Our Daily Bleg: Did Clint Eastwood Really Say “Read My Lips”?

Last week we asked you for bleg requests — i.e., questions that the Freakonomics readership could collectively answer well.

You responded with vigor, and we’ll turn “Our Daily Bleg” into a regular (if not exactly daily) feature. So look for your blegs to appear here in the future. (You can also send more suggestions to: bleg@freakonomics.com.)

To inaugurate Our Daily Bleg, we’ve invited Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the wonderful Yale Book of Quotations, to bleg today and every Thursday. (Here’s an earlier blog post about Fred’s book.)

Fred’s mission is a kind of detective work — tracking down the true source of famous quotations — that I think will prove mutually beneficial for our readership and for Fred. (And maybe you all will get a nice hat tip in future editions of his book!) So keep reading for Fred’s explanation of his work or, if you want to skip ahead to today’s bleg, go to the last paragraph.

Our Daily Bleg
by Fred R. Shapiro

“Quotations research” is probably a new concept to most readers, but I have become one of the few people in the world who conducts extensive research about famous quotations. Even standard quotation books like Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations are based on surprisingly minimal research, but I set out eight years ago to create a new quotation book that would use state-of-the-art research methods — as well as extensive networking — to track down the accurate origins of well-known quotes.

The result of my work was The Yale Book of Quotations, published recently by Yale University Press. In compiling the YBQ, I attempted to collect all of the most famous quotations, and also employed extremely powerful electronic tools to push quotation origins as far back as I could. In addition, I used Internet discussion lists like Stumpers (now Project Wombat) and the American Dialect Society’s Listserv to broadcast appeals for information.

I hope to continue this kind of networking by posting quotation questions on a forthcoming Yale Alumni Magazine blog and here on the Freakonomics blog. So here’s my first request, for which I would welcome any and all comments:

Some sources say that the phrase “read my lips” appeared in the 1973 Clint Eastwood movie Magnum Force, but Internet Movie Database does not list it among the quotes from that film. Can anyone confirm or dis-confirm its usage in Magnum Force? Furthermore: the absolute earliest known usage of the phrase “read my lips” is as the title of a 1957 song by Joe Greene; I would also be interested in finding out about any evidence of pre-1957 usage.


In response to # 8:

(While presumably "state-of-the-art research methods" would include 10 minutes + Google (GOOG), it seems he's more interested in absolute origins, rather than merely pedestrian wanderings of popular phrases once they're borne. So, it's likely he's really more interested in any pre-1957 history that can, well, rewrite history. (He probably also has numerous other quotes to check, and so doesn't want to spend hours watching old Eastwood movies.)

Odds are, that mini-history Shapiro provides is from a William Safire column; and while Safire runs down his share of leads, his column is more on language usage than an exhaustive search of all potential possibilities. So Shapiro's probably just digging/re-confirming anything he can around Safire's account.)

Glossolalia Black

It tickles me beyond belief that Bush the Elder might have inadvertently been quoting Eddie Murphy. Ahhh, the eighties.

Herbert Moore


is this guy really a professional quote finder? wouldn't looking at a script be the first step?

Marc V

Eddie Murphy, Beverly Hills Cop
"Read my lips... $5000."


Now, that's now an etymological origin, and it's not pre-1957. But dollars to donuts (origin that phrase), that's the circa 1980's dialogue to which Bush the Elder refered.


I'm sure someone has credited that line to Mark Twain.


I'm with East Coast Phil- Go ahead, make my day is the salient Dirty Harry quote- I predict that 90% of all known quotes originate with Shakespeare


i believe it was in the original movie "dirty harry" that the quotation was first said.


George Bush (senior) was in his 60's when he said the famous "no new taxes" line, and he's about 120 years old now, so that must have been about 60 years ago during the 1940s or early '50s.

Cody Brumfield

A quick search of the script doesn't return anything.

