Quotes Uncovered: The Universe and Stupidity

Quotes Uncovered

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

Seventeen 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.

Maria asked:

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit.” Reagan? Truman? Lincoln? Some 19th-century white woman I saw credited with it on a poster many years ago?

Please help.

The Yale Book of Quotations, which attempts to trace all famous quotations to their earliest documented occurrences, cites:

“There is no limit to what a man can do so long as he does not care a straw who gets the credit for it.”
Charles Edward Montague, Disenchantment (1922).

Bette Neumann asked:

“The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest,” or “Compound interest is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time.”

It’s often attributed to Albert Einstein, but debunked by Snopes.

The YBQ cites The New York Times, May 27, 1983:

Asked once what the greatest invention of all times was, Albert Einstein is said to have replied, “compound interest.”

Snopes is of course correct that the Einstein attribution is undoubtedly apocryphal.

Antoine asked:

“Two things are infinite: universe and human stupidity. But I’m not sure for the universe.” (Or something approaching this. I’ve always heard it in French; the translation is mine.)

It is usually assigned to Einstein, what can you say about it?

The Yale Book of Quotations quotes as the earliest evidence found for this:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”
Attributed to Albert Einstein in Robert Byrne, … 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (1990).

Again, the attribution to Einstein is undoubtedly apocryphal.

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


I would be interested in finding out who said:

"Vision without funding is hallucination"

I've seen it attributed to NATO Commander General Jones, or an anonymous US Major, as well as Henry Ford and others. I've also seen other variants (such as "research without funding is hallucination") so perhaps the vision one isn't the original version.



I just would like to second Kevin's request at 1. I know some pretty "visionary" leader-esque type people who could use this quote as a dose of sanity in their rather delusion filled days of imagining the next great achievement coming their way.

Palolo lolo

I've always been partial to Robert Heinlein's "Never under-estimate the power of human stupidity."

Trevor L

"Freedom is the right to choose: the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice and the exercise of choice a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing."

While a quick googling of this quote attributes it to Archibald Macleish, I've seen it attributed to Thomas Jefferson. My guess is that this is because people just assume that Jefferson said quotes similar to these. Any insights?


I've always wondered if :"The price of stupidity is more money." is an attributed quote. It's one of my very most favourite sayings, but I can't believe it's original to me.


Hmm... I've always liked the quote that goes something along the lines of this: "it's amazing what people can do when they don't know that they can't."
I've heard it attributed to Mary Kay Ash (of Mary Kay Cosmetics) and ol' Tom Jeffferson too of course. Ruling please?


I'd like to know who said, "A man who reads nothing at all is smarter than a man who reads nothing but newspapers." I believe that's very close to how it goes, and I believe I've seen it attributed to Pres. Thomas Jefferson.


One classic quote with a hotly debated source is "Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." Sometimes the first word is given as "Writing," but all sorts of names have been bandied about as a possible source.


Any thoughts on:

"I care not who writes the laws of a people if you let me write their songs"

Snopes suggests attributing it or some variant to Plato or Napoleon, but offers no evidence.


"What we fear is not that we may be weak but that we may be incredibly strong"

It was said by Lennox Lewis but he read it out like he was quoting someone.


"You can fool all the people half the time, and half the people all the time."

I seem to recall this being attributed to Lincoln. I also recall a professor who had gone through most or all of Lincoln's works and never found it.


I'd like to know the source for: ' when we let go of who we are, we become what we might be'


#12, above, certainly describes the potus, both houses of congers and particularly Pelosi!!


#12, how about:
"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us" - Joseph Campbell

Fred, thank you for looking up the Montegue quote.

Frederick Michael

"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is."

"Predictions are difficult, especially when they involve the future."

They are falsely attributed to Yogi Berra & Neils Bohr, respectively.

Michael in Iowa City

I'm very curious if the expression "hard-knock life" existed before the musical Annie.

Dan Wilson

"There is nothing tougher than a gentleman."

-Dan in Saratoga Springs, NY

Ken Herron

Along the lines of Antoine's question, author Harlan Ellison is attributed as saying "The two most common elements in the universe are Hydrogen and stupidity."


Josh @ May 15: I think I've traced that quote to Andrew Fletcher. I can't find an authoritative source, but Jorge Luis Borges attributes the quote to him, and I trust Borges.


Can you shed light, please, on the origins of

"Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action"

And did Lincoln really say, about Grant's drinking, that he would find out what brand he drinks and send a case of it to all the other generals?