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?


I've always been curious about...

"take it with a grain of salt"

how did this evolve into advice to be dubious?


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.

Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY

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

Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY

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


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.


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"


"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.


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

Eric Gunn

Where did, "You have to walk and chew gum at the same time" come from? I ask because walking and chewing gum at the same time isn't difficult at all, and I've always wondered who had trouble with it.

AJ Venter

Actually the "salt of the earth" one isn't so surprizing, Salt was once a very valuable commodity, wars were thought over it because without enough salt - people die. These days our foodstuffs supply more than enough to keep our bodies balanced but this wasn't always the case.
In fact, Roman soldiers used to be paid in salt - this is where the word "salary" comes from.

So "salt of the earth" was a very literal metaphor to indicate something of humble origins but great value, and easily applied to a person who is particularly good without being particularly wealthy.


I would like to know who first stated, now attributed to JFK,

"Ask not what your country can do for you , but what you can do for your country,"

I have a strong feeling of 'deja entendu' and would like to have the originator given proper credit, if indeed it were true that Kennedy ( or rather his speech writer probably) was quoting someone else.


What about "coming out of the closet" for a term to describe revealing sexual orientation?


"Going to war is how Americans learn geography."

small business financing US

The article is good as we got to know about Great Scott and Book Burners.I like the article very much as it is very informative and hope to see more of such articles.



My understanding is the original quotation is "possession is nine points of the law."

Although I'm not sure what the distinction means.


Regarding "coming out of the closet" I don't know its origins, but I suspect it has something to do with the expression "having skeletons in the closet," referring to family secrets.

Karl Siegemund

"Taking it with a grain of salt" means, that the food may not taste too well, because it is not spiced yet.

If you advise someone to "take it with a grain of salt", then you present him something halfcooked and ask him to finish it for himself.


The grain of salt one has already been answered and it's not about flavour.


Pat Cook

Years ago I read a quote in, if you can believe it, Reader's Digest. I have looked for attribution for years without success.

"Thrift is a noble virtue, especially in an ancestor."

I loved it so much (I'm a stockbroker) I had a calligrapher write it on parchment and framed it for the wall in my office.

Mark Serafin

I'm trying to find the source of this quote (or one very much like it):

"I used to be proud of my ancestors for coming to America on the Mayflower seeking religious freedom, until I learned that one of the freedoms they came seeking was the freedom to discriminate agasint other religions."

I thought it was Laurie Anderson, but I can't find ths quote anywhere anymore.