Quotes Uncovered: Pork and Patriotism

A while back, 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.

Bruce asked:

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.”

The Oxford English Dictionary records that “pork barrel,” literally “a barrel for storing pork,” was used figuratively to mean “a supply of money; a source of rich pickings, the source of one’s livelihood.”

Quotes Uncovered

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

By 1873 this meaning was extended in the United States to the political one of “the state’s financial resources regarded as a source of distribution to meet regional expenditures; especially central funds appropriated for local projects designed to please the electorate or legislators and win votes.” By 1879 the slang term “pork” arose meaning “government funds or benefits dispensed by politicians in order to gain favour with patrons or constituents.”

The OED traces the American colloquialism “log-rolling” back to 1823. The definition given is “combination for mutual assistance in political or other action. … Suggested by the proverbial phrase ‘You roll my log and I’ll roll yours.'”

Marco wrote:

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

I’m not sure whether Marco is joking here, but if he is serious, that theory is quite wrong. The OED documents the usage of “play with fire” meaning “trifle with dangerous matters, especially at the risk of moral disaster or emotional distress” as early as 1887. Jagger and Richards, although long in the tooth, are not quite that old.

Howard Werner asked:

Who said “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”?

The ever-helpful Yale Book of Quotations has the following:

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Samuel Johnson, Quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) (entry for April 7, 1775).

A social critic over a century later than Johnson, Ambrose Bierce, commented in his Devil’s Dictionary: “With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer, I beg to submit that it is the first.” More incisively, George Jean Nathan wrote in Testament of a Critic (1931) that “Patriotism, as I see it, is often an arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles.”

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


Yes, who said "If you were any sharper, you'd cut yourself"?


During some discussion with friends lately, I said that "there are no good calls at 3 a.m., except from the Nobel Prize Committee". I wonder if anyone has said that before or there is something similar.


Who first said, "Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from poor judgement"?

A quick google search finds the quote in various forms credited to Anonymous, Cousin Woodman, Will Rogers, Fred Brooks and Rita Mae Brown.

Joe Smith

I believe that "pork barrel" came to be associated with government patronage and corruption when the government of England was purchasing dried salted pork in barrels for the English navy.


Who first said, “It's not enough to have lived. We should be determined to live for something.”?

Google results include Leo Buscaglia, Winston Churchill, and Nietzsche.


I read somewhere that someone, possibly Roy Cohen, said something like: "I only lie under oath; it is the only time it matters." But I have never been able to find a source to confirm or attribute the quote.



Where does "Dropping a dime" come from? Also heard "the dime."



I first heard "drop a dime" in the 1970s as street slang for calling someone. Before cell phones, the only way to call someone when you were out was to use a pay phone. In the 1970s a local 3 minute call cost ten cents.

Drug dealers at that time were commonly thought to use pay phones for all their calls because the police would tap their phones. They didn't own the pay phones so the police couldn't prove they were the voice on the phone call.


"Dropping a dime" on someone and "dime-ing out" someone (spelling?) both originate from times when making a call from a public phone cost only 10 cents.

Both terms mean the same as "ratting out" or "turning state's evidence" -- that is, informing authorities on wrongdoers (usually by other wrongdoers) ... something one would do from a public phone so as to not be overheard by one's co-conspirators -- thus risking being "whacked," "rubbed out" or "knocked off" (the latter of which term now means to counterfiet trademark protected goods) by one's colleagues in crime.