Quotations in their original context
“One good turn deserves another.”
Petronius (died c.66)
In Roman writer Petronius’ prose satirical romance, The Satyricon, section 45, idle chatter follows a feast in the house of a noble who has retired for the evening. His guests discuss an upcoming gladiatorial spectacle. Echion, a clothing merchant, complains of the quality of the action. He explains that he clapped for a performance by Norbanus and insinuated that his applause was more than Norbanus’ performance warranted, because in a past match, the gladiators fought badly. “Reckon it up,” Echion says, “and I gave you more than I got. One good turn deserves another.”
“You have hit the nail on the head.”
François Rabelais (1495–1553)
In the five-part satirical work Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532–1564), a collection of allegories featuring fantastic characters and places by French humorist François Rabelais, a friend of Pantagruel cannot decide if he should marry. He eventually accepts the advice of a physician who discourages him. Muttering in agreement, he says, “It is not very inexpedient that I marry, and that I should not care for being a cuckold. You have there hit the nail on the head.” The expression wormed its way into English vernacular due to its frequent use by British general Johnny Burgoyne (1722–1792), who was fond of saying it to his troops during shooting practice. Forced to give up a life devoted to the stage, Burgoyne took his love for drama onto the battlefield during the American Revolution. After he surrendered at Saratoga, New York, in 1777, Burgoyne happily resumed his vocation England, publishing The Heiress (1786), in which the popular expression appears in Act III.
“Knowledge is power.”
Francis Bacon (1561–1626)
The quotation first appeared in English theologian Francis Bacon’s infamous essay Of Heresies in 1597. Now an “information age” mantra, the phrase originated in quite a different context. In writing of heresy, Bacon believed that those heresies which denied or limited the power of God were the most offensive. In particular, he
argued that those who believed in the free will of Man, as opposed to predestination, were really denying God’s power, “for knowledge is itself power,” while the heretics reduce God to “an unconcerned looker on.”
“The face that launched a thousand ships.”
Christopher Marlow (1564–1593)
The medieval legend of Faust, who sold his soul to the devil, was brought to the Elizabethan stage in Christopher Marlow’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. When the demon Mephistopheles presents Faustus with Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the legendary world, Faustus is reminded of the ancient war waged by Spartan king Menelaus to recapture Helen. Faustus asks,
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
“I’m all ears.”
John Milton (1608–1674)
The saying, meaning, “I’m listening carefully,” was phrased “I was all ear” in English poet John Milton’s masque Comus (1637). In the story, an earl’s two sons and daughter walk through a woods, and as the daughter tires, the sons separate to find food for her. A shepherd warns them that an evil wizard rules the area and turns trespassers into beasts. The shepherd, who is actually the wizard’s attendant in disguise, tells the brothers the wizard had been talking to their sister, but that he listened in on the conversation.
I was all ear,
And took in strains that might create a soul
Under the ribs of death.
“No time like the present.”
Mary de la Rivière Manley (1663–1724)
While English political writer Mary de la Rivière Manley’s play The Lost Lover (1696) did not fare well at the theater—audiences did not approve of her adulterous lifestyle, prison record and slander of Whigs—her phrase stands the test of time. In Act IV, Lady Young-Love, a haughty woman with a daughter the object of several men’s desires, and Sir Amourous Courtall, whose name is self-explanatory, engage in a witty conversation. When Lady Young-Love thinks she cannot compliment him the way he has wooed her, Sir Amourous delivers the famous quotation to encourage her to seize the moment.
“Take care of the minutes, for the hours will take care of themselves.”
Philip Dormer Stanhope, Lord Chesterfield (1694–1773)
English statesman, essayist and epigramist Lord Chesterfield was one of the most important authors of the eighteenth century. He was devoted to his son, Philip (1732–1768), who was born illegitimately but overcame that social stigma to become a member of parliament like his father. In 1774, Lord Chesterfield’s widow, the Duchess of Kendal, published her late husband’s correspondence as Letters to his Son, containing descriptions of the manners and standards of a man of the world and an entertaining variety of shrewd and witty observations. Chesterfield wrote the famous statement to Philip in an attempt to bring him out of a slump and remind him not to let precious moments to go to waste.
“That’s another story.”
