Quotes Uncovered: If at First…

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.

Les Hankes asked:

I have tried to find the origin of the following without success: “For all sad words of tongue and pen, The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.'” Thanks if you find something.

According to that estimable reference work, The Yale Book of Quotations, this comes from John Greenleaf Whittier‘s poem “Maud Muller” (1854).

Canada Kid asked:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” or any variation of that. I read it in a fictional book about the prairie and midwest, in the 1800s. I thought something like that was older, maybe Shakespearian time.

The YBQ cites this as follows:

Thomas H. Palmer, Quoted in The Village Reader (1840). The identical words, except with “try, try, try again,” appear in a poem titled “Perseverance; or, Try Again,” printed in Common School Assistant, Aug. 1838. No author is identified.

W. C. Fields is attributed the variant, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”

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


I prefer the Kurt Vonnegut version of the first quote:

Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, 'it might have been'

St. Kitt

"I love taxes. With them I buy civilization."

~ Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes??


Grew up with these from my Mom:
"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."
"Leave well enough, alone."
"Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?" - a favorite of my grandma Sylvia - her reasoning of why you don't sleep with a man before marriage!


I've used the phrase "In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they're not", without any thought to where it came from.

But recently I saw it attributed to Yogi Berra. That can't be true... can it?

jim bouman

"Knowledge maketh a bloody entrance"

I always thought it was the Bard. Not so. But, who?


Penny wise, pound foolish.


You know, there's riots going on while we ponder the origins of quotes: http://www.philstockworld.com/2011/01/27/inflationary-thursday-dow-15000-5-will-get-you-a-happy-meal/


This is a bit of a long shot because it's not exactly famous. I'm sure I read many years ago the quote:

"One live patriot is worth a whole cemetary of dead ones."

- Or words to that effect. I THINK it might have been Irish nationalist leader Daniel O'Connell, chastising the violent revolutionary movements, but I'm not sure. Thanks!

Alison Simcox

A favorite quote of mine because it is so true:
"The perfect is the enemy of the good."

Ken Hirsch

"Try, try, try again" comes from the song "Perseverance; or Try Again" which appeared in William Edward Hickson's 1836 book "The Singing Master".

You can see the full lyrics in this 1837 journal: http://books.google.com/books?id=d1AXAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA315


How about "There will/would be wigs on the green"? I've heard two explanations, both of which claim that it comes from 18th century Ireland: one, that it's a reference to executions, i.e., hangings; and another, that it has to do with fistfights that were said to occur outside the courts.


I see Whittier's poem as a thought experiement. Maybe Maud and the Judge meet and forge a beautiful friendship. His sense of nature and justice are as accute as his decency.


#9, That's Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary. (The original French is actually "the best is the enemy of the good")

#3, Originally it was attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and not the road, just "hell" itself, which was paved with good intentions. I like the "road to" version better -- it suggests a progression rather than a destination.

Y'know, these are not all that hard to find. I'm surprised at the Whittier, not only that the querier didn't just google the phrase, but that he didn't know Whittier's poem.

This column reminds me of a parody by Robert Benchley of a feature that used to run in the NYT Book Review: "Literary Lost and Found," Reprinted in a Benchley collection "Love Conquers All." One short excerpt:

"J.R.A. -- Can anyone help me out by furnishing the last three words to the following stanza which I learnt in school and of which I have forgotten the last three words, thereby driving myself crazy?
'I'm sorry that I spelt the word,
I hate to go above you;
Because -- ' the brown eyes lower fell --
'Because, you see, --- --- ---.' "


Jack Springman

Err, think you may be out by some 500 years on the 'try, try again' quote. Below is a summary of the story (from www.showcaves.com/english/explain/History/Bruce.html) that most British school children have been told at some time. It may be an incorrect attribution, but the YBQ is highly remiss in not even mentioning it.

King Robert the Bruce I was born at Lochmaben Castle in 1274. He was Knight and Overlord of Annandale. In 1306 he was crowned King of Scotland and henceforth tried to free Scotland from the English enemy.

After being defeated at a battle, Bruce escaped and found a hideout in a cave. Hiding in a cave for three months, Bruce was at the lowest point of his life. He thought about leaving the country and never coming back.

While waiting, he watched a spider building a web in the cave's entrance. The spider fell down time after time, but finally he succeeded with his web. So Bruce decided also to retry his fight and told his men: "If at first you don't succeed, try try and try again".


Larry G.

"Lessons are learned, character is carved, and passion is ignited during the journey...more than at the end when the actual goal is attained."

Larry G.

"It's a poor workman who blames his tools."

Jack Springman

As a post script to my comment above.

After his third grand slam final defeat, Andy Murray - a proud Scotsman first and a Brit a distant second - will have no shortage of his fellow countrymen reminding him of the tale of Robert the Bruce.


What is the origin of the expression "gravy train" and the sayings it is used in?

Jim Ward

My family is fond of "Sorry don't feed the bulldog."

Nick G

I've been trying to find the source of

"The tragedy of life is what dies inside a man while he lives"

Which I've seen variously attributed to Albert Schweitzer and Albert Einstein. Any ideas?