-starved subjects, "Why don't they eat meat?"
Verdict: Myths put in mouths, especially Marie Antoinette's.
"First they CAME for the communists, and I didn't speak up...." In many different forms, the eloquent statement about not speaking up for groups oppressed by the Nazis is usually attributed to Martin Niemoller. Niemoller was a German clergyman who spent eight years in two concentration camps for criticizing of Hitler and his henchmen. After the war, Reverend Niemoller was contrite about not challenging the Nazis earlier in the 1930s, when he could have had more impact. Indeed, in the early 1930s the nationalistic Niemoller sympathized with Hitler's National Socialists. In the late 1940s Niemoller led a movement among German Protestants to accept responsibility for not speaking out against the Nazis. Extensive research by journalists and academics (especially Harold Marcuse, professor of German History at the University of California/Santa Barbara) has established the following: 1. After World War II, Niemoller recited different versions of his "First they came..." statement during speeches and sermons. 2. Because Reverend Niemoller rarely recorded his speeches and sermons, there is no written record to confirm this. 3. No one knows where, when, or in what form the thought was first expressed. 4. For their own purposes various interest groups--Catholics, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others--routinely add themselves to the quotation. Niemoller's version apparently included communists, socialists, trade unionists, and Jews (as well as himself, of course), in that order. After studying various alternatives, in consultation with Niemoller's widow, Methodist minister Franklin H. Littell has concluded that the following version most accurately characterizes the one Niemoller used in speeches: "First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a communist; then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a socialist; then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a trade unionist; then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Jew; then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak out for me."
Verdict: Credit Martin Niemoller, discussing communists, socialists, trade unionists, Jews, and himself.
"You CAMPAIGN in poetry, you govern in prose." This political adage is most often attributed to former New York governor Mario Cuomo. Beginning in the early 1980s, Cuomo used it often, in speeches, conversation, and writing. The saying has also been credited to Richard Nixon, though far less often than to Cuomo. (A journalist who attributed the line to Nixon later noted that in the 2000 campaign "George Bush campaigned in nursery rhymes.") In an episode of NBC's West Wing, President Jed Bartlet's chief of staff used the poetry-prose line without attribution. Wherever it originated, this saying owes an unacknowledged debt to an observation credited to British writer Beverley Nichols (1898-1983): "Marriage is a book in which the first chapter is written in poetry and the remaining chapters in prose."
Verdict: Credit Mario Cuomo, with a nod to Beverley Nichols for source material.
"It is better to light a CANDLE than curse the darkness." When Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962, Adlai Stevenson observed that the former First Lady had been one who "would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world." Stevenson was widely praised for this eloquent tribute. In time "I'd rather light a candle than curse the darkness" was attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt herself. Long before Adlai's eulogy, however, the well-established motto of the Christopher Society--a Catholic humanitarian group organized after World War II--was "It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness." The Christophers say their motto came from a Chinese proverb, although they don't know where their founder, Fr. James Keller, found it. Father Keller told Leo Rosten that he'd heard the proverb a long time before founding the Christophers, although he couldn't remember where or when. The Christophers' founder might well have read it in the American press, where that saying showed up frequently during the early 1940s, usually without attribution. A 1940 news report from China quoted one of that country's leaders as saying, "I had rather light a candle in the darkness than to curse the darkness." In a 1952 compilation of sayings, quote compiler Evan Esar credited this one to Confucius, but gave no source. Others have also attributed that saying to Confucius, who is one of history's leading flypaper figures. In 1961 the proverb helped motivate London lawyer Peter Benenson to found Amnesty International, and inspired Amnesty's logo of a candle within barbed wire.
Verdict: Proverbial wisdom, probably of Asian origin.
"CAN'T we all just get along?" During the 1992 Los Angeles protests triggered by the acquittal of four police officers accused of beating speeding motorist Rodney King, King himself pleaded, "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?...Please, we can get along here. We all can get along." King's plainspoken eloquence resonated widely and was long remembered in condensed, altered form.
Verdict: Revised Rodney King.
"CHANCE favors the prepared mind." So said Louis Pasteur in an 1854 lecture. Pasteur's full statement was "In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind." ("Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.") Similar observations have been made repeatedly, before and since, by those who don't want to believe that random events can influence their lives. (See "Luck is the residue of design.")
Verdict: Abridged Pasteur.
"The CHATTERING classes." This characterization of those who like to natter on about the state of the world is especially popular in the British press. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "chattering classes" as "members of the educated metropolitan middle class, esp. those in academic, artistic, or media circles, considered as a social group freely given to the articulate, self-assured expression of (esp. liberal) opinions about society, culture and current events." Oxford traces this catchphrase back only to 1985. Some think it originated with journalist Auberon Waugh (the son of Evelyn). More often the phrase is associated with Waugh's colleague Alan Watkins, who has used it repeatedly in the column he's written for various London newspapers. Watkins does not claim to have originated the phrase, however. He credits fellow journalist Frank Johnson, whom he first heard use these words in the late 1970s. In 1890, on the other hand, an article in The Chautauquan included this line: "One who has belonged to the chattering class will find his task harder."
Verdict: A longstanding Anglo-American catchphrase.
"Too much CHECKING on the facts has ruined many a good news story." When he was chief justice of the Supreme Court, Warren Burger wrote in a libel decision, "Consideration of these issues inevitably recalls the aphorism of journalism attributed to the late Roy Howard that 'too much checking on the facts has ruined many a good news story.'" Staff members of Indiana University's Roy Howard Memorial Center could find no evidence that the late editor-in-chief of Scripps-Howard newspapers ever made such an observation. They let Burger know. In Burger's revised opinion, this saying was cited as an unattributed aphorism.
Verdict: Apocryphal aphorism attributed to journalists by debunkers.
"He can't walk and CHEW GUM at the same time." In the midst of the 2004 campaign, Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards said, "The president of the United States has to actually be able to walk and chew gum at the same time." During the same campaign, Senator Jim Bunning (R-Ky.) told an audience, "I want everybody to look and see that I can walk and chew gum..." Both were alluding to a famous put-down of Gerald Ford by Lyndon Johnson. When Ford became president in 1974, it was widely recalled in the press that Lyndon Johnson once said Ford was so dumb he couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time. According to Washington insiders, what the earthy LBJ really said was that Jerry Ford couldn't "fart" and chew gum at the same time.
Verdict: Credit LBJ for the earthier version.
"A CHICKEN in every pot." Although the Republican Party used this slogan in some of their 1928 advertising (at times adding, "a car in every garage"), their presidential candidate Herbert Hoover himself made no such promise. No reference to a chicken in every pot or a car in every garage has ever been found in Hoover's speeches or writing. The culinary part of that thought originated with King Henry IV of France, who said, "I desire that every laborer in my realm should be able to put a fowl in the pot on Sundays." ("Je veux que chaque laboureur de mon royaume puisse mettre la poule au pot le dimanche.")
Verdict: A Republican adaptation of Henry IV, not adopted by Herbert Hoover.
"CHILDREN learn what they live." In 1954, teacher-writer Dorothy Nolte wrote the prose poem "Children Learn What They Live." It began, "If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn. / If children live with hostility, they learn to fight," and continued in this vein for seventeen more lines. During the 1970s, abridgments of Nolte's words became popular on posters, bookmarks, coffee mugs, and the like. In 1972 Reader's Digest published a remarkably similar twelve-line prose poem called "Lessons from Life," by one Ronald Russell, © 1971 by AA Sales, Inc. Nolte herself subsequently published a twelve-line "author-approved short version." Chicken Soup for the Soul (1993) included her full version. In 1998 Nolte coauthored a book called Children Learn What They Live, which expanded on her original version.
Verdict: Credit Dorothy Nolte.
"If you bungle raising your CHILDREN, I don't think whatever else you do well matters very much." Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's most memorable quotation was a spontaneous remark made during a 1960 TV interview shortly before her husband was elected president. In It Takes a Village, Hillary Clinton cited Jackie's words. Since then this comment has sometimes been misattributed to Hillary herself.
Verdict: Credit Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
As a young man, Britain's future prime minister observed that reading Bartlett's Familiar Quotations was a capital way to expand one's intellectual horizons. Throughout his long career the eloquent politician paid careful attention to the quotability of his own public statements, with the unintended result that he is often misquoted.
In 1943, Churchill supposedly said of his Labor Party counterpart, Sir Stafford Cripps, "There, but for the grace of God, goes God." Richard Langworth, editor of the Churchill Centre, cannot find this among many comments Sir Winston made about Sir Stafford. In the United States, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz was lionized for saying the same thing about Orson Welles two years earlier, as they filmed Citizen Kane. Whoever said this first was echoing a remark most often attributed to the English religious martyr John Bradford (1510-1555) as he watched a group of prisoners about to be hanged: "There, but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford." Shortly thereafter Bradford himself was burned at the stake.
Churchill is also renowned for saying of Clement Attlee, his successor as prime minister, "Attlee is a very modest man...who has much to be modest about." This comment is based on Churchill's reported exchange with Harry Truman after Truman observed that Attlee was a modest man. Churchill supposedly responded, "He has much to be modest about!" Archivists at the Truman Library can find no evidence that such an exchange took place. Richard Langworth doubts the authenticity of another supposed Churchill observation about Attlee, that he was "a sheep in sheep's clothing." When asked about that one, Churchill said it was based on a more pointed remark he'd once made about another prime minister, Ramsey Macdonald. Quotographer Nigel Rees notes earlier uses of the same put-down by others.
Countless anecdotes involving Churchill's gift for repartee are bruited about. In one of the most famous, a hefty Labor MP named Bessie Braddock accused him of being drunk at a dinner party. Churchill responded, "And you, madam, are ugly. But I shall be sober tomorrow." Members of Churchill's family question this one because Sir Winston held his liquor well, and was gallant to women. Yet Churchill's Scotland Yard bodyguard told Richard Langworth that he overheard this exchange between Braddock and Churchill outside the House of Commons in 1948:
BRADDOCK: Winston, you are drunk, and what's more you are disgustingly drunk.
