Quotes Uncovered: Does Economics Make You Want to Sing?

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.

JeeBo asked:

Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.

In The Yale Book of Quotations, I trace this as far back as an attribution to Elvis Costello in 1983. Garson O’Toole has done brilliant research finding earlier analogues, such as “singing about economics”:

Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.

-Citation: 1918 February 9, The New Republic, The Unseen World by H. K. M., Page 63, Vol. 14, The Republic Pub. Co. (Google Books gives an incorrect date of 1969. Quotation verified on microfilm)

Bill Harshaw asked:

Can you find the “West African proverb” that’s supposedly the basis for TR’s: Speak softly and carry a big stick?

Wolfgang Mieder, the world’s foremost proverbs scholar, has searched for years for this, but has been unable to track it down.

Rob asked:

I’ve been wondering about the original source for the quote “Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel”. I’ve seen it attributed to Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin.

The YBQ lists this under the name of publicist William I. Greener, Jr.: “[‘Greener’s Law’:] Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.” Attributed to Greener in Wall Street Journal, Sept. 28, 1978. However, Barry Popik has found that Irving Leibowitz, in his 1964 book My Indiana, ascribes “I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel” to former Indiana Congressman Charles Brownson.

Philip asked:

“Just because I am paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” While my parents swear this was my grandfather, I am pretty sure i read it or it is from someone slightly more well know.

The Yale Book of Quotations cites the movie Catch-22 (1970): “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” but then goes on to note that:

Nigel Rees, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, records two earlier versions: “Because a person has monomania she need not be wrong about her facts” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise ch. 16 [1933]); and “Has it ever struck you that when people get persecution mania, they usually have a good deal to feel persecuted about?” (C. P. Snow, The Affair ch. 11 [1960]).

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

Mike L

"If we had some ham, we could make ham and eggs. If we had eggs."


"The problem is not the abuse of power, but the power to abuse."


First instance of "Play it again, Sam" - Was it the Marx brothers parody, or perhaps a review following the release?


...and yes, economics does make me want to sing.

"it's a hard rain's a' gonna fall"


"No money, no mission"


Sing? Economics (and economists) make me want to vomit.

John B. Chilton

Economist's don't sing? What about the Economist's Anthem?

Well, I've got a hammer
and I've got a bell
and I've got a song to sing
all over this world

It's the hammer of tradeoffs,
it's the bell of equilibrium,
it's a song about trade between
my brothers and my sisters
all over this world

Source: John Chilton, Emirates Economist blog, March 25 2005

Eric M. Jones

--Can you find the "West African proverb" that's supposedly the basis for TR's: Speak softly and carry a big stick?--

This might be T.R.'s speechwriter's turn of the phrase, "Trust in God and carry a big stick." Remember that reference to God was thought improper by many at the time.

Booksellers and Bookbuyers in Byeways and Highways" - - 1882 ---Page 12

"... he had found it well to trust in God and carry a big stick."


I can hardly remember anything about the quote, but it's about how out of every negative experience can come a positive lesson... Or something like that... Sorry that's so little to go off of...


But wasn't it you who said "writing about music is like dancing about architecture"?

Elvis Costello -

Oh, God! Can I please put in print that I didn't say that! I may have quoted it, but I think['70s US act or/singer] Martin Mull coined that. It still follows me around, that one. It's probably in some book of quotations credited to me.

Source : Q ( London) , Feb. '08


I've heard the quote as: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." and attributed to Frank Zappa


Who come up with this quote, "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered."

Alex hoffman

What about thelonius monk? You sure it's Elvis costello?

Johnny E

"Money can't buy love but it can sure rent an awful lot of affection."


When did the phrase "May god have mercy on your soul" come into popular use, and was there a single originator or has it been a longtime colloquial expression?


"I can hardly remember anything about the quote, but it's about how out of every negative experience can come a positive lesson"

Try this:

Johnny E

Reminds me of a folk song "I am changing my name to Chrysler".

Let's see, what other economic songs are there ... "I owe my soul to the company store"


"money makes the world go round" from Cabaret.

"Money" - Pink Floyd

"Money Money Money" - ABBA

Garson O'Toole

Thanks to Fred Shapiro for his kind remark. I particularly appreciate the acknowledgement because the Yale Book of Quotations is an extraordinary landmark reference work. The pioneering methodology that includes scholarly analysis coupled with searches in massive current-generation databases has produced marvelous depth and comprehensiveness.

Thanks for creating YBQ and for sharing your knowledge through the New York Times Freakonomics blog.


I believe I once read that JP Morgan (the man, not the bank) once said that a CEO's salary should be no more than 20 times the salary of the lowest paid worker in the CEO's company. I would love to know if he really said that.