Quotes Uncovered: Who First Called It a Spade?


Each week, I’ve been inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent research. Here is the latest round.

aaron asked:

“What goes around comes around.”

This is a proverb. The earliest citation for it given by The Yale Book of Quotations is in Malcolm Braly‘s book, On the Yard (1967), but subsequently it has been pointed out to me that it appeared earlier in a 1962 book by Paul Crump, Burn, Killer, Burn!

Kate asked:

Any chance on figuring out where the saying ‘”When life hands you lemons, make lemonade” comes from? I’ve gotten Julius Rosenwald, Dale Carnegie, an “ageless proverb,” and “longtime common knowledge” as answers in my hour-long search. Is your book any better?

This also is a proverb. The Yale Book of Quotations, which eliminates the need for hour-long searches, traces it back as far as the New Oxford (Pennsylvania) Item, Apr. 19, 1917: “If life hands you a lemon … start to selling pink lemonade.”

Suzi Barbee asked:

I remember reading somewhere that “to call a spade a spade” was an admonition to Victorian (female) card players who “delicately” called a spade a fleur de lis instead.

That’s a pretty wild one even as apocryphal quotation stories ago. The YBQ states that Desiderius Erasmus, in his 1515 book Adagia, mistranslated an ancient Greek word for “trough” as “spade,” thus creating the expression “to call a spade a spade.” “Call a trough a trough” appears in Demosthenes‘s oration “Olynthus,” quoting Philip of Macedon, and in a fragement by Menander.

Mike asked:

“Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost made it famous in his poem “Mending Wall,” but where did he pull it from?

Very astute of you to realize that this predated Frost, who is usually considered to be the coiner. The YBQ traces this proverb back to the Western Christian Advocate, June 13, 1834.

Rich asked:

Wondering about Robert Burns‘s “auld lang syne.” Does that phrase emanate from him?

The Yale Book of Quotations notes that, long before Burns used it, “The phrase ‘auld lang syne’ appears in Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d (1694): ‘The good God said, Jonah, now billy Jonah, wilt thou go to Nineveh, for Auld lang syne (old kindness).'”

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

stephen Crowe

We all seem to understand today's usgage of the phrase "even Stephen". I've heard that the original use had an opposite meaning.

Can you shed any light on this ?

Larrie D. Ferreiro

Thucydides never actually said "A collision at sea can ruin your entire day" in his work "The Peloponnesian War", but it is attributed to him. Do you have any information on where this apocryphal citation began?


Where does the term "to go the whole nine yards" come from? It would seem football, but that doesn't make sense. I once heard that it came from World War II meaning to use the whole 9 yards of ammunitiono from a machince gun.

Eric M. Jones

Practice, Volume 5" - Page 59
New York Institute for Social Therapy and Research - Business & Economics - 1891

... that attitude all my life - "There's nothing new under the sun"; "the more
things change, the more they stay the same"; "what goes around, comes around...."


I would love to know who said "the best defense is a good offence"

Adam Hammond

"If it was/were easy, everyone would do it" and the related "... it would have been done already" and "Nothing worth doing is easy."

Academics says this all the time, usually to justify increased demands on our students. People usually claim it was Einstein or some field-specific notable, and they probably each did say it to their students. How old is this tradition?

Dan Cox

I'd love to know where "more wood behind fewer arrows" comes from.

Gord Wait

How about "I quit smoking cold turkey" ?

I once said this to a friend, who had moved to Canada from Sweden, and got a very confused look.

Everyone says it, but it actually makes no sense!


The Boy Scout motto is "Be Prepared." Does it predate the Scouting movement that started in 1910?


Do you know when the word "Nimrod" started being used as an insult? A friend of mine thinks that he started it, in the late 70s. Any truth to this?


"Nimrod" is an easy one. Bugs Bunny refers to Elmer Fudd as "a Nimrod". The Warner Brothers cartoon writers were making a biblical reference: Bugs mocking the inept Fudd by comparing him to the "mighty hunter" of hebrew mythology. But millions of children saw the cartoon an interpreted "Nimrod" as an insult of some kind.

Roc Armenter

Who really said "sic semper tyrannis" first?


Where does the H. come from in "Jesus H. Christ".

Brad U

John Kerry recently admonished his Democratic friends in Mass. not to form a "circular firing squad".

I would love to know who originally used that killer of a phrase.


There's an inspirational quote "Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." I've heard it attributed to Emerson, Shaw, and also heard some who insist it's an ancient proverb. Who actually said it?


Who first said "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life."


What does "not for nothing" mean, if anthing? Does it have to do with you can't "get something for nothing?"


when comparing items/capabilities, etc., I have found myself using the term "can't hold a candle to that". is this a common phrase? it's origin?


Eric M. Jones

@12 - Roc ArmenterWho really said "sic semper tyrannis" first? (John Wilkes Booth proclaimed it after he shot Abraham Lincoln)

This is the motto on the state seal of Virginia. Before that you'll have to read Latin....and it goes waaaaaaaay back.

Chris Lynch

"He can't cut the mustard." Where does that come from? Any relation to the expression "after meat, mustard"?