Quotes Uncovered: Who Said Data Kills?

Quotes Uncovered

75 ThumbnailHere are more quote authors and origins Shapiro’s tracked down recently.

Fourteen 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. Hundreds of people have responded via comments or e-mails. I am responding as best I can, a few per week.

Eric asked:

I had a friend who was absolutely convinced he came up with the phrase “If you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned.” He claims he had never heard it before, and just thought it up one day. No amount of evidence could sway him otherwise.

The Yale Book of Quotations lists this under “Proverbs,” and notes that it appears, in the form “If people will play with fire, they must expect to be burned by it some time,” in R. H. Thorpe, The Fenton Family (1884).


“The murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts” — I have heard it attributed to Herbert Spencer, but also that it was not Spencer.

The YBQ credits this to Thomas H. Huxley, who wrote in “The Study of Zoology” (1861): “The great tragedy of Science — the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”

Daniel asked:

My roommate always uses the phrase “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” He cannot figure out who said it, except that it was said by somebody important. Do you have any ideas?

Maybe he is thinking of T. S. Eliot‘s line, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” (The Sacred Wood [1920]).

JBT asked:

“From hell,” as in “She was the nanny from hell.”

This one is particularly dear to my heart. An episode of the TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm was devoted to comedian Richard Lewis‘s quest to convince Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to acknowledge him as the coiner of this idiom. Bartlett’s, which has little interest in new quotations or in researching quotation sources, refused to comply with Lewis’s desires. The Yale Book of Quotations, however, cites the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1986, quoting Lewis describing himself as the “comedian from hell,” with the annotation that this is the “earliest documented example of the expression ‘from hell’ referring to a person.”

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


The Google project to digitize all books may produce a revolution in tracing quotes.

Far faster computers will be available soon. And pattern recognition software will steadily improve. It is pretty good already.

Of course pattern recognition is not the entire game. The same meanings expressed with different words can be far harder to find. But don't make a big bet against it.

I have no doubt similar quotes are often arrived at independently.


Yes, my wife is convinced that she is the first person to use the phrase "24/7" and that she also was the first to begin referring to short denim shorts as "Daisy Dukes" after the character from Dukes of Hazzard. Please prove her wrong.


I've got two sayings I'd like to know the origins of:
"If it was a snake, it would have bit you" and
"let's all get aboard, and if you can't get a board, get a shingle." It was one of my grandpa's favorite sayings.


My son was in a pre-school program when he was about 3 1/2 years old. He came home one day and I saw he had a picture that was very carefully colored in with crayons. I told him he had done a very fine job of coloring and he replied very sincerely and Matter-of-factly "Ruthie did that for me. I DON'T COLOR IN THE LINES." I'm pretty sure he had not read that before.....But it has been true of his life ever since.

Mike M

My buddy once said something that I have to assume he stole, but I'd like to know for sure. He was describing his basketball team's season after a season-ending loss in the playoffs:

"Every day we went to war. We didn't always win, but at least we didn't die."

Who did he steal it from?


I tried this once before and saw no answer, so here's another attempt:

"Any resource managed democratically will be managed to extinction."


I would like to know about the origin of "blah blah blah." I started using it over 20 years ago and wonder where I first heard it.


Could you post something about the evolution and use of the term "pork" to describe earmarks? I've seen references to "pork-barrel" and "log-rolling" (whatever that is?) from decades past but it would be interesting to know how those terms originated and how we wound up with "pork".


How about the phrase "Bob's your uncle" meaning everything is clear and concise. It's mostly a British saying, but I've never gotten a clear source. Wikipedia states the source as one relating to an act of nepotism, but that doesn't seem to fit the general use of the phrase. I read in the novel Shantaram that it was coined by the soldiers of a certain British general whose men felt very secure under his leadership, but can't seem to confirm that through any other source.


I believe it was The Rolling Stones who came up with the "play with fire" phrase.


I accidentally coined a phrase once: The wheels of justice are greased with the blood of the innocent.

It took a lot of Google searching for my students (yes, this is while I was teaching) to convince me that this was not, in fact, a common maxim. Whups.

Tim Bexton

Who said this:

"People are divided into two groups -- the righteous and the unrighteous -- and the righteous do the dividing."

I have seen it attributed to Oscar Wilde as well as to Lord Cohen.


A popular Spanish proverb says "quien juega con fuego, se acaba quemando". Almost identical to "If you play with fire, you're gonna get burned."


I heard this from a friend who said he heard it from Dilbert (the comic), "Don't attribute to malice that which can be attributed to ignorance."

Trevor Burnham

The previous commenter's quote is Hanlon's razor. There's a Wikipedia article on it.

I've heard of t-shirts produced by an economics department (at U of Chicago, the story usually goes) that say: "Sure, it works in practice, but does it work in theory?"


I've never found a source for the phrase "to screw the pooch". I haven't looked as hard, but I also wonder about the synonomous phrase "to blow the gaff".

Tim Roberts

I am rather surprised by the number of people who believe they themselves have coined some well-known quote (Richard Lewis notwithstanding).

I wish I had coined the following, but I certainly didn't. Who did?

"Complete understanding extinguishes pleasure."

tim fox

"screw the pooch" is used in Tom Wolfe's "The right stuff" but maybe not the first time.

jack schwager

I think your attribution on :"The murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts"
is wrong. I used this exact quote in one of my books (rather than similar quote you cite) and the attribution is to La Rochefoucauld whi was a 17th Cebtury writer and therefore well predates Huxely

John Louis

I came across the quote here. In Public Opinion, Walter Lippman attributes the phrase to Herbert Spencer. But he does so without using quotations. Lippman's usage is from chapter 1 and goes as follows:

Then comes the sensation of butting one's head against a stone wall, of learning by experience, and witnessing Herbert Spencer's tragedy of the murder of a Beautiful Theory by a Gang of Brutal Facts, the discomfort in short of a maladjustment. For certainly, at the level of social life, what is called the adjustment of man to his environment takes place through the medium of fictions.

This could explain why the Spencer/Not Spencer issue.