Laurence Sterne (1713–1768)
From 1759 to 1767, British novelist Laurence Sterne published nine volumes of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. In Book II, four men engage in a lively discussion interspersed with readings. When corporal Trim begins reciting a segment on the Inquisition, he remembers his brother, who was imprisoned in Portugal. Trim becomes so flustered he interrupts himself several times, saying, “That’s another story,” thus dismissing parts of the reading without letting on that there is more to it than his companions realize.
“Ask me no questions, and I’ll tell you no lies.”
Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774)
In the play, She Stoops to Conquer (1773), the character Tony Lumpkin is overjoyed in hearing that Mr. Hastings wants to elope with Miss Neville, who Lumpkin’s mother wants him to marry. Lumpkin even goes so far as to steal his mother’s jewels to help the couple finance their plan. When asked how he managed to get hold of the jewels, a guilty Lumpkin delivers the popular saying, hinting that if the issue is not mentioned, he will not be obliged to invent a falsehood.
“Not much worse for wear.”
William Cowper (1731–1800)
William Cowper was a minor British poet who wrote course and humorous verse. “Not much worse for wear” is found in his comic ballad, The Diverting History of John Gilpin (1782), and refers to the hat worn by the main character. In the story, Gilpin’s borrowed mount suddenly and inexplicably gallops off in frenzy, damaging Gilpin’s hat. After a bizarre adventure, Gilpin returns the horse to its owner, who presents Gilpin with his damaged hat. Though the hat is in no condition to be worn, Gilpin accepts it gladly, delivering the famous line. Cowper is best known for authoring the hymn God Moves in a Mysterious Way in 1779.
“What has posterity done for us?”
Sir Boyle Roche (1743–1807)
Irishman Sir Boyle Roche, member of the British parliament, offered the immortal quotation in answer to a member of parliament who thundered, “And what shall we do for posterity?” Sir Boyle is reputed to be the original target of the saying, “Every time he opens his mouth he puts his foot in it.” Called “our delicious buffoon” by king George III, Sir Boyle’s sublime absurdities uttered during parliamentary debate are legendary. “Half the lies our opponents tell about us are not true!” he is said to have declared during a particularly riotous session. Two of his most famous quotes were “I smell a rat, I see him floating in the air, but mark me, I shall nip him in the bud!” and that England and Ireland “are two sisters who should embrace like one brother.”
“Out of sight is out of mind.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
The line is from Part I, scene xii, of German poet Goethe’s famous play Faust. Ironically, the speaker, Gretchen (Margarete), will indeed be out of her mind in a few more scenes. The popular proverbial sentiment is exactly the opposite of “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” another oft-repeated platitude. Incidentally, the quote was once used to demonstrate the difficulty of programming computers to perform the delicate task of translation. The phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind,” was run through a computer program designed to translate English into Russian. When the translation was completed, the resulting Russian phrase was then run through a program that translated Russian into Chinese. In the final step of the process, the Chinese phrase was translated back into English and came out as “Invisible, insane.”
“Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.”
Attributed to J. Harris (1763–1830)
The most popular tongue twister in the English language first appeared in print in London, published by school instructor J. Harris. It is not certain whether Harris wrote these lines, but it is known that he published a series of books for young readers known as Harris’s Cabinet. In a little booklet entitled Peter Piper’s Practical Principles of Plain and Perfect Pronunciation (1803), an entire alphabet of rhymes appeared. Peter Piper was unquestionably the most popular character of the bunch, but Kimbo Kemble, Oliver Oglethorpe and Tip-Toe Tommy certainly had their admirers. Each rhyme followed the same four-line pattern, with a statement followed by two questions:
Peter Piper picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers:
Did Peter Piper pick a Peck of Pickled Peppers?
If Peter Piper picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers,
Where’s the Peck of Pickled Peppers Peter Piper picked?
“You’ll be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Lorenzo Dow (1777–1834)
In 1832, American religious leader Lorenzo Dow wrote Reflections on the Love of God, an early meditation manual. Dow spent his life traveling the world and preaching the gospel before returning to the United States. In the book, Dow mocks preachers who speak of conflicting interpretations of the Bible, who say,
‘You can and you can’t— You shall and you shan’t—
You will and you won’t—
And you will be damned it you do—
And you will be damned if you don’t.’
