Our Daily Bleg: Let Me Trace Your Quotes


Two weeks ago, I invited readers to submit quotations for which they wanted me to try to trace the origins, using The Yale Book of Quotations and more recent research by me. Dozens responded via comments or e-mails. I am responding as best I can, a couple per week.

Timothy Rosa asked:

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?

The Yale Book of Quotations has versions of this by Pascal, Henry David Thoreau, and Woodrow Wilson. The most “original” of these is the following by Blaise Pascal, “Lettres Provinciales,” No. 16 (1657):

I have made this [letter] longer than usual, only because I have not had the time to make it shorter.

Anandine asked:

I’ve heard the line about a billion here, a billion there, etc. attributed both to Senator Dirksen and Senator Humphrey and stated various ways.

I addressed this one while guest-writing The New York Times “On Language” column in July. I wrote that it is usually thought that:

Everett Dirksen coined “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon it begins to add up to real money.” Yet the Dirksen Congressional Center, scouring the Illinois senator’s audiotapes and transcripts, news clippings and speech notes, has found no concrete evidence of his uttering these words, only uncorroborated attributions after his death in 1969. On the other hand, a historical database search of The New York Times yields a Jan. 10, 1938, “Topics of the Times” column with the lines: “Well, now, about this new budget. It’s a billion here and a billion there, and by and by it begins to mount up into money.” No mention of Dirksen.

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


How about "It is better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt"? I've heard Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln and there are reportedly other sources.


More on Dirksen and this phrase here:


including this secondhand report that Dirksen said:

"Oh, I never said that. A newspaper fella misquoted me once, and I thought it sounded so go that I never bothered to deny it."

Tim Richards

I heard a quote once about political differences between new Hampshire and Vermont that said (more or less)
"New Hampshire is to Vermont as Minnesota is to south Carolina."

I cannot recall where or when I heard this. I'd love to know the source.

Gary Arndt

"Quantity has a quality all its own"

I have heard that quote attributed to both Lenin and Mao.

Arthur Blanchard

I could swear that I actually heard Senator Dirksen say that on television (the early 1960's) but I believe that it went:

a MILLION here, a MILLION there...eventually we're talking real money.

At the time, a billion WAS real money.

This is, of course, a very old memory and thus suspect.


"When writing a federal budget,
"If it doesn't balance you can fudge it,
"Like we do!
"What's 200 million
"On top of a trillion?
"It won't matter when we're through!"
-- The Capitol Steps


But you missed the point...
the first quote is talking about writing more with more time, the second about writing less in more time.
Its the difference between quantity and quality- often lost to North Americans.


This isn't an old one, but there are so many variations that for the life of me I can't find the original:

"If you (don't) X, then the terrorists have already won."

Elliott Mason

One I know I read somewhere but now cannot trace, is:

"If you've never walked into a parking meter, you're wasting valuable reading time."


Speaking of "didn't have time to make it shorter," I heard of a preacher who was asked how long it would take him to prepare a five minute exhortation for a campmeeting.

"I can have one ready in a week," he responded.

"How long to prepare a 20 minute exhortation?"

"At least a couple of days."

"Well, how long to preach for an hour?"

"I'm ready right now!"


JM@7--or the difference between productivity and navel gazing, often lost on people in most of the rest of the world.


"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

It's attributed to Edmund Burke, but I haven't yet seen a reliable reference.

Thanks. :-)


Here's one: the stereotypical "Penthouse Letters" intro.

"Dear Penthouse: I never thought it could happen to me ..."

I see variations on that crop up in different contexts, and I've always wondered if a) it really comes from Penthouse, and b) how exactly it made the leap into broader culture.

Matthew R.

"The death of an individual is a tragedy, but the death of a million is a statistic." Josef Stalin?

"The graveyards of the world are full of indispensable men." Charles de Gaulle?


There is an iphone app that does the same thing. The only difference is that it is transparently targeted at 'playas' to track the availability of their various paramours for sex.

Fred Shapiro

Re #7: I assume Timothy Rosa meant to say "“If I had more time I would write less." That is the saying often attributed to various famous people.


"A test without a context is a pretext."

I've heard this mentioned many times but have never seen it attributed to the same guy.


Could you please stop using the "word" "bleg?" It's obnoxious, and I wince every time I see it. I love your blog, but it annoys me that every time I check it, I see this word that reminds me of vomit and pretty much nothing else.

I sincerely hope it doesn't catch on.

Dan Lufkin

"When small men cast long shadows you know the sun is going down" is attributed to one Venita Cravens, an impresaria world-famous all over Oklahoma in the 1950s. It sounds French to me. I wonder if you can contribute to understanding.



"Politics is like sausage, once you find out what goes into either you will want to have nothing to do with them for the rest of your life."

Mark Twain or Otto von Bismark or ???