The Often Misquoted

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.

Aaron asked:

I’ve heard that Ben Franklin was misquoted 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?

I believe neither of these sayings appears in Benjamin Franklin‘s writings.

Jaime asked:

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 misquoted author ever.

Wheeler was correct that a very similar quotation appears in an 1888 letter of Mark Twain’s.  Note that it is not correct that Wheeler coined the term “black hole,” which appeared in print several years before he used it.

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

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  1. Adam Godfrey says:

    Anther Ben Franklin Quote that I often here is:

    “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”

    Is this truly his quote?

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  2. tunaman says:

    I heard that Benjamin Franklin once said (in “Poor Richard’s Almanac”) “a watched pot never boils over”, which is a totally different concept than “a watched pot never boils”. I once looked for this online, but didn’t come up with much one way or the other. Any ideas?

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  3. jimms says:

    How about the ever annoying ‘ it is what it is’? the guy that started that is driving me up a wall.

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  4. Ed Catlett says:

    People often say “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I believe the original quote was actually “A picture is worth ten thousand words.” as stated by Fred R. Barnard, of Printers’ Ink, 10 March 1927. Which is correct?

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  5. Marcus Kalka says:

    How about one I have always heard my mother say: “Simple minds are easily amused”?

    Or the saying, “Sealed with a kiss”?

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  6. tylerh says:

    Adam Smit devotes a substatial portion of “The Wealth of Nations” to this idea. See, for example I.3.2
    (Book I, chapter 3, section 2).

    IV.5.55 includes this quote, ” Jack of all trades will never be rich, says the proverb.”, showing that the idea, if not the precise quote, had wide currency in 1776.

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    Here’s one: “Jerkwater” –a derogative meaning insignificant.

    Sometime after the Civil War, it became possible to water locomotives by scooping water from a trough between the rails. This was a hell of a show but the train didn’t stop in these towns, and they became known as “jerkwater towns”.

    Railway age: Volume 6 – Page 178 1874 - ..a track-tank or “jerk-water,” is to be built near Monmouth Junction, 41 miles from Jersey City and 48 from Philadelphia . This will be used by express trains, and will be the only one on this division…

    But was the term used even before this even before this, on stage lines:

    The Overland monthly: Volume 2 – Page 273 Bret Harte – 1869 –
    … down by the rock-ribbed whiskey, provisions, whiskey, hardware, banks of the swift, bounding, flashing whiskey, mule feed, and whiskey again Truckee, out across the dreary desert — “jerkwater” stages, which had been plains, …

    I have read some other theories of the derivation which seem much less satisfactory.

    Any ideas?

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  8. J D says:

    The “jack of all trades” aphorism was originally a couplet stating:

    “Jack of all trades, master of none,
    Though oftentimes better than master of one”

    When the second line is dropped, the meaning changes entirely; only the first line is widely known now.

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      JD: Repost from May 17–

      “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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