“That’s chicken feed!”
Davy Crockett (1786–1836)
The expression, meaning “small change,” was first used by congressman Davy Crockett to describe the profits of small-time riverboat gamblers. Crockett, famous in the East for his colorful backwoods language, described the ways of the professionals as they fleeced the greenhorns, noting that as small-town suckers had precious little money to lose, the gambling take was minimal. To him, the gamblers were merely “picking up chicken feed.” As a former farmer and frontiersman, Crockett knew from first hand experience that chickens are fed scrap and seeds unfit for any other purpose.
“It was six of one and half a dozen of the other.”
Frederick Marryat (1792–1848)
English naval captain Frederick Marryat wrote many novels about ships and the lives of sailors. In The Pirate (1836), sailors on a ship from New Orleans bound for Liverpool discuss their plans for their time ashore. One sailor, Bill, decides he will marry, and while the sailors harp about his womanizing past, the famous comment occurs. Hinting there is no difference, despite appearances, between two similar situations, the sailors chide Bill that he will still be a womanizer after he takes the plunge.
“There’s no getting blood out of a turnip.”
Frederick Marryat (1792–1848)
One of Frederick Marryat’s most popular novels was Japhet in Search of a Father (1836). Japhet, preparing for a future as a doctor, and a boy named Timothy, begin apprenticing for an apothecary. Japhet first learns how to draw blood from a cabbage leaf before his mentor lets him use his arm, and Timothy mutters the popular saying, continuing, “but it seems there is more chance with a cabbage.”
“The shot heard round the world.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immortal line is now used principally by sports reporters to describe dramatic home runs or holes-in-one. In the final inning of the final game of the National League playoffs in 1951, Robert “Bobby” Thompson’s three-run homer won the pennant for the New York Giants. It was universally hailed as “the shot heard round the world.” The original, however, had nothing to do with athletics. It appeared in Emerson’s Concord Hymn (1837), a poem written to celebrate the second battle of the American War of Independence:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
“This is war.”
Charles Francis Adams (1807–1886)
American historian and railroad commissioner Charles Francis Adams (1835–1915) penned a biography his famous father in Life of Charles Francis Adams (1900). The senior Adams was to keep Britain neutral during
the U.S. Civil War, and upon hearing that England had built two iron rams for the confederacy, a series of letters ensued between him and Lord John Russell (1792–1878), the British foreign secretary. After several fruitless exchanges, Adams sent Lord Russell an inflammatory letter that finally led to seizure of the weapons. Adams’ letter, which was later reprinted in his biography, contains the blatant comment, “It would be superfluous in me to point out to your lordship that this is war.”
“With malice toward none and charity for all.”
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
Excerpted from Lincoln’s second inaugural address in March 1865, these memorable words sought to calm the passions of militant unionists bent on exacting revenge on the South for igniting the U.S. Civil War in 1861. The complete sentence is worthy of repetition: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
Robert Browning (1812–1889)
In Andrea del Sarto (1855), a dramatic monologue, English poet Robert Browning’s imagination led him to write a speech in the words of eleventh century Italian painter del Sarto. The artist was a technical master but his paintings lacked feeling and intensity, a handicap that del Sarto pained over. Browning wrote, “Had I been two, another and myself, yet this must be so because no one is perfect. There is always something missing… Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”
“Let sleeping dogs lie.”
Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
Charles Dickens quoted this proverb in his novel David Copperfield (1849). The phrase is muttered in repentance by the clever Uriah Heep to his patron, partner and then victim, Mr. Wickfield, after being scorned by the latter. Heep asks Mr. Wickfield for a more permanent partnership with Wickfield’s daughter, Agnes. Wickfield begins to break down, and to strengthen his position again, Heep comes back with, “Let sleeping dogs lie—who wants to rouse ’em? I don’t.” The saying hints that a bad idea is best forgotten quickly.
“Let the chips fall where they may.”
Roscoe Conkling (1829–1888)
Roscoe Conkling was a U.S. senator from New York and advisor to president Ulysses S. Grant. The famous expression originated in an address he made to the Republican national convention in June 1880, in which he rose to nominate Grant for an unprecedented third term. The complete quote is, “He will hew to the right line, let the chips fall where they may.” The hotly contested convention finally nominated Ohio senator James A. Garfield on the thirty-sixth ballot. But Conkling’s flattery didn’t go unrewarded. Chester A. Arthur of New York, a protégé, was nominated as Garfield’s running mate. He succeeded to the presidency after Garfield was assassinated in 1881.
