Quotes Uncovered: Death and Statistics

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.

Marc Lange asked:

I have seen something like this quote attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes: “In English law, everything is permissible that is not expressly forbidden. In Prussian law, everything is forbidden that is not expressly permitted.”

I have never found its source in Holmes’s work or in any other, equally venerable place, only in some relatively recent court decisions. Help.

The Yale Book of Quotations quotes English judge Robert Megarry as follows:

“Whereas in England all is permitted that is not expressly prohibited, it has been said that in Germany all is prohibited unless expressly permitted and in France all is permitted that is expressly prohibited. In the European Common Market no-one knows what is permitted and it all costs more.” “Law and Lawyers in a Permissive Society” (lecture), March 22, 1972.

I am sure that Megarry did not originate the England-Germany-France triad.

Bev Smith asked:

“One death is a tragedy. A million deaths are a statistic.” I’ve seen both Charlie Chaplin and Stalin credited with this.

The YBQ, which tries to trace all famous quotations back to their earliest findable source, has:

“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.” Attributed to Josef Stalin in New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1958.

Alex W. asked:

I think there was a NY Times article for the following prayer; not sure if I recall the originator (Reinhold Niebuhr): “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This is usually said to have been written by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in 1943, but last year The New York Times ran a front-page article about my discovery that very similar formulations appeared in various newspapers as early as January 1936. I concluded that Niebuhr may have unconsciously picked the prayer up from earlier sources. Niebuhr’s daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, strongly disagrees with my conclusion, saying that “the great masterpiece prayers don’t materialize in some random, bubble-up way, either: their power comes from a distillation of complex spiritual truths, and for this we need authors, we need the tradition’s most gifted practitioners.” It seems to me that there is much great art, such as folk-songs, that originate in precisely this kind of “random, bubble-up way.”

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

Jason S

I always find this attributed to Mark Twain but don't know from where it comes.

"For in a republic, who is "the Country"? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant--merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn't. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Who, then, is "the Country"? Is it the newspaper? is it the pulpit? is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn't.

Who are the thousand--that is to say, who are "the Country"? In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country--hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of."



What about "Posession is nine tenths of the law?"


I read something to the effect that "the seeds of a society's destruction lie within itself" ... not sure where I read it, but I have tried to "empirically test" this hypothesis ... and it seems rather true to me. Of course, it also depends on how you define "society".

Where did this come from?


"Don't join the book burners. Do not think you are going to conceal thoughts by concealing evidence that they ever existed."


"An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows."


"I like to believe that people, in the long run, are going to do more to promote peace than our governments. Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it."


"Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid ."

James H.

Who said "imperfection is the beauty of mankind?" and what was the context it was said in? My friend absolutely loves using it.


"Excellence is the best defense against discrimination" I have heard attributed to Martin Luther King, but it doesn't sound like Dr. King.


I've read about Ayn Rand's antipathy toward professional sports, which one blogger summarized as "caring about the success of strangers on sports teams that happen to carry the name of my city or school is a waste of time" (http://volokh.com/2007/09/14/an-ayn-rand-first/). Google has failed me in my attempts to find a firm source or an actual quote to this effect.

Lynn Jones

I've been trying to track down the source of
"Everything in moderation. Including moderation."

The first part is omnipresent in classical and biblical sources. But that kicker "including moderation." seems modern. I've checked with the editors at the Mark Twain Project [http://www.marktwainproject.org/] and looked in more than 10 historical quotation dictionaries.

One suspect is MFK Fisher. Any help appreciated.



I always heard that was from President Eisenhower.


I thought of this while watching Back To The Future the other day. I'm curious where the expression (exclamation) "Great Scott!" came from. Who is Scott? Why does Doc Brown keep referring to him?


Hi -- the North American scholars of Romantic poetry have been wondering, on our listserv, what William Blake is thinking of when he writes (disapprovingly) of “that well-known Saying Englishmen Improve what others Invent."


Any idea who first made the "if pro is the opposite of con, then Congress must be the opposite of progress" joke?



I do not know where else to ask this question, so I am going to comment:

Do you know who said "I do not regret the things I have done, but those I did not do"?

It is one of my favorite quotes, and is in one of my favorite movies. I have seen it attributed to Rory Cochrane and Mark Twain (why does he get all the credit for the good quotes?). Also, for whoever is the true originator of the quote - what was the environment that it was birthed?


"Put all of your eggs in one basket and watch that basket very carefully" - I have heard variations of this attributed to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, though I suspect it originated elsewhere.


How about the saying "the Balkans [or some other smallish area] produce more history than can be consumed locally"? I've seen it attributed variously to Winston Churchill, Saki, and Mark Twain.


Behold, the fool saith, "Put not all thine eggs in the one basket" -- which is but a manner of saying, "Scatter your money and your attention"; but the wise man saith, "Put all your eggs in the one basket and -- watch that basket!"
-- Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar, Mark Twain


There are no facts, only interpretations. —Frederick Nietzsche (1844–1900)
I know this was generated in his Notebooks, (Summer 1886 – Fall 1887)
What I am wondering is what incident or event prompted him to write it?