CHURCHILL: Bessie, my dear, you are ugly, and what's more you are disgustingly ugly; but tomorrow I shall be sober and you shall still be disgustingly ugly.
Langworth thinks that Churchill was more likely tired than drunk on this occasion, but perhaps played along for the sake of a good zinger. If so, his rejoinder almost certainly was derivative. In the 1934 W. C. Fields movie It's a Gift (whose screenplay was written by Jack Cunningham, based on the Broadway revue The Comic Supplement by J. P. McEvoy, and a story by Charles Bogle), when told "You're drunk," Fields's character responds, "Yeah, and you're crazy. But I'll be sober tomorrow, and you'll be crazy for the rest of your life."
In a similar exchange, tart-tongued Lady Astor, the first woman elected to the House of Commons, allegedly told Churchill, "If you were my husband, I'd put poison in your coffee" (in his tea, more likely). "Madam," Churchill is said to have responded, "If you were my wife, I'd drink it." Many biographers of both Churchill and Astor report that some form of this exchange took place. However, the researcher for a biography of Churchill being written by his son Randolph discounted the comment as uncharacteristic of the rather prim prime minister. In any event, the same story has been told about many another prominent party, including baseball player Dizzy Dean, umpire Jack Sheridan, Churchill's close friend F. E. Smith (whose acerbic wit and capacity for alcohol matched Sir Winston's), and Churchill's predecessor as prime minister, David Lloyd George. In that version, Lloyd George had this exchange with a heckler while campaigning:
HECKLER: If you were my husband I would give you poison.
LLOYD GEORGE: Dear lady, if you were my wife I would take it.
According to Churchill's history of World War II, one of his more famous observations, "In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies" was what he told Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during their 1943 meeting in Tehran, about the need for the "Overlord" disinformation operation, which was designed to deceive the Germans about the Allies' D day plans. According to the Soviets themselves Churchill said, "Sometimes truth has to be safeguarded with the aid of untruth." British General Alan Brooke, who took part in the Tehran conference, recalled Churchill saying that in war, "truth must have an escort of lies."
In an early edition of his single-volume biography of Churchill, Martin Gilbert reported that his subject said of Charles de Gaulle, during World War II, "The greatest cross I have to bear is the Cross of Lorraine." Shortly after his book was published, more than one reader pointed out to Gilbert that this was actually said by Gen. Edward Spears, Churchill's liaison with de Gaulle. Gilbert and others also discredit another comment widely attributed to Sir Winston: that the only traditions of the Royal Navy were "rum, sodomy and the lash." In a 1985 speech, Churchill's assistant, Anthony Montague-Browne, said Sir Winston once told him that although he'd never said this, he wished he had. "Golf is a game in which you try to put a small ball in a small hole with implements singularly unsuited to the purpose" is commonly attributed to Winston Churchill in different forms, without a source. Richard Langworth can't find it in his extensive database of work by and about Churchill. He can find Churchill's depiction of golf as being "Like chasing a quinine pill around a cow pasture," credited to an "earwitness."
Although Churchill is famous for responding, "This is the sort of ENGLISH up with which I will not put" to an officious editor who corrected a sentence of his that ended with a preposition, no evidence exists that he actually did so.
Churchill is a leading flypaper figure, stuck with all manner of words he never said. Quotations commonly misattributed to him include, "A LIE can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on," "There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a HORSE," and "Any man who is not a SOCIALIST at age twenty has no heart. Any man who is still a socialist at age forty has no head." Churchill is also among the many credited with Wilde's "We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language." (See sidebar "Oscar Wilde.")
Like most members of his profession, Churchill was not above adopting and adapting other people's words. "BLOOD, toil, tears, and sweat" had a long literary pedigree by the time Churchill used his version of that phrase in 1940, as did "IRON CURTAIN." One of Churchill's most eloquent statements was made in the House of Commons as British forces fled Dunkirk in 1940: "We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!" These words drew on ones used by Georges Clemenceau in the midst of a German offensive late in the First World War. By one account the French premier said, "We will fight them on the Loire, we will fight them on the Garonne, we will fight them in the Pyrenees." In his book The World Crisis (1931), Churchill himself gave Clemenceau's words as "I shall fight in front of Paris. I shall fight in Paris. I shall fight behind Paris."
Another popular Churchillism, "DEMOCRACY is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time," is one for which he did not take credit. Churchill introduced this observation with the phrase "it has been said that..."
In his 1937 book Great Contemporaries Churchill wrote, "Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities, because, as has been said, it is the quality which guarantees all others." This observation, considered one of his most memorable, usually appears without the phrase "as has been said." Churchill presumably was referring to Samuel Johnson's comment, "Sir, you know courage is reckoned the greatest of all virtues; because, unless a man has that virtue, he has no security for preserving any other." (See sidebar "Samuel Johnson.")
Memorable comments of Churchill's own invention include "We shape our BUILDINGS, and afterwards our buildings shape us," and, with reference to the Soviet Russia, "It is a RIDDLE wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma...."
"Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world: 'We are still masters of our fate. We are still captain of our souls.'" So said Churchill in a 1941 speech to the House of Commons (paraphrasing William Ernest Henley's 1875 poem Invictus).
"This was their finest hour." The full sentence that included this memorable phrase was part of a speech Churchill gave in the House of Commons after France fell to the Nazis: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and Common-wealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour."
During the Battle of Britain in August 1940, when so many British pilots were shot down while defending their homeland against the German Luftwaffe, Churchill said in Commons, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." Citing an old quotation collection, quotographer Nigel Rees points out that after the fall of Calpi, Sir John Moore (1761-1809) said, "Never was so much work done by so few men."
"In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity; in peace, good will." Although Churchill first published these words in his history of World War II, his post-World War I private secretary wrote in a 1939 book that Churchill originated this declaration in the aftermath of World War I.
"Close, but no CIGAR." This catchphrase has been common in the United States since the 1930s, when it appeared in novels and at least one movie ("Close, Colonel, but no cigar!"--Annie Oakley, 1935). Presumably that expression could be heard in Depression-era fairs and carnivals, addressed to those who didn't win cigars for, say, trying to ring the bell with a sledgehammer.
Verdict: Catchphrase most likely born in Depression-era carnivals.
"Sometimes a CIGAR is just a cigar." University of California/Davis psychology professor Alan Elms has spent years trying to verify this celebrated observation by Sigmund Freud. He's had no success. Nor has the Freud Museum in London (whose website asks anyone with leads to please contact them). Elms believes this assertion is so at odds with Freud's actual views--essentially that nothing is just anything--that it's highly unlikely he ever said it. The earliest attribution of these words to Freud that Elms could find was in a paper published by historian Peter Gay in 1961. No source was given. When Elms queried Gay about his source, the historian said it wasn't clear (which was why he gave none). Gay's 1988 biography of Freud, which discusses his love of cigars at length, makes no reference to him saying that sometimes cigars were just cigars. Nor does Elizabeth Bruehel-Young's biography of Freud's daughter Anna, to whom psychiatry's patron saint supposedly made the remark. (By other accounts Freud's remark was made in response to a question from the audience about the symbolic significance of all the cigars he smoked, following a lecture Freud gave at Clark University in Massachusetts.) As best Alan Elms can determine, this comment made its printed debut in Peter Gay's 1961 paper. Where it originated is anyone's guess. Elms wonders if Freud's most famous remark might actually be twisted Kipling ("And a woman is only a woman, but a good Cigar is a Smoke"), or perhaps the invention of a comedian imitating the father of psychoanalysis. Alternatively, when a character in Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons is offered a cigar, he responds, "A cigar's a cigar, but do let's have some lunch."
Verdict: Apocryphal Freud.
"What this country needs is a good five-cent CIGAR." Woodrow Wilson's vice president Thomas Riley Marshall (1854-1925) is famous for making this remark on the eve of America's entry into World War I. After extensive research, biographer Charles M. Thomas concluded that Marshall did say these words--while presiding over the Senate--in the midst of a speech by a senator from Kansas about "what this country needs." Thomas thought it unfortunate that the onetime governor of Indiana should be remembered primarily for a single jest. In fact, the comment was not original to him. As early as 1875 the Saturday Evening Post ran this item in its "Facetiae" feature: "The Danbury News says: 'What this country really needs is a good five cent cigar.'" A biographer of Indiana humorist Kin Hubbard said Hubbard used the quip in conversation long before his fan and fellow Hoosier Tom Marshall did.
Verdict: Thomas Marshall made this remark, in jest, but did not originate it.
span class="bold">CIVIL RIGHTS
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was the source of many memorable sayings and slogans whose provenance is not always familiar.
"We shall overcome." The roots of this protest song can be found in nineteenth-century slave songs, particularly one that declared, "I'll be all right someday." In 1901 Charles Albert Tindley, pastor of the Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, copyrighted a hymn called "I'll Overcome Some Day." In 1945, striking tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina, sang a version of this hymn. Two strikers took their version to the Highlander Folk Center in Tennessee, where it became "We Will Overcome." (Members of black church congregations at that time recall hearing gospel versions of this hymn as both "We" and "I Will Overcome.") Folksinger Pete Seeger, who learned the song from Highlander's music director, is credited with changing "will" to "shall." Seeger himself said credit for this change should be shared with Septima Clark, Highlander's director of education. Folksinger Guy Carawan learned the song from a colleague of Seeger's in the 1950s, and, after becoming Highlander's music director, taught it to civil rights activists in 1960. Since the basis for this song is a Negro spiritual, some of these activists were bemused by Carawan's presentation. "We'd been singing the song all our lives," recalled scholar-singer Bernice Johnson-Reagan, who was a member of the SNCC Freedom Singers when Carawan sang them "We Shall Overcome," "and here's the guy who just learned the song and he's telling us how to sing it. And you know what I said to myself? 'If you need it, you got it.'" Regardless of who deserves credit, "We Shall Overcome" became the anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
"Tell it like it is," the signature line of sportscaster Howard Cosell, was originally shouted by black protesters during the 1960s.