“No man’s credit is as good as his money.”
Henry Van Dyke (1852–1933)
An accomplished man of letters, Presbyterian minister Henry Van Dyke spent eighteen years as professor of literature at Princeton University and three years as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands prior to America’s entry into World War I. He penned the memorable line in his memoir, America for Me (1921), explaining to his cash-strapped European counterparts how trade with the U.S. could be expedited.
“What this country needs is a good five cent cigar.”
Thomas Riley Marshall (1854–1929)
As Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, Thomas Marshall might have remained obscure to history had he not uttered this expression during a senate debate on inflation. The quotation was made memorable by Wilson’s political opponents in an attempt to embarrass the Democrats prior to mid-term elections in 1914. After leaving office in 1920, Marshall returned to his native Indiana, got rich and published a memoir.
“But is it art?”
Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)
This trite question is frequently heard in museums and art galleries around the world, particularly when contemporary, abstract or minimalist art is on display. Capturing both the ambivalence and insecurity which artists, critics and audiences feel about the sometimes absurd works of art offered under the guise of modernism, Rudyard Kipling puts this line into the mouth of one of the keenest and most unforgiving critics, the devil himself. The line appears in stanza seven of Kipling’s satirical poem, The Conundrum of the Workshops (1892). He speaks from the perspective of the artist laying himself bare before the critical question, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?” The capital A in Art suggests a lofty, objective analysis, indicating Kipling’s philosophy that art is meant to be virtuous.
“My lips are sealed.”
Stanley Baldwin (1867–1947)
Stanley Baldwin had the unfortunate task of presiding over the British government during the tumultuous short reign of Edward VIII, the dashing and popular bachelor who turned his back on the crown to marry American divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson. The taciturn Tory leader orchestrated a consensus of silence within the British press as the dramatic events unfolded following the death of King George V on January 20, 1936. The statement signaled to the assembled journalists that they should leave; Baldwin could reveal nothing.
“No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.”
Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944)
Defeated by Herbert Hoover in the presidential campaign of 1928, Democrat Alfred E. Smith, four-time governor of New York, was a colorful and popular politician because he maintained his connection with the common people. In the campaign of 1936, when asked about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” he replied, “No matter how thin you slice it, it’s still baloney.”
“The lunatics have taken over the asylum.”
Richard Rowland (1880–1947)
Hollywood screenwriter Richard Rowland was commentating on the formation of United Artists Corporation in 1919. To escape from the suffocating control of artless movie producers, Charles Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith formed their own film corporation, which originally was intended to finance and distribute quality independent films. The move was seen as insane at the time, but United Artists quickly became one of the largest production companies in Hollywood, turning out hundreds of successful, critically acclaimed films.
“Include me out.”
Samuel Goldwyn (1882–1974)
Hollywood film producer Samuel Goldwyn became famous as much for his outlandish locution as for his spectacular movies. Dozens of ridiculous quotations known as “Goldwynisms” are attributed to him. In fact, when Goldwynisms became a national curiosity, the public relations department of his studio began manufacturing such “quotations” to generate publicity. This particular gaffe, one of his most famous, is believed to have been said in regard to a proposed partnership on a movie project. On March 1, 1945, in an address at Balliol College at Oxford, Goldwyn said, “For years I have been known for saying ‘Include me out;’ but today I am giving it up forever.”
“Because it’s there.”
George Leigh Mallory (1886–1924)
Why would anyone want to climb a mountain? George Leigh Mallory was the British mountaineer who gave the world what continues to be the only answer to this perplexing question. It wasn’t just any mountain he was being asked about climbing. It was the big one: Mount Everest in the Himalayas. Ironically, less than a year later, Mallory became one of the many climbers who died attempting to scale the world’s tallest peak. The summit would not be reached for the first time until another generation had passed, and Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ascended to the top of the world on May 29, 1953.
“Win this one for the Gipper.”
