Quotes Uncovered: A Bird in the Hand

Photo: Mike Baird

I’m back to 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.

von bargen asked:

May you live in interesting times.” I’ll bet you strike out. Maybe nobody ever said it first. Is it a curse or not?

The Yale Book of Quotations traces this earlier than anyone else has, to the American Society of International Law Proceedings in 1939. It goes on to state, “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found.” It is usually said to be a curse.

Joel asked:

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Who is this credited to?

This is a proverb, and unlikely to ever be traced to a definitive originator. The Yale Book of Quotations gives as its earliest example John Bunyan‘s book, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). The YBQ repeats the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs‘ note that mentions variant wordings of the proverb in Latin (13th century) and English (15th century).

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

Leave A Comment

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

 

COMMENTS: 40


  1. RC says:

    “Exit… stage left.”

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  2. RC says:

    “Might as well. Can’t dance.”

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  3. RC says:

    “Down the tubes.”

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  4. RC says:

    “If it ain’t broke… don’t fix it.”

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  5. RC says:

    “Cold as a witches teat.”

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  6. RC says:

    “You can’t get there from here.”

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  7. RC says:

    “Love may be blind… but the neighbors ain’t.”

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  8. RC says:

    “Warm hands cold heart.” and vice verca.

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  9. Ryan says:

    #1 I was certainly Snagglepuss,
    also the populariser of “Heavens to Murgatroyd”

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  10. Marie says:

    gratitude is like a rose in a pig’s stomach

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  11. Joshua says:

    “As the crow flies”

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  12. Kathleen Mulcahy says:

    Not really a quote but…when speaking and referring to someone as SHE, my husband’s mother would always say…Who is SHE? the cat’s mother?

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  13. Eric M. Jones says:

    “May you live in interesting times”….Sir Austen Chamberlain wrote this in a letter referred to in 1937 (in the journal you cite) Chamberlain also died in 1937, so this moves it back a tad at least.

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  14. Eric M. Jones says:

    I want to launch a desperate appeal to revisit “the whole nine yards” as refering to the length of material in a sari or turban and being from India and carried by British civil servants when they returned to England in 1947-1950. But furthermore one has to ask what happened to all the sayings and quips used in India otherwise? There must have been hundreds.

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  15. ADP says:

    Doesn’t Sancho Panza say “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush” in Don Quixote? That was published in 1605 and 1615 (2nd volume).

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  16. Roger says:

    Huh, I thought ‘May you live in interesting times’ was from Terry Pratchett

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  17. minim says:

    There’s not enough room to swing a cat.

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  18. akopp says:

    “a line in the sand”

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  19. Rose says:

    “Go forth and prosper” – earlier than Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein? is it biblical?

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  20. Deborah says:

    Why tiptoe carefully through life, only to arrive safely at death?

    I love this quote but wish I knew who thought of it?

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  21. one of the 89% of Americans always in debt says:

    “Is American Dream a lottery shot”

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  22. kagilandam says:

    “Aim at the moon to shoot at the tree”

    This normally used as opposite of “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush”.

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  23. Bob Prentiss says:

    Doesn’t anyone remember that great maxim from yesteryear’s Harvard Lampoon? “A bird in the hand is useless if you have to blow your nose”.

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  24. Jane says:

    May the builders always be with you. (curse)

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  25. The VP full of vices. says:

    Was it dick Cheney who coined the phrase “A bird in the hand is worth a shot in the face”?

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  26. Aaron says:

    Money is the root of all evil.

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  27. David Chowes, New York City says:

    “MAY YOU LIVE IN INTERESTING TIMES.”
    Curse or good wishes?

    I suspaect it cannot be uttered as a monolithic or definitive sense. Depends on the intent of the speaker and the perception of the person who receives it. And the given prospective and present reality.

    “A BIRD IN THE HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH.”
    Origin: The eight years of the administration of President George W. Bush.

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  28. Ed says:

    Use it or lose it.

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  29. lisa goldstein says:

    those who believe American Dream are either mentally retarded or permanently brain washed.

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  30. Steve Rempel says:

    Was it Lily Tomlin who said, “No matter how cynical I get, it is impossible to keep up”?

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  31. nobody.really says:

    A good slogan will stave off critical thinking for 50 years

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  32. nobody.really says:

    Kennedy said, “The great French Marshall Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow growing and would not reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshall replied, ‘In that case, there is no time to lose; plant it this afternoon!’”

    This strikes me as a pretty clumsy rendering of a good story.

    I don’t care about Kennedy or Lyautey; I care about finding the earliest version of a story in which the protagonist, being informed that his objective will take years, responds with some version of “Then we’d better start right away.”

    Challenging enough for you?

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  33. Machiavelli says:

    A couple attributed to Baudelaire (for which I have been unable to find an accurate citation):

    1. The devil’s cleverest trick was to make us believe that he does not exist.

    2. A sweetheart is like a bottle of wine: a wife is like a wine-bottle.

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  34. Shyla says:

    Don’t mud wrestle with a pig …

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  35. Dean Pomerleau says:

    ‘Kick the bucket’.

    The explanation given by Wikipedia and other’s sources seem very lame. Can you do better?

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  36. Jonathan Hahn says:

    That’s what she said.

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  37. Bernie Plumber says:

    Keep up with the Jonese is one of the economic engine of United States

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  38. Mo' Money, Mo' Evil says:

    Aaron,
    “Money is the root of all evil” has Biblical roots, and is actually “The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil” as written in the book of 1 Timothy chapter 6 verse 10.

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  39. Roderick says:

    “Well done is better than well said.”

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  40. Bob says:

    In the movie ‘Disclosure’ Donald Sutherland said the quote “May you live in interesting times” was a Chinese saying.

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