Tag Archives: quotations

‘The most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech’

Oliver Wendell Holmes gave us the phrase about shouting fire in a crowded theater. Most people are against such shouting, despite today’s audiences being more likely to look around with irritated curiosity than to panic. Pulling the fire alarm in a crowded theater would cause a problem, and this censorship of free expression is the law. (Why can’t you pull a fire alarm to express yourself? Why can’t you call 911 to talk to give your opinion? Is this 1984?)

Here’s what Justice Holmes actually wrote. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.”

He gave this opinion in support of the Supreme Court’s conviction of Charles Schenck, the Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, for writing a pamphlet in opposition to the WWI draft. Two similar cases came up that year and were decided the same way. Calls to “assert your rights” were compared to inciting panic in entertainment houses.

Back in 2012, Trevor Timm wrote about how abused the shouting-fire phrase has become and how much damage it has done to America’s concept of free speech. “Its advocates are tacitly endorsing one of the broadest censorship decisions ever brought down by the Court. It is quite simply, as Ken White calls it, ‘the most famous and pervasive lazy cheat in American dialogue about free speech.'”

Don’t Read Newspapers

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Norvell:

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.

Did Jefferson go on to summarize his thoughts by saying, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed”? The Quote Investigator explains.

How Would Edmund Burke Advise You to Vote?

The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing

Isn’t this the one thing you know from Edmund Burke, an Irishman and political thinker? You didn’t even know he was Irish. All you knew about Burke was that he said the above quotation. Except he didn’t.

What he said that closely resembles this comes from his 1770 book, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents.

No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united Cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

Now this is curious. Burke is arguing in favor of unity, of banding together to oppose “ambitious citizens” who have already united their efforts. We could call them The Establishment or a number of other things. Burke’s point appears to be that virtuous people should not believe their individual virtues, their personal choices, to be effective against those who are working together to oppose us.

Here’s more of what Burke wrote in Present Discontents:  Continue reading How Would Edmund Burke Advise You to Vote?

C.S. Lewis Did Not Say That

William O’Flaherty runs the Essential C.S. Lewis website and has a first Saturday monthly feature on words misattributed to the great Jack Lewis. Yesterday he highlighted a quote that is actually from Lewis, but in isolation it reads contrary to its intended meaning in the story.

Make your choice, adventurous Stranger.

Seize the day, as it were. Take that hill. Do the thing.

O’Flaherty explains where these words are found in The Magician’s Nephew and what they mean. He has a long list of questionable quotations. See his list of the top five from 2015 here, including two that were spoken by Anthony Hopkins while playing Lewis, which doesn’t make them Lewis quotations.

He Who Waits For the Best Time to Act

The hobbit at his table
The hobbit at his table

One of my life quotes, which I wish I could say I’ve actually given proper attention, is a verse from a song in the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit.

“A man who’s a dreamer and never takes leave,
Who lives in a world that is just make-believe,
Will never know passion, will never know pain.
Who sits by the window will one day see rain.”

It’s a Glenn Yarbrough song, which you can hear here.

That verse is loosely related to a quote attributed by some to Martin Luther. “For truth and duty it is ever the fitting time; who waits until circumstances completely favor his undertaking, will never accomplish anything.” As our readers often say, “That’s the truth,” but did Luther actually say this?

The Quote Investigator doesn’t believe he did and has evidence to support his belief that another German theologian with a curiously similar name is the one who first put this thought (in his own words) on paper.

Will These Things Make You Happy?

Will Things Make You Happy?

An early holiday shopping message from Puritan preacher Thomas Brooks:

“Christians act below their spiritual birth and their holy calling, when they suffer their hearts to be troubled and perplexed for the want of temporal things. Could they read special love in such gifts? Would their happiness lie in the enjoyment of them? Nay then, believer, let not the want of those things trouble thee, the enjoyment of which could never make thee happy.”

Motives for Attending a Funeral

The Quote Investigator relates this story. “In 1953 an Associated Press reporter described his experiences in Moscow after the death of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The journalist reported the caustic comment of an unnamed Russian:

I saw Muscovites by the countless thousands shuffle through the cold March days and nights, in long lines that stretched for miles into the suburbs, to see the dead body of the grim dictator.