Knute Rockne (1888–1931)
Knute Rockne achieved fame as the head football coach for the University of Notre Dame (Indiana), where he posted 105 victories against only 12 defeats. He was known for his fiery locker-room pep talks, including his memorable “Gipper” speech in 1928. Rockne told his players that former Notre Dame star player George Gipp, on his deathbed, had asked the coach to win a game in his honor. “This is that game,” Rockne told his players, and an inspired Notre Dame team defeated heavily favored Army. Recounted in the melodramatic movie Knute Rockne, All American (1940), starring Ronald Reagan as Gipp, the main facts of the story are true. Actually, the opportunistic Rockne had already used “the Gipper” to good effect on a number of occasions before the dramatic victory of 1928. During the presidential campaign of 1980, the phrase was frequently repeated in support of Ronald Reagan’s candidacy.
“The last of the red hot mamas.”
Jack Yellen (1892–1991)
The famous phrase belonged to Sophie Tucker, a flamboyant vaudeville star and cabaret singer of the 1920s and 1930s, who was known for her lusty and throaty rendition of Some of These Days. Her song, I’m the Last of the Red Hot Mommas, written by American tunesmith Jack Yellen in 1928, so perfectly suited Tucker that it became a permanent part of her showcase. Yellen wrote many other memorable songs, including Ain’t She Sweet? and Happy Days are Here Again, the campaign song of the Democratic party in 1932.
“Believe it or not.”
Robert L. Ripley (1893–1949)
Robert Ripley was a sports illustrator for the New York Globe. Plagued with a case of artist’s block one afternoon in 1918, he searched through his notes and realized they contained news of several sporting oddities. He quickly created an illustrated feature called Champs & Chumps about a man who jumped backwards and an undefeated female wrestler. He showed it to one of his colleagues who concluded his review by saying, “I guess you can believe it or not.” Ripley seized upon the phrase and, before handing it in, changed the title to Believe It or Not. It was an instant success and readers clamored for more. Ripley’s career as a chronicler of strange and unlikely phenomena, bizarre coincidences and freaks of nature from around the world was launched. He quickly garnered a reputation for flamboyance and extravagance and was voted the most popular person in America in 1923. Believe It or Not was syndicated in hundreds of newspapersworldwide, and published in dozens of paperback collections. The idea was also the basis for a radio series, a television series, and a chain of museums dedicated to the bizarre.
“Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker.”
Ogden Nash (1902–1971)
Ogden Nash’s catch phrase was the entire text of his poem, Reflections on Ice-Breaking. An American original, Nash used humorous puns in verse form with his gift of lyric and biting satire, while working at Doubleday,
Page & Co. and The New Yorker. His oft-quoted ditty explains the best technique for creating a climate conducive to introducing a man and a woman.
“Back to the drawing boards!”
Curtis Arnoux Peters (1904–1968)
Used today by some to mean nothing more than “time to go back to work,” this popular phrase can be traced back to a celebrated World War II era New Yorker cartoon by the sophisticated artist Peter Arno (Curtis Arnoux Peters). The cartoon depicts an air flight proving ground as a plane crashes in front of a dismayed group of military officers. The designer, hands clutched together and rolled-up plans under his arm, turns from the scene with a supercilious smile. The caption reads, “Well, back to the old drawing board.”
“Nice guys finish last.”
Leo Durocher (1905–1991)
Leo Durocher was born on his kitchen table—an occurrence that, if anything, builds character. He was a rookie with the 1927 Yankees, the team of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, and later became manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, chalking up more years in baseball than almost anybody. So what does he have to complain about? Well, nothing. “Nice guys finish last” was a comment Durocher made about the New York Giants while he was managing the Dodgers because, although the Giants were nice guys, Durocher was convinced they would finish last.
“He cried all the way to the bank.”
Wladziu Valentino Liberace (1919–1987)
The flamboyant showman Liberace made a fortune in the 1960s as a classical pianist, although critics insisted his success had nothing to do with serious music and furthermore that his appeal was based on cheap sentimentalism. Such criticism, however, did nothing to impair the popularity of his television programs, recordings, books and personal appearances. Liberace’s self-effacing but highly visible handler was his brother, George. On one occasion, when the entertainer was asked if he was not hurt by what a critic had said, his studied reply was, “Well, I know it hurt George. This morning, poor George cried all the way to the bank.”