"I have a dream." Martin Luther King used this memorable phrase in several speeches before making it the set piece of his Lincoln Memorial address during the 1963 march on Washington. According to Drew Hansen, author of a book on that speech, antecedents can be found in the King James Bible. Although "I have a dream" may have been part of the prayers of other civil rights activists before King incorporated it into his own oratory, Hansen himself thinks King's inspiration was primarily biblical.
"Black is beautiful." Often mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King, this phrase was put in play by Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) leader Stokely Carmichael at a 1966 rally in Memphis. Its genesis may be The Song of Solomon 1:5: "I am black, but comely..." / "I am black but beautiful, O ye daughters of Jerusalem."
Carmichael was the most prominent civil rights leader to advocate "black power," in 1966. However, that slogan was fed to him by a less prominent member of SNCC named Willie Ricks, who used it while exhorting a Mississippi crowd the year before. Well before that, SNCC workers had already been advocating "black power for black people." In 1954, Richard Wright published a book called Black Power. This phrase was also used by Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell, and other postwar African-American leaders.
While being introduced as the new head of SNCC in 1967, H. "Rap" Brown told reporters, "I say violence is necessary. It's as American as cherry pie." Brown, of course, was adapting the old saw "as American as apple pie." His assertion has been mistakenly attributed to Stokely Carmichael, among others.
"CLOSE your eyes and think of England." This sexual advice for English wives is so Victorian that it is routinely attributed to Queen Victoria herself. Some believe that its actual originator was Lady Alice Hillingdon (for whom the "Lady Hillingdon" strain of roses is apparently named). She was married to a onetime Conservative member of parliament named Charles. Lady Hillingdon, who died in 1940, is said to have written in her diary in 1912, "I am happy now that Charles calls on my bedchamber less frequently than of old. As it is, I now endure but two calls a week, and when I hear his steps outside my door I lie down on my bed, close my eyes, open my legs and think of England." These journals were never published, however, and no one seems to know where this entry was found. Lexicographer Eric Partridge was skeptical about the attribution, and speculated that this advice may have been given seriously to British expatriate wives before it became a jokey catchphrase in more-liberated times. According to a 1943 news account, the son of British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947) said his mother advised his sister that if a suitor wanted to kiss her, she should just close her eyes and think of England. When he was having doubts about his impending marriage to Lady Diana Spencer, Prince Charles was said to have been given the same advice by his sister, Anne.
Verdict: Origins lost in the mists of English erotic history.
"Let's get out of these wet CLOTHES and into a dry martini." Although this quip is routinely misattributed to Alexander Woollcott, the theater critic did not coin it and never claimed he had. Bartlett's gave it to Woollcott in 1968 (citing Reader's Digest), humorist Robert Benchley thereafter. A decade of checking convinced biographer Howard Teichmann that Benchley deserved the credit. Bennett Cerf's 1944 book Try and Stop Me even included an anecdote about Benchley coming in from a driving rain and delivering the witticism. After Benchley died, columnist Earl Wilson said that in 1944 the humorist told him he'd used this line, but did not originate it. Benchley's son Nathaniel thought the quip began as a joke in a newspaper column, then was put in Robert Benchley's mouth by a press agent. Based on his own interview with Nathaniel Benchley, Teichmann reached a somewhat different conclusion: that a press agent working on Robert Benchley's behalf came up with the line, then passed it along to a columnist, giving credit to Benchley. In the 1942 film The Major and the Minor, Robert Benchley himself said to Ginger Rogers, "Why don't you slip out of those wet clothes and into a dry martini?" That film was written by Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder. When Los Angeles Times columnist Jack Smith, who considered the wet clothes/dry martini quip "one of the most durable and rootless lines in the language," asked Wilder about its origin, the director said he'd always assumed it originated with Benchley himself. But during shooting, Benchley told Wilder it was coined by his friend Charles Butterworth. Jack Smith considered the case closed until a reader pointed out to him that the 1937 film Every Day's a Holiday featured this exchange between the characters played by Butterworth and Charles Winninger:
WINNINGER (while anxiously awaiting the opening of a theatrical production he's bankrolled): I'm hot. Soaked all over.
BUTTERWORTH: You oughta get out of those wet clothes and get into a dry martini.
Mae West, who starred in this movie, is sometimes said to have delivered Butterworth's line. Although she was listed as its screenwriter, West was notorious for taking credit for material she didn't write.
Verdict: If not Charles Butterworth, then some anonymous press agent.
"The COLDEST winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." This popular remark has been attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. L. Mencken, and, most often, Mark Twain. Despite extensive searching no one has ever found the comment in any of Mark Twain's works. In Roughing It, Twain called San Francisco's climate "mild and singularly equable.... It is no colder, and no warmer, in the one month than the other." The source of the coldest-winter comment could be an 1880 letter in which Twain quoted an eighteenth-century wit who, when asked if he'd ever seen such a winter, replied, "Yes. Last summer." Concluded Twain: "I judge he spent his summer in Paris."
Verdict: Author unknown; conceivably adapted Twain.
"Why don't you COME up and see me some time?" What Mae West actually said to Cary Grant in She Done Him Wrong (1933) was "Why don't you come up sometime, see me?" This provocative suggestion caught the public's fancy in its revised form. West herself used the popular version in her next movie, I'm No Angel. That movie was based on the 1928 play Diamond Lil, which included the line "Why don't you come up some time?" Six years before that, in 1922, an African-American blues song was published called "He May Be Your Man, but He Comes to See Me Sometimes," a song with which West was said to be familiar. She herself thought the line probably dated back to Delilah.
Verdict: Various sources, including the public's editing ear, gave Mae West her signature line--one rooted in African-American vernacular.
"The world is a COMEDY to those who think, a tragedy to those who feel." Although this observation has been attributed to Shaw and others, it was Horace Walpole who wrote in a 1776 letter, "I have often said, this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel." His aphorism was one of many "Detached Thoughts" in The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Oxford (1798), with the word "who" replacing "that."
Verdict: Credit Horace Walpole.
"COMFORT the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." In the 1960 movie Inherit the Wind, an H. L. Mencken-like newspaper editor says, "It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Credit for this credo gets passed around. In his 1942 quotation collection, Mencken attributed the saying to "Author unidentified." Mencken himself is sometimes thought to have been that author. (He was prone to quoting himself anonymously.) Four decades before Mencken's collection was published, however, Finley Peter Dunne wrote this observation by his philosophizing bartender, Mr. Dooley: "The newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, conthrols th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward."
Verdict: Credit Mr. Dooley.
"Never COMPLAIN, never explain." In 1974 Henry Ford II was arrested for driving under the influence in Santa Barbara, California, accompanied by a young woman who was not his wife. Asked for an explanation, Ford said, "Never complain, never explain." These words were fed to him by his English public relations adviser. It was the motto of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), and was subsequently picked up by Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947), Disraeli's successor as Britain's prime minister, then passed along to others. Variations on this theme--especially "Never apologize. Never explain."--have been attributed to everyone from Oxford University's Benjamin Jowett through British Admiral Jacky Fisher to John Wayne. And, of course, Henry Ford II.
Verdict: Credit Disraeli.
"Nothing CONCENTRATES the mind so wonderfully as the prospect of being hanged." This thought is usually attributed correctly to Samuel Johnson (though it has been attributed incorrectly to Camus and to Twain). Nonetheless, we are more likely to get the gist of Dr. Johnson's sentiment correctly than his actual words. According to James Boswell, what Johnson said, with reference to the unusually vigorous writing of a condemned forger, was "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
Verdict: Credit Samuel Johnson for the thought, and his version of the words.
"CONSISTENCY is the hobgoblin of small minds." This popular saying is an oversimplified excerpt from Emerson's more nuanced thought in his 1841 essay "Self-Reliance": "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."
Verdict: Simplified Emerson.
"CONTEMPT prior to investigation." This popular observation is widely attributed to philosopher Herbert Spencer: "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation." What makes this observation so popular is that it justifies those with all manner of "alternative" approaches: homeopaths, chiropractors, herbalists, and the like. To encourage those who are skeptical of its faith-based approach to substance abuse, since 1939 Alcoholics Anonymous has included this quotation, attributed to Spencer, in twenty million copies of its book Alcoholics Anonymous. In a remarkable piece of research, writer Michael StGeorge made exhaustive efforts to locate the original expression of this thought by Herbert Spencer. Despite the fact that various sources, including scholarly ones, cited works by Spencer as the source of this quotation, StGeorge could find it nowhere in any work they cited, or in anything else written by Spencer. StGeorge did find this passage in A View of the Evidences of Christianity, a 1794 book by British theologian William Paley: "The infidelity of the Gentile world, and that more especially of men of rank and learning in it, is resolved into a principle which, in my judgment, will account for the inefficacy of any argument, or any evidence whatever, viz. contempt prior to examination." StGeorge subsequently found a revision of Paley's words in an 1879 book that was close to the version usually attributed to Spencer. The earliest attribution to Spencer he found was in separate 1931 publications written by two homeopaths. (Their version was identical to the one Alcoholics Anonymous subsequently attributed to Spencer.) George Seldes included the erroneous Spencer attribution in his 1960 book The Great Quotations. By now this ascription is so taken for granted that StGeorge even found it in a 1995 book written by a Columbia University Ph.D. A search of the Internet turned up more than forty-two hundred hits attributing the quotation to Spencer, only seven attributing it to its actual author, William Paley. Others to whom variations on the "contempt prior to investigation" theme have been attributed include Chaucer, Franklin, Emerson, Edison, Einstein, and Hemingway.
Verdict: Credit William Paley as the originator of this thought, not Herbert Spencer.
