If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

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 researches.

Barry Ritholtz asked:

“I keep hearing variations of the following as Twain: ‘History may not repeat but it rhymes.’  But I have never been able to track that back to Twain anywhere.”

Probably because Twain didn’t say it.  The files of the forthcoming Yale Book of Modern Proverbs have two 1970 citations of this saying as the earliest known evidence, but nothing earlier than 1970 has been found.

Gary asked:

“If you can’t beat them, join them.”

Photo: Just chaos

The Yale Book of Modern Proverbs will cite the following as its earlier example:

1902  Des Moines Homestead 13 Feb:  “The father-in-law said, ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’  And I believe tonight if I can’t beat the Short-horn association I will join them.”

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


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  1. Jim says:

    How about “If you love somebody set them free. If they come back to you…” My quick web search didn’t yield anything definitive.

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  2. Aaron says:

    I’ve heard that Ben Franklin was miss-quoted when he said “Jack of all Trades, Master of None,” and that he actually said “Jack of all Trades, Master of Some.” is there any truth to this?

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  3. Andrew says:

    How about “five-finger discount?”

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  4. Eric M. Jones. says:

    “Jack-of-All-Trades, Master of None…”

    A letter … to such of the citizens and electors of Dublin, as … – Page 34

    Charles Lucas – 1761, but the PDF scan of the work shows 1741, 1740 and other dates as likely. Brush up on your Roman numerals.

    I have no doubt that an earlier date can be found. There are also many variants; “Master of one”, “Master of some”, etc.

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  5. rawckee says:

    I’ve noticed a tendency towards wrongfully atributing an incredible amount of quotes to Mr. twain. He seems to be a “usual suspect” in this subject matter and in this series of posts, something like “if it’s clever and witty it must be Twain”. Now I end up asking myself if, for instance, Confucious is a “victim” of this same tendency with the diference that there aren’t many (or any at all) resources to verify and/or clarify… You know the few-thowsand-years-ago-in-china factor.

    I would love to hear your opinion.

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  6. Jaime says:

    Hello, I was recently reading up on an old interview with one of the greatest minds of last century, John A. Wheeler and in it he quotes:

    “The difference between the right word and the nearly right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning-bug.”

    As having been originally presented to the world by Mark Twain, and, of course, I immediately started thinking about whether a world renown physicist, that got so much right in such an uncertain world (and coined words such as Black Holes himself), managed to get right a quote by one of the most often mis-quoted author ever.


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  7. noor says:

    “It takes a whole community to rise a child”

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  8. Lawrence says:

    Could the expression, “If you can’t beat them, join them”, have come from old woodworkers with the saying,”If you can’t join them, bead them? Meaning if two pieces of wood can
    not be brought together right, cover it with a bead.

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