East Coast Phil

It's not in this transcript of the movie:

He definitely said "Make my day" in Sudden Impact though.

East Coast Phil

The transscript at http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/m/magnum-force-script-transcript-eastwood.html

is just that -- a transcript, not a shooting script. Some guy watched the movie and typed it all out. It could have errors, of course. But missing something like "Read my lips" would be pretty significant.

I wonder if rentals of Magnum Force will go up this weekend.


Aren't we mixing up our movies and presidents here? Was GHWB really quoting Clint? I thought it was Reagan who was quoting Clint when he used the "Make my day" line a tax bill during his term.

Fred R. Shapiro

The questions raised by #13, #14, and #15 as to how the first appearance of a phrase like "read my lips" would be defined are good ones. It is true that "read my lips" could have been used anytime after the invention of lip-reading, but I am looking for its earliest traceable use as a catchphrase meaning "Listen and listen very hard, because I want you to hear what I've got to say," to adopt the definition given by Tim Curry in 1978.

Fred R. Shapiro

In response to #8: I had actually already looked at the script and not found "read my lips" there. So, as #10 and #12 suggest, my focus was more on the possibility that the line was spoken in the film without being in the script, as well as on pre-1957 evidence. I could watch "Unforgiven" or "Pale Rider" or "High Plains Drifter" or "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" endlessly, but was not as eager to sit through "Magnum Force." As for William Safire's very helpful 1988 column on "read my lips," I have long been probably his leading source of data on word and quotation origins, and may even have supplied his information on this phrase in 1988.


The above post is interesting.. but it begs the question: what kind of quotation is Shapiro searching for? The first time anyone ever uttered "read my lips" in consecutive sequence? Does it have to be in english? What about latin?

Or is he looking for the first time it hit the mainstream? If so, what is the mainstream?

I suppose as long as it's got a Yale title to it, though, it will have credibility.


I can now confidently defy Dubner's pandering claim:

"I am guessing that the response to these blegs will prove to the world that the people who read Freakonomics.com are indeed among the wisest and most thoughtful people in the land."

J. Greene

This is not the least bit scientific, but I sort of poked around the web to see what there was by way of Deaf History, and I discovered that the idea of teaching deaf people to lipread has been around since at least the seventeen hundreds and possibly as early as the fifteen hundreds.

The phrase undoubtedly followed as soon as the practice was dubbed "lipreading", likely by an exasperated parent or sibling in a family with a deaf member who used it.

Picture, if you will, this historical moment:

"I told you five times already to take out the garbage. READ MY LIPS!"

This quote was undoubtedly rediscovered repeatedly over the centuries.

When, however, it attained critical mass and became culturally relevant enough to attain "quote" status is not so easy to determine. Since it's English idiom, personally, I'd look around to find roughly the time at which it became commonly known that lipreading was taught to the deaf--it's quite likely the "quote" will follow shortly thereafter. Looking for script-writers and authors who had relatives or close friends who were deaf might also quickly yield an answer.



Since the expression "lip-reading" is first attested 1874 (according to www.etymonline.com), it seems quite likely that "read my lips" would have been born shortly after that.


william safire covered it:


"Read my lips is rooted in rock music. In 1978, the actor-singer Tim Curry gave that name to an album of songs written by others (though it did not include a song with that title copyrighted in 1957 by Joe Greene).

Reached in Washington, where he is appearing in ''Me and My Girl,'' Mr. Curry recalled that he got the phrase from an Italian-American recording engineer: ''I would say to him, 'We got it that time,' and he would say, 'Read my lips - we didn't.' That phrase arrested me, and I thought it would make an arresting album title. "


"is this guy really a professional quote finder? wouldn't looking at a script be the first step?"

A first step, maybe. But certainly not a last step. Scripts (even shooting scripts) are very rarely identical to what actually appears onscreen. The script may not have called for Eastwood to say "read my lips", but that certainly doesn't mean that he didn't.

The only way to be sure is to watch the movie.