Our Daily Bleg: Your Quote Authors Uncovered

Six 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.

Jeffrey asked:

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.

This is usually attributed to Lincoln, but is undoubtedly one of the many pseudo-Lincolnisms that get pinned on the 16th president, much as many humorous sayings get pinned on Mark Twain. The earliest version discovered by The Yale Book of Quotations was the Chicago Daily Tribune, May 10, 1923, which printed, “It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubts” as a submission by reader Benedict J. Goltra.

Colleen asked:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is attributed to Edmund Burke, but I haven’t yet seen a reliable reference.

This is a biggie in the apocryphal-quotation world. Frequently attributed to Burke, its earliest known appearance, found by The Yale Book of Quotations, was in the Washington Post, which credited Burke with “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” in its January 22, 1950 issue.

The closest authentic Burke passage appears to be “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” (“Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents,” 1770) Maybe the true originator was John Stuart Mill, who said: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.” ( “On Education” [1867])

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


"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

Attributed to Einstein, Ben Franklin and Rita Mae Brown. From what I can tell Mae Brown is the most likely but I still would like to know.


I read that a prominent philosopher of the 20th century once said 'The only remaining field for philosophers to study is language', essentially predicting that other aspects of philosophy would be assimilated into other disciplines.

I can't find this (or any version of it) attributed to a reliable source, however.


There's a famous quotation, attributed to Margaret Mead, but I think it's a misquote (or cleaned-up quotation) in its famous form:

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has."


" Whenever a resource is managed democratically, it is managed to extinction."


Dear, oh dear. How did both you and Yale miss this? :-)

Proverbs 17:28: "Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent." (ESV)

Author: King Solomon. Date: about 930BC. It's not exactly the same form, but it's clearly the original source.

Dan Lufkin

@ Jake: When you think "prominent philosopher" and "language," what pops up is Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I don't know whether he ever said, "The only remaining field for philosophers to study is language" in just those words, but he wrote plenty on exactly that subject.


"There is no free lunch"

A phrase used by economists since at least the 19th century, but I do not know of a firm attribution.

In what may have been an attempt at irony, Wall Street firms used to offer free lunch to their employees. (It was also rumored to be a way to keep employees from wandering too far from their desks during trading hours). The practice tapered off when the IRS started to count the meals as a taxable benefit. So even the taxman knows there is no free lunch.


"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Attributed all over the place to Mark Twain, but it just doesn't sound right. I see you noted that a lot of things are attributed to Twain incorrectly. (Also the phrase is used a lot in 12-step programs). I found one source that attributes it to either Mark Twain, Jack Benny, or Groucho Marx! (brainyquote.com). Any ideas?

Johnny E

"Write a wise saying and your name will live forever."

Johnny E

"Religion does more mischief than all other things. In Egypt it has done more than in all other places".


@ Rob about TANSTAAFL (there ain't no such thing as a free lunch)

"The "free lunch" phenomenon goes back to New Orleans according to the New York Times Feb 20 1875, when saloons used to offer a "free lunch" for the price of a drink. This was not popular with the temperance lobby who could have coined the term. Economic theorists picked it up when saloons started being prosecuted for false advertising but noone knows who coined the term, commonly it has been attributed to Milton Friedman but he wasn't the first. The earliest know reference of the exact phrase "there's no such thing as a free lunch" is in October 1943 in The Long Beach Independant in reference to an opinion US VP Henry Wallace made.

Beat that Yale Book of Quotations :-)


Hi Fred,
Wanted to know who was the first to quote "Compare Apples to Oranges"



Absence of proof is not proof of absence. Attributed to William Cowper but not in his poems or hymns.

Joe D

"Original sin is a sexually transmitted disease." The concept is referred to as Augustinian in origin, but I was wondering if there was a first instance of this particular formulation.

Scott Supak

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


As Alan Moore put it:

"I'm reminded of the remark by, I think it was Raymond Chandler, where he was asked about what he felt about having his books "ruined" by Hollywood. And he led the questioner into his study and showed him all the books there on the bookshelf, and said, Look—there they all are. They're all fine. They're fine. They're not ruined. They're still there."

I've heard a more succinct version of the Chandler quote from James Ellroy (also quoting someone, though I can't remember which author). Regardless, I'd be interested in a canonical version of the quote and the actual author.


"blessed are the cracked, for they let in the light." I have seen it on a wall in Queenstown, New Zealand and in the foreword to a book about eccentric scientists, both unattributed. I have always liked it and would love to know the author.

David Schwartz

I have been trying to track down the proper attribution for the quote "That which you vividly imagine, sincerely believe, ardently desire and enthusiastically act upon will inevitably come to pass." I find both William R. Lucas (NASA) and Paul J. Meyer (self-help guy) attached to this gem. Are you familiar with it? I had asked Ralph Keyes but he is unfamiliar with it. Any help would be much appreciated.


"For people who like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like."

Attributed to Lincoln - he was referring to religious tent revival meetings, but I find the saying has many, many applications.


"I swear it upon God an outstanding runner cannot be the equal of an average wrestler."

I see it quoted everywhere, but I can't find a reliable source for it...