"As long as I COUNT the votes, what are you going to do about it?" This arrogant response to those who questioned his political methods is the legacy of William Marcy "Boss" Tweed (1823-1878). During his lifetime the corrupt leader of New York's Tammany Hall repeatedly disavowed that statement, and with good reason. Harper's Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast put the words in Tweed's mouth. One Nast cartoon showed Boss Tweed's thumb resting heavily on New York City. Its caption read: "The Boss. 'Well, what are you going to do about it?'" Another portrayed a tiger ravaging innocents in a stadium as Tweed and his cronies, dressed in Roman garb, enjoyed the spectacle. The caption of this cartoon was "THE TAMMANY TIGER LOOSE--'What are you going to do about it?'" In time, reporters, historians, and the public at large assumed these words were actually Tweed's. Bartlett's still does.
Verdict: Absolve Tweed; credit Nast.
"My COUNTRY, right or wrong, but my country." According to an 1848 biography of Commodore Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), the American naval officer gave this toast at an 1816 gathering in Norfolk, Virginia: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." In the same year that Decatur made his toast, a magazine reported his words as "Our country--In her intercourse with foreign nationals may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong." (Italics in the original.)
Verdict: Credit Stephen Decatur for some version of this famous vow.
"One man with COURAGE makes a majority." When he nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court in 1987, Ronald Reagan noted, "Andrew Jackson once said that one man with courage makes a majority. Obviously, Bob Bork has that courage." In his foreword to a young people's edition of Profiles in Courage, Robert Kennedy had so quoted Jackson, but without a citation. After World War II, Robert's brother John scribbled this Jackson quotation in his notebook, without a source. By tradition, in some form this is something the seventh U.S. president said. Each volume of a three-volume 1860 biography of Jackson includes as an epigraph "Desperate courage makes one a majority," implying that this was its subject's credo. Two decades later an 1881 publication called this a "Jacksonian motto." According to some sources that declaration can be found in Jackson's 1832 message to Congress vetoing renewal of a national bank charter. It can't. The genesis of this motto can be found in an inscription on the Reformation Monument in Geneva, which credits John Knox with saying, "A man with God is always in the majority." ("Un homme avec Dieu est toujours dans la majorité.") Over time many others picked up that beat ("One, on God's side, is a majority," Wendell Phillips; "Any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one," Henry David Thoreau; "One man with the law is a majority," Calvin Coolidge). Although Andrew Jackson is no less likely than anyone else to have adopted and adapted the Knox maxim, we have no conclusive proof that he did.
Verdict: Modular old saw, possibly adapted by Andrew Jackson.
"Two o'clock in the morning COURAGE." Historian Emmanuel, Comte de Las Cases, recorded the former emperor's last conversations during his exile on St. Helena. According to de las Cases, "As for moral courage, Napoleon said, he had rarely encountered the 'courage of 2 A.M.'--that is, the extemporaneous courage which, even in the most sudden emergencies, leaves one's freedom of mind, judgment, and decision completely unaffected. He asserted unequivocally that he had known himself to possess that 2 A.M. courage to a higher degree than any other man." Nearly four decades after Napoleon made this observation, Thoreau wrote in Walden of "The three-o'-clock-in-the-morning courage which Bonaparte thought was the rarest." In the inflationary 1980s, a character in Paul Theroux's novel Mosquito Coast twice referred to "four-o'clock-in-the-morning courage," without making reference to Napoleon. In Civil War, the book accompanying their PBS special on that topic, Geoffrey Ward with Ric and Ken Burns also referred to "four-o'clock-in-the-morning courage."
Verdict: Credit Napoleon, at two A.M.
"There is no limit to the good a man can do, if he doesn't care who gets the CREDIT." Variations on this theme have been attributed to Ronald Reagan (who put a sign with that saying on his desk), an aide to Gen. George Marshall (who also had the saying on his desk), Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Deepak Chopra, Rev. Dwight Moody, and others. Most often it is attributed to Benjamin Jowett (1817-1893), master of Oxford's Balliol College, though without a source. A version of the adage appeared without attribution in a 1903 issue of The Friend: A Religious and Literary Journal, and as "a saying" in C. E. Montague's book Disenchantment (1922).
Verdict: Credit Jowett, tentatively.
"Organized CRIME is bigger than U.S. Steel." When mobster Meyer Lansky died in 1983, the New York Times reported: "In a moment of triumph, Mr. Lansky once boasted to an underworld associate, 'We're bigger than U.S. Steel.'" That familiar quotation has a foggy history. While watching a 1962 television program on organized crime, Lansky might have murmured these words to his wife. The tape on which that comment allegedly appeared was recorded by FBI agents monitoring Lansky's hotel suite. Because this tape was later erased, we will never know if Lansky actually made that remark. Biographer Robert Lacey discovered in FBI files that Lansky's famous phrase was only the paraphrase of an agent reporting what he thought he'd heard on the tape. Over time this paraphrase was made into a direct quote and given dramatic play in Life, Time, and many other publications. In The Godfather II, the Lansky-inspired Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg) says of his criminal operation, "We're bigger than U.S. Steel!" Lansky himself denied saying any such thing. Lacey doubted that he did. But those compelling words became a quote that wouldn't die.
Verdict: Probably a figment of an FBI agent's overactive imagination.
"When I hear the word CULTURE, I reach for my gun." Although commonly attributed to Hitler henchman Hermann Goering, this line appeared in a clumsier form in Schlageter, a 1933 play by Nazi poet Hanns Johst: "Wenn ich Kulture hore...entsichere ich meinen Browning." Two translations of the line in question are "Whenever I hear the word culture...I release the safety-catch of my Browning [pistol]," and "When I hear the word culture, I uncock my revolver's safety catch."
Verdict: Credit Hanns Johst, not Hermann Goering, for a clumsy original version of this line.
"CUT to the chase." In classic Hollywood Westerns, a static scene would quickly shift to an active one when a group of mounted good guys threw up furious clouds of dust as they chased a group of mounted bad guys. This was called "cutting to the chase," a phrase that dates back to the early days of moviemaking. (Hollywood Girl, a 1929 novel by sometime screenwriter J. P. McEvoy, included a brief mock movie script that directed, "Cut to chase" three times.) In recent decades "cut to the chase" has jumped the fences of moviemaking to become synonymous with "Get to the point." Rare in the 1970s, this usage became more and more common as show-business terminology grew increasingly ubiquitous in everyday discourse. In the 1980s "Cut to the chase" was cited as moviemaker parlance when films were being discussed, then became a phrase commonly used by members of the cultural avant-garde. By the 1990s this catchphrase was ubiquitous in its generic, multipurpose form.
Verdict: Vintage moviemaking terminology of uncertain parentage.
"No matter how CYNICAL you get, you can't keep up." Sometimes misattributed to Woody Allen, this much-quoted insight comes from a line written by Lily Tomlin's longtime collaborator Jane Wagner and delivered by Tomlin herself in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. In that play, Tomlin's bag lady, Trudy, says, "I worry no matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."
Verdict: Credit Jane Wagner for the words, Lily Tomlin as their spokesperson.
"If I can't DANCE, it's not my revolution." Although it is generally attributed to Emma Goldman (1869-1940), the festive anarchist never made this assertion. After extensive research, biographer Alix Kates Shulman concluded that the closest words Goldman ever wrote were in her 1931 autobiography: "At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest. One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.... I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement should not be turned into a cloister." So where did the bumper-stickered version come from? Shulman thinks she herself may have been its source, indirectly. In 1973, an anarchist printer named Jack Frager asked the feminist writer for a slogan to accompany a picture of Red Emma on T-shirts he planned to sell as a fund-raiser. Shulman referred him to the passage above. The T-shirts that resulted read, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be in your revolution." Since the cause was just, and the sentiment "pure Emma," Shulman didn't point out its historical inaccuracy. Little did she know that this small seed would bloom into a thousand flowers of posters, bumper stickers, and sundry other applications of the apocryphal Goldman quotation.
Verdict: Credit Jack Frager, with help from Alix Kates Shulman, for a condensation of Emma Goldman's sentiments.
"There's a DANCE in the old dame yet." This was the oft-repeated motto of Mehitabel, an aging alley cat who claimed to have been Cleopatra in an earlier life. Mehitabel and her friend Archy the cockroach were created by humorist Don Marquis (1878-1937). The cat's signature line appeared often in archy and mehitabel (1927). That book includes "the song of mehitabel." This piece of free verse is written ee cummings-like in lowercase, as is the book as a whole, because its feline author couldn't reach her typewriter's shift key. Mehitabel's poem includes this stanza: "my youth i shall never forget / but there s nothing i really regret / wotthehell wottehell / there s a dance in the old dame yet / toujours gai toujours gai."
Verdict: Credit Don Marquis.
"It was a DARK and stormy night." The first few words of the 1830 novel Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton have become so synonymous with banal writing that an annual "Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest" rewards those who come up with the most hackneyed opening to a novel. The entire first sentence of Paul Clifford reads, "It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
Verdict: Credit Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
"Murder your DARLINGS." This common admonition to writers (suggesting that they excise the parts of their work that most delight them) is widely misattributed to the likes of Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, and William Faulkner. Its actual author was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who wrote in The Art of Writing (1916), "Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it--whole-heartedly--and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings." (Italics in original.)
Verdict: Credit Arthur Quiller-Couch.
"In the long run, we are all DEAD." In his 1924 book A Tract on Monetary Reform, John Maynard Keynes debunked economic theories based on extended timelines, ones often introduced with the phrase "in the long run." "But this long run is a misleading guide to current affairs," Keynes wrote. "In the long run we are all dead." (Italics his.) That observation by Keynes is continually requoted. Although usually attributed to him, it has been misattributed to economist John Kenneth Galbraith.
Verdict: Credit Keynes.
