Quotes Uncovered: Smoke, Mirrors, and Snowflakes


Each week, I’ve been inviting readers to submit quotations for which they want me to try to trace the origin, using The Yale Book of Quotations and my more recent research. Here is the latest round.

Norm asked:

My wife and I have tried for years to come up with a definitive source for the expression “smoke and mirrors.” It is so pervasive an expression that it seems to have been around forever. Some sources attribute it to a speech by Winston Churchill; others suggest a more recent origin, but references seem murky. Do you have any clearer idea?

The Yale Book of Quotations, which attempts to trace all famous quotations to their earliest findable occurrence, has the following:

“All political power is primarily an illusion. … Illusion. Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors, first a thin veil of blue smoke then a thick cloud that suddenly dissolves into wisps of blue smoke, the mirrors catching it all, bouncing it back and forth.” Jimmy Breslin, How the Good Guys Finally Won: Notes from an Impeachment Summer (1975). Usually quoted as “smoke and mirrors.”

Karen JG asked:

The quote “No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible” has been variously attributed to Stanislas Leszczynski, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Voltaire, and George Burns. Do you know who really said it first?

The YBQ cites this from Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, More Unkempt Thoughts (1968).

Victor Kelley asked:

Who was credited with saying, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”

This is from George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905) (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”).

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


It's become conventional to attach "gate" to anything to indicate that it is a scandal. After Watergate, what was the first instance of this convention?


Where does the phrase "caught red-handed" originate? To what does it refer?


"Great Scott!"

I've been asking this for a little while now. Who is Scott, and why is he the subject of an exclamation?

Fred Shapiro

I appreciate everyone's enthusiastic questions, but please note that there is a backlog of several months' questions.


Then you should probably hold off on putting,

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

at the end of your posts for the next few months...


Hi, out of curiosity, how are these quotes relevant to Freakonomics, and why do you always pull the reference from the Yale Book of Quotations? Did you contribute these articles or something like that?


I'm curious about "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results." It doesn't sound like it came from a medical textbook.

Karl Siegemund

But... smoke and mirrors are the very ingredients of illusional magicians, that's how they do their tricks. "Using smoke and mirrors" thus means "creating an illusion" and should be much older than 1975.


I always thought this was about magicians tricks, i.e. how they conceal and mislead; which would make it alot older than 1975.

M. Banaji

Can you find when/where Josh Billings said this?:

"It's not only the most difficult thing to know one's self, but the most inconvenient one, too."

Andrew Robulack

A while back one of my clients said to me, "A man without enemies is not worth having as a friend." He attributed it to Napoleon, but I haven't been able to find any record of Napoleon having said this. Are you aware of this quote and, if so, did Napoleon utter it?


Ben, post #2 red-handed means a murderer caught with the victim's blood still on his hands.

The precise term "red-handed" has been used since 1819, and the earlier version "red hand" to 1432.


Eric M. Jones

Here is possibly the original phrase "Smoke and Mirrors" by a NY Times reviewer (?) of the play "Dirty Blonde".


Eric M. Jones

Great Scott....Sir Walter Scott, probably.

See: http://tiny.cc/YRemf

But at any rate there are many fairly mysterious references to the Great Scott prior to the Civil War, written as if the writer obviously knows what is meant. Also search "Great Scot".

Walter Scott was incredibly popular in the early 19th century, especially in the South.

From Wikipedia: "Among the early critics of Scott was Mark Twain, who blamed Scott's "romanticization of battle" for what he saw as the South's decision to fight the American Civil War. Twain's ridiculing of chivalry in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in which the main character repeatedly utters "great Scott" as an oath, is considered as targeting Scott's books. Twain also targeted Scott in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where he names a sinking boat the "Walter Scott".


"Smoke and mirrors" immediately brings to mind the Wizard of Oz and googling the two ideas brings up a link to economics:

In any case the idea, if not the exact expression is not recent.