Our Daily Bleg: Your Quote Authors Uncovered

Six weeks ago, I invited readers to submit quotations for which they wanted me to try to trace the origins, using The Yale Book of Quotations and more recent research by me. Dozens responded via comments or e-mails. I am responding as best I can, a couple per week.

Jeffrey asked:

How about “It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt”?

I’ve heard Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln, and there are reportedly other sources.

This is usually attributed to Lincoln, but is undoubtedly one of the many pseudo-Lincolnisms that get pinned on the 16th president, much as many humorous sayings get pinned on Mark Twain. The earliest version discovered by The Yale Book of Quotations was the Chicago Daily Tribune, May 10, 1923, which printed, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubts” as a submission by reader Benedict J. Goltra.

Colleen asked:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is attributed to Edmund Burke, but I haven’t yet seen a reliable reference.

This is a biggie in the apocryphal-quotation world. Frequently attributed to Burke, its earliest known appearance, found by The Yale Book of Quotations, was in the Washington Post, which credited Burke with “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” in its January 22, 1950 issue.

The closest authentic Burke passage appears to be “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” (“Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,” 1770) Maybe the true originator was John Stuart Mill, who said: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.” ( “On Education” [1867])

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?

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  1. Kursad says:

    “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

    Attributed to Einstein, Ben Franklin and Rita Mae Brown. From what I can tell Mae Brown is the most likely but I still would like to know.

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  2. Jake says:

    I read that a prominent philosopher of the 20th century once said ‘The only remaining field for philosophers to study is language’, essentially predicting that other aspects of philosophy would be assimilated into other disciplines.

    I can’t find this (or any version of it) attributed to a reliable source, however.

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  3. Edwavrd says:

    There’s a famous quotation, attributed to Margaret Mead, but I think it’s a misquote (or cleaned-up quotation) in its famous form:

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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  4. hal says:

    ” Whenever a resource is managed democratically, it is managed to extinction.”

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  5. Gerv says:

    Dear, oh dear. How did both you and Yale miss this? :-)

    Proverbs 17:28: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” (ESV)

    Author: King Solomon. Date: about 930BC. It’s not exactly the same form, but it’s clearly the original source.

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  6. Dan Lufkin says:

    @ Jake: When you think “prominent philosopher” and “language,” what pops up is Ludwig Wittgenstein.

    I don’t know whether he ever said, “The only remaining field for philosophers to study is language” in just those words, but he wrote plenty on exactly that subject.

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  7. Rob says:

    “There is no free lunch”

    A phrase used by economists since at least the 19th century, but I do not know of a firm attribution.

    In what may have been an attempt at irony, Wall Street firms used to offer free lunch to their employees. (It was also rumored to be a way to keep employees from wandering too far from their desks during trading hours). The practice tapered off when the IRS started to count the meals as a taxable benefit. So even the taxman knows there is no free lunch.

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  8. Jamie says:

    “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

    Attributed all over the place to Mark Twain, but it just doesn’t sound right. I see you noted that a lot of things are attributed to Twain incorrectly. (Also the phrase is used a lot in 12-step programs). I found one source that attributes it to either Mark Twain, Jack Benny, or Groucho Marx! (brainyquote.com). Any ideas?

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