"A single DEATH is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." In his 1965 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré quoted Joseph Stalin as having said, "Half a million liquidated is a statistic, but one man killed in a traffic accident is a national tragedy." Seven years earlier, in 1958, similar words were attributed to Stalin in a New York Times book review: "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." Various versions of this cynical observation are typically attributed to Stalin, one of history's great cynics. No source is usually given, however, presumably because none exists. It doesn't show up in credible biographies of Stalin, and the editor of a book of his letters said not only that he'd never seen this saying in Stalin's writing but that it didn't even sound like him. Lenin has also been credited with the observation, as has Hitler henchman Heinrich Himmler. In a 1961 speech Robert Kennedy said, "Killing one man is murder. Killing millions is a statistic." Twelve years later George McGovern applied this conclusion to the "body counts" that were popular during the Vietnam War.
Verdict: Words put in Stalin's mouth.
"The reports of my DEATH are greatly exaggerated." In 1897, Mark Twain's cousin, Jim Clemens, lay gravely ill (but survived). Confusing Twain with his cousin, the New York Journal sent a reporter to find out whether Twain himself was dying, or was already dead. Twain sent the reporter back with this note: "James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration." A decade later, the author wrote that what he'd told a reporter about his alleged fatal illness was: "Say the report is exaggerated." Twain subsequently retyped this recollection, now scribbling "greatly" in front of "exaggerated" before mailing it to The North American Review, where it was published. According to this memoir, he had originally advised press inquirers to "Say the report is greatly exaggerated." Twain hadn't, of course. He was misquoting himself. But the revised version is more compelling than the original. It's the one that has lasted, typically said to have been a cable Mark Twain sent to the newspapers in New York.
Verdict: Credit Twain for both coining and improving this witticism.
"No one on his DEATHBED ever said, 'I wish I had spent more time on my business.'" In the early 1980s, a Massachusetts lawyer named Arnold Zack made this observation to his friend Paul Tsongas. Tsongas, then a U.S. senator, was suffering from the lymphoma that eventually killed him. Zack believes the thought was original to him. Tsongas repeated his friend's observation in a 1984 book. Although reviewers of this book often noted Zack's words, few mentioned his name. Tsongas himself sometimes got credit for the saying. Today this popular maxim, usually ending "more time at the office," is sometimes simply called "an old saying," "an old joke," or is introduced with the phrase "as they say..." It has also been attributed to or claimed by many others, including author H. Jackson Brown, Jr., presidential aide Vincent Foster, ex-congresswoman Pat Schroeder, executive-author Harvey MacKay (who calls the "office" version "MacKay's Moral"), Rabbi Harold Kushner (who quoted Zack's line in a 1986 book, crediting a friend of Tsongas), and sundry other members of the clergy. No attribution has more credibility than the one to Arnold Zack.
Verdict: Credit Arnold Zack.
"No good DEED goes unpunished." This epigram has floated about for decades in search of an author. Playwright-diplomat Clare Boothe Luce sometimes gets credit. So do Oscar Wilde, Gore Vidal, banker Andrew W. Mellon, and seventeenth-century English minister Thomas Brooks. A biographer attributed the quip to playwright and wit Noel Coward. In Here at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill said the thought originated with his uncle Arthur Knox. A wide range of other possible authors has been suggested. None are definitive.
Verdict: Author yet to be determined.
"DEMOCRACY is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Winston Churchill said this during a 1947 speech to the House of Commons, and is generally credited with the remark. However, Churchill introduced his observation with the words "it has been said." His full statement was "Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Verdict: Credit Churchill as publicist for the words of an unknown aphorist.
"We had to DESTROY the village in order to save it." This is by far the most familiar quotation to emerge from the Vietnam War. These few words seemed to capture perfectly the absurd futility of America's presence in Vietnam. They were originally reported by Peter Arnett of the Associated Press, who quoted an unidentified American officer on why the village of Ben Tre was leveled during the Tet Offensive in early 1968: "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." A two-paragraph version of the AP dispatch was buried of the New York Times, with no byline. Other newspapers substituted the word "village" for "town." Due to Peter Arnett's solid reputation as a reporter, this quotation was not questioned at the time. Eventually, however, doubts were expressed about its authenticity. For one thing, Ben Tre was not a town but a provincial capital of fifty thousand. For another, although heavily damaged by fighting, Ben Tre was not leveled. Only a handful of American soldiers took part in combat there. Their senior officer, army major Phil Cannella, later recalled telling Arnett that it was unfortunate that some of Ben Tre was destroyed in the course of its defense. Canella thought he might have said at most, "It was a shame the town was destroyed." Cannella, who later turned against the war, believes Arnett may have embellished this comment by him. Arnett himself has steadfastly refused to identify the source of this famous quotation. He did tell writer Peter Braestrup it was one of four officers he'd interviewed on that day in 1968. As Braestrup pointed out in his book Big Story, the day before Arnett's story ran, columnist James Reston wrote in his New York Times column, "How do we win by military force without destroying what we are trying to save?" Reston's column concluded, "How will we save Vietnam if we destroy it in battle?"
Verdict: A quotation this seminal needs better confirmation.
"The DEVIL is in the details." Architect Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) was fond of observing that "God is in the details." He may have picked up the saying from Aby Warburg (1866-1929), a distinguished German art historian who liked to say, "The good God is in the details." This may be no more than a traditional German proverb. A French version, "Le bon Dieu est dans le détail," has been attributed to Flaubert, but without a source. In the mid-seventeenth century, Amsterdam professor Caspar Barleaus wrote, "Believe me that in the smallest particle God is enshrined." The Christian conviction that God resided in every detail of the world antedated this observation. In recent times, Lucifer replaced the Lord in what's become the more common version of van der Rohe's credo. One disseminator of this version, Adm. Hyman Rickover (1900-1986), liked to say, "The devil is in the details, and everything we do in the military is a detail." A 1978 news article called this variant "an old German saying." That saying, "Der Teufel steckt im Detail," shows up in books of German idioms. (An English variant is "The devil is in the dice.") In Your Own Words (2004), language maven Barbara Wallraff noted that before presidential aspirant H. Ross Perot began using the devil version in the early 1990s, neither saying was especially common or favored in the United States. Since then the "devil" version has become more widespread. The unanswered question is, which came first: God or the Devil?
Verdict: Proverbial wisdom.
"The greatest trick the DEVIL ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist." This line from the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects owes an unacknowledged debt to Charles Baudelaire's 1864 story "The Generous Gambler." That story depicts a preacher who shouts from his pulpit, "My dear brothers, when you hear the progress of the enlightenment extolled, never forget that the devil's cleverest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist!" Whether the French writer originated this comment is unknown. In the years since his story was published, that thought has been borrowed by sundry preachers, theologians, and screenwriters.
Verdict: Credit Baudelaire as propagator of this quotation, and possibly as its author.
"Better to DIE on our feet than live on our knees." Franklin D. Roosevelt made that vow while accepting an honorary degree from Oxford University in 1941. Republican firebrand Dolores Ibarruri ("La Pasionaria") said this repeatedly during the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War. Ibarruri may have been inspired by Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, who reportedly said two decades earlier, "Better to die on your feet than live on your knees." ("Es mejor morir de pie que vivir de rodillas.") Although it is unlikely that Zapata spoke Yiddish, "Better to die upright than to live on your knees" is called a Yiddish proverb by proverb scholar Wolfgang Mieder. In 1866, a Quaker teacher in Virginia quoted a recently freed slave as saying, "It 'pears like, miss, we should live on our knees, for this great blessed freedom we now have."
Verdict: Too old and too obvious an idea for specific attribution.
"I DISAPPROVE of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it." This most familiar of quotations is usually attributed to Voltaire. However, the closest known words of Voltaire's that anyone has ever found are from his essay "Tolerance": "Think for yourself, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too." The more memorable sentence originated with Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall (using the pen name S. G. Tallentyre), who composed it in 1906 to characterize Voltaire's attitude toward a colleague's writing. For added weight, Hall put her composition in quotation marks, as if this sentence came straight from Voltaire's mouth, or pen. Twenty-eight years later, the Reader's Digest published the biographer's words over her subject's name as a "Quotable Quote."
Verdict: Credit Evelyn Beatrice Hall, not Voltaire.
"A house DIVIDED against itself cannot stand." Abraham Lincoln's famous "House Divided" speech drew on biblical antecedents, especially Mark 3:25: "And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand." But the genesis of this saying is not just scriptural. As Wolfgang Mieder has explored meticulously in "A House Divided": From Biblical Proverb to Lincoln and Beyond (1996), this New Testament advisory had become secularized long before Lincoln made it the centerpiece of his 1858 speech in Springfield, Illinois. As early as 1704, a New England Quaker recorded in a journal his mother's frequent admonition that "A house divided could not stand." Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776) included the phrase "a house divided against itself." In 1793, America's ambassador to France, Gouverneur Morris, wrote to George Washington, "I am induced to quote a sound maxim from an excellent book;--'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'" By the early nineteenth century, different versions of this proverb were used frequently in political discourse, especially by Andrew Jackson. In 1850 Texas senator Sam Houston warned that "a nation divided against itself cannot stand," the earliest known application of the proverb to America's growing fissure over slavery. A year later Daniel Webster said in an antislavery speech, "If a house be divided against itself, it will fall, and crush every body in it." Similar observations were increasingly common in the run-up to the Civil War. Presumably Abraham Lincoln was familiar with at least some of them by the time he too warned of "a house divided." As Wolfgang Mieder points out, Lincoln admired Webster, and used an earlier speech by the Massachusetts senator as source material for his own in 1858.
Verdict: Biblical wisdom with many iterations before Lincoln took it over.
"Those who can, DO. Those who can't, teach." The "Maxims for Revolutionists" in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman (1903) included "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches." In his usual ham-handed revision style, turn-of-century aphorist Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) transformed this to "Folks who can, do; those who can't, chin." Shaw's version has been misattributed to H. L. Mencken. In our gender-neutral times, this thought is more often expressed as "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach."
