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