Our Daily Bleg: What Quotes Do You Want Me to Trace?

Our resident quote bleggar Fred Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, is back with another request. If you have a bleg of your own — it needn’t have anything to do with quotations — send it along here.

Reader Jeff Ritter poses the following question:

So I have been using this quote that supposedly came from Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, since I received it in an email back in the early 1990’s:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.”

To me, it just says something about the paths that democracies take throughout history, and that it is tough to learn from the past.

Once again, this quote is making the viral email circle, and this time I decided to do some research on the quote. I came to find out that it is attributed to Tytler but it’s unverified. The website The Truth About Tytler by Loren Collins seems to be the most exhaustive analysis of the quote or quotes.

Now for my bleg: does anyone know who or whom made the above quote or quotes, and in what context?

In The Yale Book of Quotations, for which I tried to trace all famous quotations to their accurate origins, the earliest version I found for this passage was in the New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1959 (the same occurrence cited by the Loren Collins website), and the earliest attribution to Alexander Fraser Tytler I found was in Martin Dies, The Martin Dies Story (1963).

However, doing some fresh research now, I find the following earlier evidence:

Two centuries ago, a somewhat obscure Scotsman named Tytler made this profound observation: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.”
Daily Oklahoman, December 9, 1951

Now, here’s my bleg for this week, directed at readers’ curiosity rather than my own. Do any readers have any quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?


"A film is 10 percent image, 90 percent sound."

Attributed to Kubrick, and, if accurate, fascinating because he is such a visual filmmaker.

Sack in Bagdad

"If each of us could put our problems in a bag, and all the bags were set in the middle of a room and you could choose any bag, you'd take back your own"

[Usually attributed to grandmothers]

Randall Bytwerk

"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State."

Widely attributed to Joseph Goebbels. It's almost certainly not by him (it would be a poor sort of propagandist who announced his intention to lie). I've tried to track it down, without success.


"Of course it's hard. It's supposed to be hard. That's why they call it a shortcut. If it was easy then it would just be the way"


Does this mean that you did NOT find the Tytler quote in the much earlier citation below?

ALEXANDER FRASER TYTLER, LORD WOODHOUSELEE, University History, vol. 1, book 2, chapter 6, p. 216 (1838).

As quoted in Bartleby:

"It is not, perhaps, unreasonable to conclude, that a pure and perfect democracy is a thing not attainable by man, constituted as he is of contending elements of vice and virtue, and ever mainly influenced by the predominant principle of self-interest. It may, indeed, be confidently asserted, that there never was that government called a republic, which was not ultimately ruled by a single will, and, therefore, (however bold may seem the paradox,) virtually and substantially a monarchy."

Nuclear Mom

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Scott Supak

First, about this quote... I would contend that since the vast majority of the wealth in this country has been going to the wealthiest people for the last few decades, the people of this democracy have yet to figure out how to "...vote itself largess out of the public treasury."

I'd like to know who said this:

"Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you'll be a mile away, and you'll have his shoes."

Avi Rappoport

I'd like to know the story of "Never attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity". Apparently it's not Mark Twain or PT Barnum or Will Rogers.

One of my favorite quotes on the English language is:

"The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary."

posted by James Nicoll on usenet

And this led me to remember Will Rogers, who was quite a guy, and very funny. I wonder why we don't quote him more.



Eric M. Jones

"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." The internet usually attributes this to Einstein, which is absurd. Rita Mae Brown is possible. Nobody knows. See: The Quote Verifier By Ralph Keyes

For sport you can Google "Woody Allen __ percent just showing up" and get 50, 75, 80, 90, 95 percent.

Since arrogance come so easily to me, I often e-mail quote collection Internet sites to denounce their attributions. I am a fan of quotes, aphorisms, and witty sayings generally, and if the quote is longer than a few words, whether it "rings true" or not seems to be the best test. Every single thing a person says has an faint odor that personalizes it.

And you can quote me on that.


"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity." -- attributed to Charles Mingus; there's a version in a bio written by his wife, but supposedly the quote predates that.


There is a book (and a movie) named "We were soldiers once...and young" by Harold Moore.

I have see the title attributed variously to AE Houseman (usually) or Kipling (occasionally) but I could find it in the literature of neither.

Another one I would like to track down is:

"There is nothing so boring as other people's dreams"


"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful,
committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
—Margaret Mead

The attributions I've been able to discover always say that she said it, but never give specifics about when or where she did (or if she was the first to come up with it).


"What if you got hit by a bus?" as shorthand for "what do we do if this key player suddenly disappears?"


James, I first heard that in the movie Roadtrip.


“Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes. That way, when you do criticize him, you'll be a mile away, and you'll have his shoes.”

That's a Jack Handy quote!


A quote about meaning in art:

A painter, when asked what one of his piantings meant, replied, "If I could tell you what it meant, I might be a writer. But as it is, I'm a painter."

I love this, but have not been able to track down where it comes from. I know I didn't make it up myself.

Timothy Rosa

I've seen the quote "If I had more time I would write more." attributed to Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens (this would be a real stretch). I can't find the definitive source. Can you help?

Many thanks,


1) I've heard the line about a billion here, a billion there, etc attributed both to Sen Dirksen and Sen Humphrey and stated various ways.

2) There is no act so good or so bad that some Englishman will not do it.


My dad (who works in government) always uses this quote:

"Cave early and often; grovel if necessary."

No idea where it came from.

Any ideas?


"He wouldn't work if he was a taster at a pie factory."

"He couldn't pour water out of boot if the instructions were written on the bottom."

"The cracks were wide enough to throw a cat through."

"By grannies...."