Verdict: Credit Shaw.
"It's not that he DOES it well, but that he does it at all." According to a TV Guide writer "A critic once wrote of a one-legged tap dancer: 'The miracle is not that he does it well, but that he does it at all.'" If this is so, that critic borrowed liberally from Samuel Johnson's classic observation about a Quakeress who gave a sermon: As James Boswell wrote of a 1763 exchange in his Life of Johnson: "I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. Johnson: 'Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.'" In some versions Johnson is misremembered as having referred to a dog talking, or playing the fiddle.
Verdict: Adapted Johnson.
"If you want a friend in Washington, get a DOG." Truman Library archivists question the common attribution of this quip to the thirty-third U.S. president. They point out that Truman spent much of his young manhood on a farm, where dogs were helpers more than pets. Harry and his wife, Bess, had no particular fondness for dogs, and gave away the two that were given to them while they lived in the White House. So why is "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog" so routinely attributed to Harry Truman? Because the script of Samuel Gallu's 1975 play, Give 'em Hell, Harry, had Truman saying, "You want a friend in life, get a dog!" This script was subsequently published in book form. A few years later New York Times correspondent Maureen Dowd attributed the remark to Truman (with "Washington" taking the place of "life"), as did President Bill Clinton. Clinton's predecessor, George H. W. Bush, more accurately credited the quip to "some cynic."
Verdict: An old saw put in Harry Truman's mouth.
"Any man who hates DOGS and children can't be all bad." W. C. Fields's credo was actually said about the comedian, not by him. At a 1939 Masquers banquet in Fields's honor, Leo Rosten, at the time a young sociologist studying the movie industry, was invited to say a few words about the featured guest. Rosten blurted out, "The only thing I can say about Mr. W. C. Fields, whom I have admired since the day he advanced upon Baby LeRoy with an ice pick, is this: Any man who hates babies and dogs can't be all bad." Two weeks later Rosten's quip was mentioned in Time magazine. Since so few people had heard of Leo Rosten at the time, it didn't take long for his words to land in Fields's own mouth, where they've stayed ever since. Rosten wasn't the first one to use this line, however. Nearly two years before the Masquers banquet, Harper's Monthly ran a column by Cedric Worth about a 1930 New York cocktail party that featured a man who had a case against dogs. After leaving the party, Worth found himself in an elevator with New York Times reporter Byron Darnton. As the elevator made its way to the ground, Darnton observed, "No man who hates dogs and children can be all bad."
Verdict: Credit Byron Darnton as originator, Leo Rosten as publicist.
"The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving DOGS." ("Plus je apprend à connaître l'homme, plus je apprend à estimer le chien.") This observation is generally credited to Charles de Gaulle, apparently on the basis of a 1967 attribution in a Time magazine article about a collection of the French president's remarks. In centuries past many other French natives have been credited with the same basic thought. They include the inimitable letter-writer Madame de Sévigné (Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Marquise de Sévigné, 1626-1696), the revolutionary writer Madame Roland (Marie-Jeanne Philipon, 1754-1793), author-politician Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), author Alphonse Toussenel (1803-1885), and author Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908).
Verdict: Charles de Gaulle was the most recent spokesperson for a long-standing Gallic take on humanity.
"He marches to a different DRUMMER." In the last chapter of Walden (1854), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote, "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer." According to a literary review published in 1880, an unpublished manuscript Thoreau once read to a group of listeners in Concord included a more personalized version: "If I do not keep step with my companions it is because I hear a different drummer."
Verdict: Credit Thoreau, for a longer assertion than the more common, more compressed version.
"There's more old DRUNKARDS than there are old doctors." Poor Richard's "There's more old drunkards than old doctors" echoed an earlier comment by François Rabelais (circa 1483-1553), "A hundred devils leap into my body, if there are not more old drunkards than old physicians." ("Cent diables me saultent au corps s'il n'y a plus de vieuix hyurognes, qu'il n'y a de vieuix medecins.") The quip later showed up in a 1963 Willie Nelson song: "But there's more old drunks than there are old doctors / So I guess we'd better have another round."
Verdict: Credit Rabelais.
"The DUSTBIN of history." This is where Bolshevik Leon Trotsky consigned rival Mensheviks during the Russian Revolution in 1917. "You are pitiful isolated individuals," Trotsky told them. "You are bankrupts; your role is played out. Go where you belong from now on--into the dustbin of history!" A different translation of Trotsky's history of the Russian Revolution substituted the term "rubbish-can of history." According to Russian-speaking writer Keith Gessen, the term Trotsky used, svalka, was originally translated by John Reed as "garbage heap," but was toned down to "dust heap," or "dustbin" over time. Although Trotsky's exclamation thrust the term "dustbin of history" into the vernacular, it was not original to him. In an 1884 essay, English author-statesman Augustine Birrell (1850-1933) referred to "that great dust-heap called 'history.'" This suggests either that Trotsky read Birrell, or, more likely, that this catchphrase was in popular play at the time.
Verdict: Trotsky's popularization of a preexisting concept.
"DUTY, then, is the sublimest word in our language. Do your duty in all things.... You cannot do more, you should never wish to do less." For years after Robert E. Lee's death in 1870, this thought--said to have been excerpted from an 1852 letter to his son G. W. Custis Lee--was considered one of the Confederate general's most eloquent statements. Questions were raised soon after its 1864 appearance in print, however, and in 1914 University of Virginia law professor Charles Graves gave a long paper summarizing the evidence that this supposed piece of writing by Lee was spurious. Since then no serious scholar has taken Lee's "Duty Letter" seriously.
Verdict: Apocryphal Lee.
"DYING is easy. Comedy is hard." In the 1982 movie My Favorite Year, an aging movie star played by Peter O' Toole says, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." Some think that this famous observation originated with English actor Edmund Kean (1789-1833). More often it is attributed to Welsh actor Edmund Gwenn (1875-1959). On his deathbed, in response to the comment, "It must be very hard," Gwenn supposedly responded, "It is. But not as hard as farce." In another version Gwenn responded, "Oh, it's hard, very hard indeed. But not as hard as doing comedy," when Jack Lemmon observed that facing death must be hard. Yet another account had director George Seaton playing straight man in that exchange. (Lemmon's biographer gave the nod to Seaton.) Others to whom the deathbed quip has been attributed include Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, Marcel Marceau, Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, David Garrick, and Sir Donald Wolfit. This exchange almost certainly comes under the heading of spurious "famous last words" that were later put in the mouth of the deceased.
Verdict: Invented "last words" making the show business rounds.
"DYING is no big deal, the least of us will manage that. Living is the trick." Sportswriter Red Smith is famous for having said this during a eulogy for a friend. In his exhaustive encyclopedia of world proverbs, Wolfgang Mieder cites "To die is easy, to live is hard" as a Japanese proverb, and "It is hard to die but it is harder to live" as one from the Philippines. In 1942, Bulgarian-British author Elias Canetti wrote, "Dying is too easy. It ought to be much harder to die," and in 1769 Samuel Johnson said, "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives."
Verdict: Red Smith's take on an old idea.
"You are what you EAT." During the 1960s, this became a counterculture catchphrase, sometimes misattributed to Karl Marx. It was German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, however, who in 1850 punned in his own language "Man ist was man isst." ("Man is what he eats.") A quarter century earlier, French politician Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are." ("Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.")
Verdict: A collaboration between Ludwig Feuerbach and Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
"An EDITOR is one who separates the wheat from the chaff and prints the chaff." This witticism is routinely attributed to Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965). However, when Stevenson was still a child, aphorist Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915) defined "Editor" as "A person employed on a newspaper, whose business it is to separate the wheat from the chaff, and to see that the chaff is printed." Since Hubbard was a chronic thief of other people's ideas, it's unlikely that this thought began with him. He may have been inspired by Oscar Wilde's observation in The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) that every man-made law "straws the wheat and saves the chaff."
Verdict: An old notion applied to editors, by Elbert Hubbard in any event.
Albert Einstein had his secretary give this definition of "relativity" to the many reporters who inquired: "An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute; but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour." Since he expressed himself in such plain, vivid language, Einstein was an eminently quotable figure. The brilliant physicist also played an important iconic role by being so intellectually accessible. When the human embodiment of genius made comprehensible observations, we felt reassured. Einstein's many warnings about the perils of unbridled technological advance confirmed our own suspicions. His compelling commentary on a wide range of subjects made the German-born physicist a sort of Emerson with an accent. We loved and love to quote Albert Einstein.
As a result, since his death in 1955, Einstein has become a primary source of things he never said. The physicist himself noted, "Many things which go under my name are badly translated from the German or are invented by other people." Because Einstein's name is synonymous with brilliance, any orphan quotation that sounds genius-like is liable to end up in his mouth. Because he so improbably believed in the power of imagination, spiritual reverence, clear expression, and the limits of technology, Einstein's comments along these lines are often quoted, along with a wide range of comments he never made.
Fortunately, based on more than two decades of work with Einstein's papers, Alice Calaprice has been able to verify or debunk a wide range of his quotations. In some cases the German-speaking editor has done her own translations. Calaprice's results are gathered in The New Quotable Einstein. The following assessment of Einstein's most popular quotations, and misquotations, draws on that resource, and others as well.
"God does not play dice." This is a condensation of Einstein's 1926 observation about God in a letter to Max Born: "I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice." (Calaprice's translation is "I, in any case, am convinced that He does not play dice.") Sixteen years later, in 1942, Einstein reiterated this conviction in different words: "It is hard to sneak a look at God's cards. But that he would choose to play dice with the world...is something I cannot believe for a single moment." Biographer Phillip Frank quotes Einstein as having said, "I shall never believe," and "I cannot believe that God plays dice with the world." Obviously this thought was much on Einstein's mind. Frank also quoted Einstein as having said, "God is sophisticated, but he is not malicious."
