Quotes Uncovered: Great Scott and Book Burners

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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.

Gabe asked:

I thought of this while watching Back To The Future the other day. I’m curious where the expression (exclamation) “Great Scott!” came from. Who is Scott? Why does Doc Brown keep referring to him?

At last we get to Gabe’s question, which he has been patiently repeating since November. I apologize for the fact that we have a backlog of quotation queries. Michael Quinion, on his excellent website World Wide Words, notes:

Until recently the earliest known example, in the big Oxford English Dictionary, was from F Anstey‘s Tinted Venus of 1885: “Great Scott! I must be bad!” But the digitising of electronic texts and the recent publication of the diary of an American Civil War veteran have moved the saying back in stages to the time of that conflict. The diary is Eye of the Storm: a Civil War Odyssey, written and illustrated by Private Robert Knox Sneden. He says in his diary entry of 3 May 1864: “Great Scott,” who would have thought that this would be the destiny of the Union Volunteer in 1861-2 while marching down Broadway to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.”

The great word-sleuth Barry Popik found important evidence in a book by John William De Forest, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion From Secession to Loyalty (1867)

I follow General Scott. No Virginian need be ashamed to follow old Fuss and Feathers. We used to swear by him in the army. Great Scott! the fellows said.

The reference is to General Winfield Scott, who commanded one of the two American armies in the Mexican War and was the Union general-in-chief at the beginning of the Civil War. This and other evidence, although not conclusive, points strongly to Winfield Scott as the source of the expression “Great Scott!”

Dan asked:

What about “Possession is nine tenths of the law?”

This is a proverb. The Yale Book of Quotations gives the earliest version as “Possession is nine points of the law,” which appeared in Thomas Draxe, Adages (1616).

nsk asked:

I read something to the effect that “the seeds of a society’s destruction lie within itself” … not sure where I read it, but I have tried to “empirically test” this hypothesis … and it seems rather true to me. Of course, it also depends on how you define “society”. Where did this come from?

The YBQ quotes Rousseau (in translation): “The body politic, like the human body, begins to die from its birth, and bears in itself the causes of its destruction” (Du Contrat Social [1762]).

JohnnyE asked:

“Don’t join the book burners. Do not think you are going to conceal thoughts by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”

According to the YBQ, Dwight Eisenhower said something very similar to this (he said “faults” rather than “thoughts”) in his remarks at the Dartmouth College Commencement, June 14, 1953.

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

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  1. matt says:

    I’ve always been curious about…

    “take it with a grain of salt”

    how did this evolve into advice to be dubious?

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  2. frank says:

    One quote that comes up frequently in finance (I have also heard it applied to law) is along the lines of “Our most important assets take the elevators down, and walk out the front door every night.” I have never been able to source it.

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  3. Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY says:

    Did you ever hear the expression, “We’re going to do it up brown!” Meaning roughly,
    we’re going to make a big production of this.
    I think the expression was current in the 40′s and starting to go out of use in the 50′s.
    It was, I think, a big band era expression used by my mother, who, now in her late
    eighties does not remember using it at all. I think it may have originally referred to a feast, doing, say, a roasted turkey, to a brown crisp. I’d like to hear if you have any background info on this. ~ MDM

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  4. Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY says:

    While we’re at it, in regard to ‘Take it with a grain of salt,’ please also comment on “salt of the earth.

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  5. Nancy says:

    Remember, you are just an extra in everyone else’s play

    this has been attributed to FDR, but I wonder if that is accurate. If it is, when did he say it? Thanks.

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  6. Pete says:

    Who first made the following exchange?

    “If it wasn’t for America, all the French would be speaking German”

    “If it wasn’t for France, all the Americans would be speaking English”

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  7. Carol says:

    “Salt of the earth” (question in #4 above) comes from the first line of Matthew 5:13 ( “You are the salt of the earth.”), part of the Sermon on the Mount.

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  8. DB says:

    How about “its crackers to slip a rozzer the dropsy in snide”?

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