Quotes Uncovered: Dying for Opinions and Making History

Quotes Uncovered

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

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.

Mitch asked:

My Dad had one I always liked: “Any time two people always agree, one of them is doing all the thinkin’.” Any idea where that came from?

The Yale Book of Quotations has the following similar line:

“When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” William Wrigley Jr., Quoted in Reader’s Digest, July 1940.


I’ve seen “Well-behaved women rarely make history” attributed to pretty much every “empowered woman” historical figure you can think of. Do you know who actually said it?

Yes I do. It was Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, in her article “Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668-1735,” American Quarterly, Spring 1976 (“Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all”).

Lars Erik Morin asked:

Voltaire is blamed for a phrase that goes something like this: “I’m very much opposed to your opinions, sir, but I’m ready to die for your right to have them.” Did he ever say that thing? Did he meet Adolf Hitler?

No and no. The Yale Book of Quotations lists this under Evelyn Beatrice Hall, an English writer who lived from 1868 to 1919:

[Paraphrase of Voltaire’s attitude:] “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Evelyn Beatrice Hall, The Friends of Voltaire (1906).

Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations traces this to a letter by Voltaire to a M. le Riche, February 6, 1770, but that is based on a misreading by Bartlett’s of Norbert Guterman, A Dictionary of French Quotations. The quotation does not appear in Voltaire’s letter to Francois-Louis-Henri Leriche of that date nor anywhere else in Voltaire’s writings.

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

E in Richmond

The other night I was reading Kim Stanley Robinson's ponderous sci-fi novel Fifty Degrees Below and came across the following statement: An excess of reason is itself a form of madness.

I'm sure Robinson didn't come up with that himself. Any idea who did?


I'd love to know if "revenge is a dish best served cold" is attributable to anyone but the klingons/roddenberry. any ideas?

Jack Millman

What about the whole nine yards?


From Wikipedia on Revenge:


The first written appearance of the proverb "revenge is a dish best served cold" is often wrongly credited to the 18th century novel Les liaisons dangereuses; it does not, in fact, appear there in any form. It is also said to have been borrowed by late 19th century British writers from the Afghan Pashtuns.[2] However, its earliest identified appearance in European literature is in the 1841 French novel Mathilde by Marie Joseph Eugene Sue: la vengeance se mange tres-bien froide - there italicized as if quoting a proverbial saying - published in English translation in 1846 as revenge is very good eaten cold. [3]

The popularly familiar wording can be attributed to The Godfather by Mario Puzo, a major bestseller in 1969, but the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets had it as revenge is a dish which people of taste prefer to eat cold. The familiar wording more recently appears in the title sequence of the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill: Vol 1, accredited as an "Old Klingon Proverb", referencing its use in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which so cites it.

The proverb suggests that revenge is more satisfying as a considered response enacted when unexpected, or long feared, inverting the more traditional revulsion toward 'cold-blooded' violence. It is used, sometimes, to persuade another to forestall vengeance until wisdom can reassert itself.


Walter Wimberly

@Jack - "the whole nine yards" was a military reference from WWII. Fighter planes generally stored enough ammo internally that when laid out to be loaded into the aircraft it was 27 feet (9 yards) in length. If the pilot came back empty he was said to have given the enemy "The whole 9 yards".


@Jenn thanks!


@Walter Wimberly
Don't be so sure:

Fred Shapiro

Re #5: Walter Wimberly gives an answer to the most controversial etymological question of our time as if it were established fact. Walter, do you have any factual basis for this theory?


My favorite phrase at work to say is, "it is what it is." No matter what setting, formal, informal that phrase has stuck into every form of dialogue.


Might I suggest that you peruse the current political climate for statements that people "quote" as being from documents, or what someone said and search the historical roots of those quotations. The evolution of political speech based upon president of more famous people's statements is always interesting.

Take care,


I've seen "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication" attributed to da Vinci, but I can't find it in my (very incomplete) selection of his writing. Did he really say it? If so, where? If not, who did?


I'll bite...

When one of us kids would make a statement that was glaringly obvious, my mom would say:

"True, o queen, live forever! And immediately, the queen lived forever"

Where does that come from?


one of my all time favorite phrases is:
"use the master's tools to destroy the master's house".
in my younger days i even got a rubber stamp with the quotation and i would use it to stamp my dollar bills. (ok, i said i was young when i did so)
i vaguely remember someone saying the anthropologist levi-strauss said this, but it doesn't sound like him to me. any clues?


#9 too true. A variant of "I am what I am" dialog between God Almighty (YHWH) and Moses? Or was that the prophet Popeye?


Did Mark Twain really say 'History does not repeat itself, but instead rhymes'. Theres are few versions of this quote i've heard over the years.

Thats interesting about the '9 whole yards'. Thanks for the interesting trivia.


@mike: a variation of Yahweh's "I am that I am", taken from the Bible?

Matthew R.

"No one ever wanted a quarter-inch drill. What they want is a quarter-inch hole." Supposedly a 19th century business mogul. It makes sense, and I'm interested in the origin and originator.

Matthew R.

#9 "it is what it is."

An aphorism fit for a Tetragrammaton.


Re the Whole Nine Yards, a search on the Internet Archive turns up the following, from "Investigation of the national defense program. Hearings before a Special Committee [...]" pt.11-12 (1942). This suggests the phrase could refer to shipyards in use for war production.

[begin quot]
Senator Burton -- So that you have involved here a tremendous ex-
pansion in production, and you are shooting for a 50-percent increase
or more than a 50-percent increase in seven out of nine plants.

Admiral Vickery -- That is right, and they have got to make that to
hit the schedules.

Admiral Land -- You have to increase from 7.72 to 12 for the average
at the bottom of that fifth column, for the whole nine yards.
{end quot]


My grandmother always told me, "The more you kick a turd, the more it stinks."