"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Einstein made this observation during a 1941 New York symposium titled "Science, Philosophy and Religion." He subsequently observed that "Epistemology without contact with science becomes an empty scheme. Science without epistemology is--insofar as it is thinkable at all--primitive and muddled." Noting that Einstein was not above adapting ideas already expressed by others, Alice Calaprice called attention to this antecedent from Immanuel Kant, a philosopher Einstein admired: "Notion without intuition is empty, intuition without notion is blind."
"The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." Various versions of this 1946 comment by Einstein are tossed about, usually in crisper form. In 1991, for example, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan referred to "something Einstein said once: 'Everything is changed, except our way of thinking.'"
"I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the fourth--rocks!" Einstein said this in a 1949 interview.
"I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious." Einstein observed this about himself to biographer Carl Seelig, among others.
"Imagination is more important than knowledge." Einstein was so quoted in a 1929 Saturday Evening Post profile.
Like Lincoln, Twain, Churchill, and others, Einstein has had many quotations put in his mouth by those who believe that a few words on their behalf by the world's leading genius might bolster their cause. One particularly egregious example is a spurious Einstein quotation making favorable reference to astrology. The physicist has been widely, and inaccurately, quoted as saying that compounded interest, or the income tax, is harder to understand than his own theory of relativity. He is one among many who are credited with defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result. Einstein has also been mistakenly credited with "God (or the DEVIL) is in the details." Since he himself once quoted "a wit" as saying that education is what remains after one has forgotten everything learned in school, that commonplace is sometimes attributed to him and to many others as well. (The "wit" might have been humorist Kin Hubbard, who wrote, "It's what we learn after we think we know it all that counts." See sidebar "Humorists.")
Among a multitude of Einstein misquotations in circulation, these are the most common:
"Only twelve people in the world can understand my theory." When he visited the United States in 1921, Einstein made a point of denying that he ever made this uncharacteristic remark, which was often attributed to him.
"There is no hitching post in the universe." Einstein asked George Seldes to delete this observation from his compilation Great Thoughts, noting that it was a classic illustration of how he'd been misquoted. The quip was said to have been Einstein's response to a reporter's request for a one-line definition of his theory of relativity upon his arrival in New York in 1930. According to the New York Times's account of that shipboard press conference, when asked to define his theory of relativity in one sentence, Einstein responded, "It would take me three days to give a short definition of relativity."
"If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker." ("Plumber" is sometimes substituted for "watchmaker.") The obvious implication of this popular misquotation is that Einstein felt remorseful about a career in which he helped invent the atomic bomb. Einstein said no such thing. In a 1954 letter to the editor, the physicist did use similar words to make a very different point. Einstein's letter, in response to a series of articles in The Reporter magazine about scientists in America, included these lines: "If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances." On other occasions, the reclusive, violin-playing physicist said he might rather have been a musician, or lighthouse keeper.
"Heaven is like a library." Einstein was so quoted in the movie IQ. The more likely source of this analogy is Jorge Luis Borges's observation "I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library."
"If you are out to describe the truth, leave elegance to the tailor." In the preface to his 1916 book Relativity, Einstein said he never concerned himself with elegance when trying to present his ideas clearly. "I adhered scrupulously to the precept of that brilliant theoretical physicist L. Boltzmann," he explained (referring to Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, 1844-1906), "according to whom matters of elegance ought to be left to the tailor and the cobbler." Boltzmann's precept is often attributed to Einstein himself.
"We use only 10 percent of our brains." According to Alice Calaprice, this commonly cited Einsteinism is apocryphal.
Other widely circulated quotations that Calaprice has concluded did not come from Einstein's mouth or pen include:
If you think intelligence is dangerous, try ignorance.
There is no hope for an idea that at first does not seem insane.
Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.
If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts.
In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.
There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.
"ELEMENTARY, my dear Watson." In the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, these words are never uttered by Sherlock Holmes, or by anyone else. In Doyle's The Crooked Man, Dr. Watson does have this exchange with Holmes: "'Excellent!" I cried. "'Elementary," said he." The more familiar version first appeared in The Return of Sherlock Holmes. In this 1929 film (whose screenplay was written by Garrett Fort and Basil Dean), actor Clive Brook, who played Holmes, said, "Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary."
Verdict: Credit Arthur Conan Doyle for the inspiration, Garrett Fort and Basil Dean for the actual words.
"ELEVEN O'CLOCK Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America." Martin Luther King, Jr., often made this observation in speeches and sermons during the 1950s and 60s. It is among his most famous quotations. But in one speech King prefaced the remark by saying, "Still the most segregated hour" (emphasis added), indicating that the thought had a longer provenance. In a 1960 Reader's Digest article, Billy Graham wrote, "It has become a byword that 'the most segregated hour of the week is still eleven o'clock Sunday morning.'" The use of the word "still" by both King and Graham suggests their awareness of how long this comment had been in circulation. Indeed, it appeared in the American press throughout the 1950s, as when Dr. Kenneth Miller, executive secretary of the New York Mission Society, told a 1953 conference, "What we have to do is practice brotherhood every day and stop having the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday [be] the most segregated hour of the week."
Verdict: King said it, as did Graham, and others before them.
RALPH WALDO EMERSON
A wise, but accessible, dead philosopher is bound to be a popular source of things he never said. Such is the case with Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transcendental clergyman-philosopher-essayist made so many quotable observations on such a wide range of subjects that he lends himself to misquotation. Emerson's writing teems with insightful comments--just not as many as we think. Since his death in 1882, this people's philosopher has been the subject of more than one controversy involving quotations he may or may not have originated. (See especially "Build a better MOUSETRAP and the world will beat a path to your door.")
Emerson himself was ambivalent about quoting others. "I hate quotations," he once wrote. "Tell me what you know." Yet Emerson himself was a constant quoter. "By necessity, by proclivity--and by delight, we all quote," he observed. And: "Next to the originator of a good sentence is the first quoter of it." In the process of quotation Emerson himself didn't always get it right. In his essay "Experience," the philosopher mistakenly attributed "It's WORSE than a crime, it's a blunder!" to Napoleon. Emerson also perpetrated this minor misquotation in alluding to an observation by Walter Scott: "Wherever Macdonald sits, there is the head of the table." Scott's own words were "Where MacGregor sits, there is the head of the table."
Emerson was not above borrowing thoughts from others. For example, he once wrote in his journal an observation now commonly attributed to him that begins, "A man is known by the BOOKS he reads, by the company he keeps, by the praise he gives...." This drew on an earlier thought by one William Law: "We commonly say, that a man is known by his Companions; but it is certain, that a Man is much more known by the Books that he converses with." According to a biographer, Emerson once told Oliver Wendell Holmes, "When you strike at a king you must kill him." Some sources say that "Never strike a king unless you are sure you shall kill him" can be found in Emerson's journal for September 1843, but it can't. In any event, this thought could well have been inspired by an English proverb from the early seventeenth century: "Whosoever draws his sword against the prince must throw the scabbard away."
In his essay "Worship," Emerson wrote, "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons." The kernel of this remark apparently came from something Johnson told Boswell a century earlier: "If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons." In The Biglow Papers, written in 1848, several years before Emerson wrote his essay, James Russell Lowell portrayed a semi-literate Massachusetts private in the Mexican War who writes home, "Ef these creeturs / Thet stick an Anglosaxon mask onto State-prison feeturs / Should come to Jaalam Centre fer to argify an' spout on 't, / The gals 'ould count the silver spoons the minnit they cleared out on 't." This suggests that "count your spoons" was a saying in common use long before it was requisitioned by Emerson.
Many of Emerson's own observations have entered the vernacular in a condensed form that alters their meaning. The phrase "a foolish," for example, is routinely omitted from his observation that "A foolish CONSISTENCY is the hobgoblin of little minds...." "What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say," often credited to Emerson, apparently is a condensation of something he wrote in Letters and Social Aims: "Don't say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary."
"Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail" is commonly attributed to Emerson. No source of this quotation has ever been found in his works or those of anyone else. Nor has "What lies behind us / And what lies before us / Are tiny matters / Compared to what lies WITHIN us," also regularly attributed to Emerson without any evidence. The mini-essay beginning "He has achieved SUCCESS, who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much..." is routinely misattributed to him. Other quotations sometimes misattributed to Emerson include: "We do not INHERIT the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children," and "I expect to PASS through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creatures, let me do it now."
"We have met the ENEMY and he is us." In his foreword to The Pogo Papers (1953), cartoonist Walt Kelly wrote, "Resolve then, that on this very ground, with small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us." Kelly later extracted the smoother, terser version, which became one of the most requoted lines of modern times after it appeared on a 1970 poster promoting the first Earth Day. In 1971 he drew a two-panel cartoon that depicted Pogo and his friend Porkypine examining junk littering their Okefenokee swamp. "It is hard walking on this stuff," says Porkypine. "Yep, son," responds Pogo. "We have met the enemy and he is us." To better suit gender-neutral sensibilities, the ending of this quotation is often altered to conclude "and it is us."
Verdict: Credit Walt Kelly.
"We have met the ENEMY and they are ours..." Following his 1813 victory over the British on Lake Erie, Adm. Oliver Hazard Perry scribbled in pencil on the back of an old letter, "Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours: Two ships, two Brigs one Schooner & one Sloop," then sent this message to Gen. William Henry Harrison and the history books.
Verdict: Credit Admiral Perry.
"ENGLAND and America are two countries separated by the same language." Reader's Digest attributed this thought to George Bernard Shaw, in 1942, but gave no source. The comment subsequently showed up in many quote collections over Shaw's name. The Library of Congress could not find this observation in any of the playwright's published works. Its genesis may be Oscar Wilde's earlier line in The Canterville Ghost (1887), "We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language." Similar observations have been credited to Bertrand Russell, Dylan Thomas, and Winston Churchill.
Verdict: Adapted Wilde.
