Our Daily Bleg: More Quote Authors Uncovered

Three 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.

Mark C asks:

I’d love to see a definitive attribution to this old favorite, which I’ve seen attributed to Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, and others:

Talking/writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

The earliest occurrence of this found by The Yale Book of Quotations was the following by Elvis Costello, quoted in Musician, October 1983:

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

TRad writes:

“Any 20-year-old who isn’t a liberal doesn’t have a heart, and any 40-year-old who isn’t a conservative doesn’t have a brain.” I’ve seen it attributed to several persons, most often to Bismarck or Churchill.

I wrote about this in my column in the Yale Alumni Magazine:

One of the pleasures of compiling The Yale Book of Quotations was tracing and cross-referencing different versions and precursors of famous quotes. This one is usually credited to Georges Clemenceau, but W. Gurney Benham‘s Book of Quotations cites French premier and historian Francois Guizot (1787 to 1874), translating his statement as “Not to be a republican at 20 is proof of want of heart; to be one at 30 is proof of want of head.” Benham asserts that “Clemenceau adopted this saying, substituting socialiste for republicain.”

But I was delighted to find that John Adams had expressed a similar idea well before Guizot entered adulthood. Thomas Jefferson preserved this quip, writing in a 1799 journal that Adams had said: “A boy of 15 who is not a democrat is good for nothing, and he is no better who is a democrat at 20.”

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


I have the following quote in a frame and it's attributed to Emerson, but I've since learned that probably isn't accurate. Could you provide more details?

To laugh often and much
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to earn the appreciation of honest critics
and endure the betrayal of false friends;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better,
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch
or a redeemed social condition;
to know even one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.


FWIW, Churchill was a Conservative until he was 30, a Liberal from then until he was 50, and a Conservative again until his death, making the attribution of this line to him fairly ludicrous but slightly humorous.


I am not sure of the exact quote, but the gist of it is "no man who can read can be denied an education." I seem to recollect that it should be either Franklin or Jefferson. I should not be surprised if it originates even earlier.


I'd like to know who originally said, "That government is best which governs least." When trying to find the origin, I've run across John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Paine. Who actually said this?


What's the origin of "Every shot not taken is a 100% miss" or some variation on it? My cousin attributes it to Wayne Gretzky, but the rest of my family has some doubts about that.

steve swanson

I thought it was either Ch. Mingus or T. Monk who made the first comment about jazz reviewers/columnists/writers... "writing about jazz is like dancing about... " (something or other here).



I would love to know the original source of this one: "A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems." I've seen it attributed most often to Paul Erdos or Alfréd Rényi, occasionally to other famous mathematicians/scientists.


I'm not sure of the exact quote but it goes something like this: the battles in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so low.


Quote origin suggestion. There statement that goes something like this and has been attributed to Brian Eno and Michael Stipe:

"Not many people listened to the Velvet Underground, but everyone who did formed a band."


What about the "ancient Chinese curse" that says "May you live in interesting times." I thought I'd read somewhere more recently that it is neither ancient nor Chinese.


The evolution of the socialist - conservative quote is worthy of notice as the gist is that mature people should think differently. For Jefferson young was 15 and mature 20. Churchill had those ages at 20 and 40. As we age, it is hard to consider someone 40 as already having matured.


"Rank isn't merit. Age isn't merit. Neither young nor old, high nor low, but only the action, honorable or not."

I'd like to know where that quote comes from. I read it in a science fiction novel by Elizabeth Moon, set in the far future, and it was said to be a quote from Old Earth.

I Googled it, but didn't find out who said it.

Mark C

Thanks Fred!

Matthew R.

I had always heard the Churchill quote in terms not of liberal/conservative (which are not exactly the same terms in Britain as they are in America), but in terms of being a socialist: "He who is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart, and he who is still a socialist at age 40 has no brain."

Andrew in NYC

“Y'all reporters like my quotes, don't you. Yeah, my quotes are Shaqalicious.”

James Callan

"It's Sinatra's world. We just live in it."


I have always wanted to verify one of my favorite quotes, attributed to Samuel Johnson (author of the first English dictionary): " It is indeed a dull man who can think of but one way to spell a word."


Who said....'those who were dancing were considered insane by those who could not hear the music'? i've heard george carlin, but dont know...

Steve Schwartz - NYC LSAT Tutor

Would love to find the source for:

"Man always has two reasons for the things he does; the logical one and the real one."

Thank you!


I've had this quote posted above my desk for years, but I have no idea where it originated:

"In a world full of caterpillars, it takes balls to be a butterfly."

Any idea of the source?