Quotes Uncovered: Dying for Opinions and Making History

Quotes Uncovered

75 ThumbnailHere are more quote authors and origins Shapiro’s tracked down recently.

A while back, 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. Hundreds of people have responded via comments or e-mails. I am responding as best I can, a few per week.

Mitch asked:

My Dad had one I always liked: “Any time two people always agree, one of them is doing all the thinkin’.” Any idea where that came from?

The Yale Book of Quotations has the following similar line:

“When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” William Wrigley Jr., Quoted in Reader’s Digest, July 1940.


I’ve seen “Well-behaved women rarely make history” attributed to pretty much every “empowered woman” historical figure you can think of. Do you know who actually said it?

Yes I do. It was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, in her article “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” American Quarterly, Spring 1976 (“Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all”).

Lars Erik Morin asked:

Voltaire is blamed for a phrase that goes something like this: “I’m very much opposed to your opinions, sir, but I’m ready to die for your right to have them.” Did he ever say that thing? Did he meet Adolf Hitler?

No and no. The Yale Book of Quotations lists this under Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer who lived from 1868 to 1919:

[Paraphrase of Voltaire’s attitude:] “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire (1906).

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations traces this to a letter by Voltaire to a M. le Riche, February 6, 1770, but that is based on a misreading by Bartlett’s of Norbert Guterman, A Dictionary of French Quotations. The quotation does not appear in Voltaire’s letter to Francois-Louis-Henri Leriche of that date nor anywhere else in Voltaire’s writings.

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

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  1. E in Richmond says:

    The other night I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s ponderous sci-fi novel Fifty Degrees Below and came across the following statement: An excess of reason is itself a form of madness.

    I’m sure Robinson didn’t come up with that himself. Any idea who did?

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  2. Jason says:

    I’d love to know if “revenge is a dish best served cold” is attributable to anyone but the klingons/roddenberry. any ideas?

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  3. Jack Millman says:

    What about the whole nine yards?

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  4. Jenn says:

    From Wikipedia on Revenge:


    The first written appearance of the proverb “revenge is a dish best served cold” is often wrongly credited to the 18th century novel Les liaisons dangereuses; it does not, in fact, appear there in any form. It is also said to have been borrowed by late 19th century British writers from the Afghan Pashtuns.[2] However, its earliest identified appearance in European literature is in the 1841 French novel Mathilde by Marie Joseph Eugene Sue: la vengeance se mange tres-bien froide – there italicized as if quoting a proverbial saying – published in English translation in 1846 as revenge is very good eaten cold. [3]

    The popularly familiar wording can be attributed to The Godfather by Mario Puzo, a major bestseller in 1969, but the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets had it as revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold. The familiar wording more recently appears in the title sequence of the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill: Vol 1, accredited as an “Old Klingon Proverb”, referencing its use in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which so cites it.

    The proverb suggests that revenge is more satisfying as a considered response enacted when unexpected, or long feared, inverting the more traditional revulsion toward ‘cold-blooded’ violence. It is used, sometimes, to persuade another to forestall vengeance until wisdom can reassert itself.

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  5. Walter Wimberly says:

    @Jack – “the whole nine yards” was a military reference from WWII. Fighter planes generally stored enough ammo internally that when laid out to be loaded into the aircraft it was 27 feet (9 yards) in length. If the pilot came back empty he was said to have given the enemy “The whole 9 yards”.

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  6. Jason says:

    @Jenn thanks!

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  7. Fred Shapiro says:

    Re #5: Walter Wimberly gives an answer to the most controversial etymological question of our time as if it were established fact. Walter, do you have any factual basis for this theory?

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