"This is the sort of ENGLISH up with which I will not put." Winston Churchill is famous for making this response to an officious grammarian who corrected a sentence of his that ended with a preposition. No one has a reliable citation, however, and the context in which Churchill's comment was supposedly made varies widely. So does the wording of his purported remark. Washington State English professor Paul Brians has found at least fourteen variations circulating on and off the Internet. The source most commonly cited for the Churchill attribution is Sir Ernest Gowers, who wrote in Plain Words (1948), "It is said that Mr. Winston Churchill once made this marginal comment against a sentence that clumsily avoided a prepositional ending: 'This is the sort of English up with which I will not put." Brians could find no index reference to "prepositions" in any Churchill biography. He did find on the Internet an astonishing array of narrative versions of his attributed rejoinder that gave the supposed context. In Brians's account, "Sometimes the person rebuked by Churchill is a correspondent, a speech editor, a bureaucrat, or an audience member at a speech and sometimes it is a man, sometimes a women, and sometimes even a young student. Sometimes Churchill writes a note, sometimes he scribbles the note on the corrected manuscript, and often he is said to have spoken the rebuke aloud. The text concerned was variously a book manuscript, a speech, an article, or a government document." Another quotographer, Ben Zimmer, found a 1942 Wall Street Journal item that attributed a variation of this comment ("offensive impertinence, up with which I will not put") to an anonymous government memo writer. The Journal's source was The Strand magazine of London. Since Churchill was a Strand contributor, Zimmer noted, would they not have identified him if he were the author of this witticism? Zimmer found that it was only after the war ended that this quip began to be attributed to Churchill in the press--including, ironically, the Wall Street Journal. This process culminated in Gowers's 1948 attribution. Since then it's been Churchill all the way.
Verdict: An old joke put in Winston Churchill's mouth.
"Peace, commerce, and honest friendship for all nations, ENTANGLING alliances with none." Although the phrase "entangling alliances" is more associated with George Washington than with Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson first used that term in the above portion of his first inaugural address. In his farewell address, the first president of the United States did say, "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world," and "Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?" But Washington referred to "entangling alliances" only in our memories. This hook phrase made it easier for us to recall Washington's warning, even though the words belonged to Jefferson. Martin Van Buren echoed them when he said in his 1840 message to Congress that the United States was "Bound by no entangling alliances..."
Verdict: Credit Jefferson.
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of EVIL is that good men do nothing." In a poll conducted by Oxford University Press as the new millennium got underway, a version of this quotation was the most popular of one hundred candidates. It circulates widely in various forms (scores of variations can be found in thousands of postings on the Internet), and is usually attributed to Edmund Burke. That attribution appeared in the American press as early as 1950. John Kennedy liked to use this quotation in his speeches, crediting Burke. In their fourteenth edition (1968) Bartlett's Familiar Quotations not only attributed the comment to Burke but cited a 1795 letter in which he supposedly wrote it. The preface to Bartlett's fifteenth edition (1980) admitted the error, and said no valid source of this familiar quotation could be located. Despite diligent searching by librarians and others, no one has ever found these words in the works of Edmund Burke, or anyone else.
Verdict: Author unknown.
"Whenever I feel an urge to EXERCISE I lie down until it goes away." This observation is often attributed to Mark Twain. It certainly "sounds like" the sedentary author. Others who get credit for the witticism include W. C. Fields, animator Paul Terry, and--most often--former University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins. According to biographer Harry S. Ashmore, this line originated with humorist J. P. McEvoy and was one of many that Hutchins squirreled away to use at appropriate moments. In a 1938 profile of Hutchins, McEvoy himself wrote in American Mercury, "He holds with that hero who confessed: 'The secret of my abundant health is that whenever the impulse to exercise comes over me, I lie down until it passes away.'" If "that hero" was McEvoy himself, he wouldn't be the first writer to put his own words in an anonymous mouth. A version of this line ("Every time I think of exercise, I have to lie right down 'til the feeling leaves me.") appeared in the 1939 movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, whose screenplay was written by Sidney Buchman.
Verdict: Not Twain, not Hutchins, more likely J. P. McEvoy.
"EXPERIENCE is the name every one gives to their mistakes." Oscar Wilde liked this thought so much that he used different forms of it in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and two plays: Vera, or the Nihilists (1882) and Lady Windermere's Fan (1892). According to Leo Rosten, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, Sydney Smith, Samuel Butler, and Voltaire have also been given credit for a version of these words. Rosten himself thought they began as an old Jewish folk saying.
Verdict: Credit Wilde for putting a widespread hunch into words.
"We're EYEBALL to eyeball, and I think the other fellow just blinked." This was how Secretary of State Dean Rusk depicted the denouement of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Saturday Evening Post thought so much of Rusk's comment that they put it on their cover, to tease a 1962 article about the crisis. "Eyeball to eyeball" was common military lingo during the Korean War. Former Army Chief of Staff Harold Johnson told William Safire that the phrase originated early in that war when the Twenty-fourth Infantry Regiment was confronted by a furious enemy attack. MacArthur's headquarters asked if they'd had contact with the enemy. Their widely reported reply was that they and the enemy were "eyeball to eyeball." In an anthology called Wild Blue, a 1953 depiction of Korean War air combat by Capt. Jack Jordan reported that he and his fellow pilots sometimes dived close enough to see enemy ground soldiers "eyeball to eyeball." In a 1959 movie about Korean War combat called Pork Chop Hill, an American Army officer played by Gregory Peck orders his soldiers to fix bayonets, then observes, "The Chinese love this eyeball-to-eyeball stuff." Perhaps Dean Rusk saw Pork Chop Hill.
Verdict: A Korean War catchphrase popularized by Dean Rusk.
"At fifty, everyone has the FACE he deserves." The last words George Orwell wrote in his notebook, on April 17, 1949, were "At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves." Orwell was hardly the only one to whom this thought had occurred. Some think Lincoln thought we were responsible for our face after the age of thirty, or forty (there is no evidence that he did). The Viking Book of Aphorisms attributes "A man of fifty is responsible for his face" to Lincoln's war secretary, Edwin Stanton. A century later, Albert Camus wrote in The Fall (1960), "Alas, after a certain age every man is responsible for his face." Nearly three decades after that, in The American Ambassador (1987), novelist Ward Just wrote of a character, "If at forty everyone has the face he's earned..."
Verdict: A popular thought put in modern play by George Orwell.
"FAMOUS for being famous." In his 1962 book The Image, historian Daniel Boorstin wrote that "The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness." In its more popular form--"famous for being famous"--this thought gets passed around, most often landing in the lap of Andy Warhol (presumably on the assumption that someone who said one famous thing about fame must have said another).
Verdict: Credit the concept to Daniel Boorstin, the words to time.
"The only thing we have to FEAR is fear itself." Shortly before his first inauguration Franklin Delano Roosevelt was given an anthology of Henry David Thoreau's writings. This volume included Thoreau's 1852 thought that "Nothing is so much to be feared as fear." Thoreau's book was in FDR's hotel suite as he wrote his inaugural address. An aide thought Walden's author was the probable source of Roosevelt's most memorable line, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," which did not appear until a late draft of his inaugural address. But Thoreau's thought itself had antecedents: "The thing of which I have most fear is fear" (Michel de Montaigne, 1580), "Nothing is terrible except fear itself" (Francis Bacon, 1623), and "The only thing I am afraid of is fear" (Duke of Wellington, circa 1832).
Verdict: Credit the thought to Montaigne, its improvement to Bacon, and the final version to FDR, with help from Thoreau.
Like the Civil Rights Movement, feminism has been the source of many comments whose authenticity or origins aren't always clear.
"Burn your bra." This presumed feminist exhortation has its roots in a 1968 protest against the Miss America pageant. Protesters were invited to discard symbols of restriction, such as brassieres. None went up in flames. During the era of draft card burning and flag burning, however, it wasn't hard to imagine that the skies were bright with the flames of bras ablaze. This remains a popular, and exciting, mismemory.
Because she edited a 1970 collection of feminist writing called Sisterhood Is Powerful, many quote collections (including The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) attribute this phrase to onetime Ms. editor Robin Morgan. Morgan herself called it "a slogan we use on marches..." Before Morgan's book was published, however, that slogan had already been used as the title of a magazine article by Susan Brownmiller. Brownmiller said she'd seen it on a button. According to one history of feminism, "sisterhood is powerful" first appeared in print in a January 1968 pamphlet written by radical feminist Kathie Amatniek.
"A WOMAN needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." Although this piece of feminist humor is commonly attributed to Gloria Steinem, she herself disavows authorship. A more accurate attribution is to Australian activist Irina Dunn, who says that in 1970 she based the slogan on an atheist observation about man needing God like a fish needs a bicycle.
A 1973 Ms. magazine profile of activist lawyer Florynce Kennedy (1916-2000) by Gloria Steinem included a compendium of Kennedy's salty observations. One was "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." Since then, this feminist truism has generally been attributed to Kennedy. However, a decade after making this attribution, Steinem admitted that the quip's real author was an Irish cabdriver, an elderly woman, who--while ferrying her and Kennedy around Boston in the early 1970s--said, "Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."
"Good FENCES make good neighbors." Although Robert Frost did write this in "Mending Wall" (1914), the thought is clearly attributed to a neighbor of that poem's narrator. In any event, it's an adage with a long history. In 1846, Dwight's American Magazine, and Family Newspaper included "Good fences make good neighbors" in its "Farmer's Calendar" feature. That saying subsequently appeared in other American publications, almanacs especially. In 1864 the Ecclesiastical Register called this saying "an old adage." The earliest known appearance of an analogue was in a 1640 letter from Rev. Ezekiel Rogers to Massachusetts governor John Winthrop, which included the phrase "a good fence helpeth to keepe peace betweene neighbours..." Proverb scholar Wolfgang Mieder notes similar sayings from other cultures, such as "There must be a fence between good neighbors" (Norway), and "Build a fence even between intimate friends" (Japan).
Verdict: Robert Frost was the most prominent publicist of a very old adage.