One Russian whispered to me: “They’ve come to make sure he’s really dead.

But that isn’t the only account of someone suggesting he or many others had attended a funeral for this purpose. Read on for more.

Don’t Interrupt Me

Who first said, “The person who says it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it”? Is it an old Chinese proverb or more recent American maxim?

The Quote Investigator works it over and decides he doesn’t know, but there’s this:

One instance appeared on March 7, 1903 in a periodical called “The Public” based in Chicago, Illinois. An acknowledgment to the humor magazine “Puck” was appended.

Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: “It can’t be done,” are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.—Puck.

With Great Power Comes Great Quotations

Spiderman's Vision StatementWho first said, “With great power comes great responsibility”? Was it Marvel Comics writers for Spiderman? Was it Voltaire? Quote Investigator says there are better references, such as this from the French Revolution: “They must consider that great responsibility follows inseparably from great power.” A similar idea is found in Luke 12:48.

Learn more uses of this idea in QI’s post.

(Poster art source)

Things Turn Out Best For Those Who Make the Best Out of the Way Things Turn Out

Balancing FunThis has made my day. In one of the books I edited this summer, the author attributed this quote to Coach John Wooden, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.” I searched for verification that Coach Wooden said it or came up with it himself, but could only find it widely attributed to him without citation. I found it attributed to Art Linkletter too, also without citation.

If I said known Wooden (1910-2010) was as old as Linkletter (1912-2010), I might have let it go, but I thought Linkletter was much older and consequently in a better position to have said something like this before the coach. So I kept looking, and finding nothing, asked The Quote Investigator to help. With his workload, I didn’t expect an answer right away, but in today’s email, I received word that he had posted his report:

(Great thanks to TygerBurning and Phil Wade whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Wade pointed to the 1979 citation and noted that Linkletter credited Wooden.)

Your desire to explore the genuine provenance of quotations is admirable. I appreciate your visiting and asking about an interesting saying.

Best wishes,

Garson O’Toole

When I wrote to QI, I told him I had found the quote attributed to Wooden without citation in Yes, You Can by Linkletter, so that ruled out one name, but that’s as much as I could discover. Seeing the final QI report, I don’t believe I could have found the answer.

In May 1965 an instance of this aphorism using the word “folks” was published in a newspaper column in Ada, Oklahoma together with miscellaneous sayings. No attribution was provided:

Things turn out best for folks who make the best of the way things turn out.

… In the following years, close variants of the adage were published in numerous newspapers. No individual was credited with the remark, and QI believes the statement should be labeled anonymous.

So chalk this one up to folk wisdom, friends.

Astor: ‘Churchill, If I Were Your Wife…’

Perhaps you’ve heard this story about Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Nancy Astor, who apparently had a famous rivalry. Astor was the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons (1919). Her Wikipedia page notes her quick wit and, though they are poorly documented, her trading of insults with Churchill. One rumored exchange says Churchill disliked her being in parliament, saying that having a woman there was like being intruded upon in the bathroom. Astor replied, “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears.”

A familiar anecdote has the viscountess in a disdainful state of her prime minister. She says, “If I were your wife, I’d poison your coffee.” Churchill replies, “If I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

Astor’s Wikipedia scholars attribute this quote, not to Churchill, but to his marvelously funny friend, Lord Birkenhead. I can’t suggest Birkenhead did not have this exchange, but I’m fascinated to learn that the insult is much older than he, Churchill, or Astor. The Quote Investigator, my new favorite website, reports the earliest recording of this joke comes from an 1899 Oswego, New York, newspaper. It was completely anonymous, being passed off as something the reporter overheard on the subway. The account was picked up by many newspapers, so by the time Birkenhead and Astor may have conversed, it would have been an old joke.

What’s more amusing is many people have claimed credit for it or given it to others. When Groucho Marx told the joke in 1962, he told it of George B. Shaw insulting a woman in his audience. In 1900, a comic named Pinckney claimed to have invented the dialogue a short time before the interview and that it had already worn itself out by flying around the world.

So if Lady Astor actually told Churchill or Birkenhead that she would poison them if they were married, she had plenty of opportunity to know she was setting herself up for a great joke.