Quotes Uncovered: Giants' Shoulders and Deck Chairs


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

Stephen Grimmer asked about the following quote:

“If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”

The great sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote an entire book on the history of this aphorism. Based on his findings, The Yale Book of Quotations has the following:

“We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” Bernard of Chartres (French philosopher), quoted in John of Salisbury, The Metalogicon (1159).

Justin asked:

Did Clinton at some point say, “that depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is”?

Yes, he did — in one of the most memorable quotations of recent decades. The YBQ entry reads as follows:

“[Characterizing the truthfulness of his lawyer’s statement, ‘There is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape, or form’:] It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” William J. “Bill” Clinton, Grand jury testimony, Washington, D.C., Aug. 17, 1998. Clinton went on to say: “If the — if he — if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”

Walter Hanig asked:

First use of “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” as a metaphor for acting on minor issues instead of important ones?

The Yale Book of Quotations has this under the name of Rogers Morton:

“[After having lost five primaries as Gerald Ford‘s campaign manager:] I’m not going to rearrange the furniture on the deck of the Titanic.” Quoted in Washington Post, May 16, 1976. A similar expression appeared earlier in The New York Times, May 15, 1972: “Administrators [at Lincoln Center] are running around straightening out deck chairs while the Titanic goes down.”

Rachel asked:

I don’t know who said this: ‘The difference between communism and capitalism? In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.'”

The YBQ cites Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology (1960), but he was obviously quoting earlier usage; perhaps this was a popular thought in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.

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


Any ideas about the phrase, "carrot and stick"? It seems to me that when I was younger, the phrase was understood to mean an enticing reward that was promised but could not be obtained. The origin, I thought, was the old cartoons in which a character would dangle a carrot on a string from a stick in front of a horse's nose, so that the horse would walk forward hoping to eat the carrot. In this way, the cartoon horse could be induced to walk for an indefinite period of time in the eternal hope of getting the carrot. For many years, however, the only sense in which I have seen the phrase used is one of reward and punishment - a person is to be rewarded with a carrot for doing what is desired of him, and punished by being hit by a stick for failing to do so.

What is the real origin of the phrase? If the first sense is the one in which it was originally used, when did did the meaning change to the second sense?


Speaking for myself

As a graduate student entering Columbia, Merton once seemed liked such a towering giant. However, I have been working hard to see people not only as members of groups, but as individuals. In that sense, we both learned something about the other. Now if he were alive, I would have responded to the idea of standing on someone else's shoulders with -- "speak for yourself," in a nice way of course. My point is that if we are going to come to terms with this change in the interpretation of the first amendment, we better cultivate independent mindedness. Perhaps that's what some people fear?

`Speaking for myself '

Come to think of it, I got this last idea from another one of Merton's students.


who first talked about an 800-pound gorilla, or a 500-pound gorilla, or a large elephant being in the room? And what is it supposed to mean?!? and since when are gorillas only 500-or 800-pounds?

Lars Erik Morin

Not a question, but a late big thank you for your double no to my questions about Voltaire's opinion on controversial opinions (Sept 3, 2009).
Now, the question: if he's not to blame, who is?


mohammad: since when are gorillas only 800 pounds? aren't you confusing gorillas with steam engines?? steam engines are the ones without fur...

Dan Stewart

As soon as Fred Shapiro says, "Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?" my mind immediately goes blank and I can't think of a single question to pose -- even though I know I have many. Frustrating, very frustrating. (I have a similar problem with erections!)


Last night, Obama buttered his bread; now he has to lie in it.


An economist's job is to amuse politicians while capitalism takes its course.

(Apologies to Voltaire)


I'm curious about the saying, A few bad apples, blaming something on a few people and exonerating the whole organization. My recollection is that the phrase used to refer to a few bad apples spoiling the whole barrel, which changes the meaning entirely. Anyone else remember that usage?

Hannah H

What about the phrase: "How bout them apples?"

John King

"If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

Although borrowed, Sir Isaac Newton wrote this in a letter to the English scientist Robert Hooke (whom he hated and despised) in the 1670s.

Taken in the context that it was written, Newton was referring to Hooke as a "giant".

The truth is though, this is one on the greatest put-downs ever written in the English language. The fact is Hooke wasn't a particularly good scientist (as Newton well knew)and also he was a dwarf.

Sean O'Donnell

I want to know who really said "Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they've made a difference. The Marines don't have that problem." Being a Marine, I've been told President Reagan said it, but I have never seen an authoritative source.



"If all the world's troubles were piled into a giant heap, we'd each take our own and gladly walk away."

That is a sentiment I've heard in different variations over the years, but I've never been able to find a real quote or origin.

Ian Kemmish

Five minutes with a search engine uncovered this for the "it's the other way round" quote:


which certainly jibes with my memory of long ago being told Krushchev's name in connection with it.

science minded and an opinion

If I remember correctly, the quote about giants has a flee standing on the giant's shoulder. My mentor Joseph Bensman would always remind us of the truth of it, but I have forgotten the actual quote.

My point, the flee runs away from danger or evil. The few immortals of whom I am thinking of at the moment, did not. Merton learned that lesson and it is one from which we all can learn a lesson. It may well be that all things are relative, but people eg., as in individuals are not things. No two individuals are exactly alike. Freud warned of one of the dangers of putting two much emphasis on equality in America. I think there is another. Leaders fear taking a stand of their own. David Brooks came close to making this point today. But he was referring only to our President. I think Americans are looking for real leadership at all levels of our government. That requires cooperation and compromise at all levels of government. Obama was elected, we the people spoke. Let the man do his job and then if we don't like the results, we will speak out again.

So who said, "there is nothing to fear, but fear itself."



Murray Gell-Mann is supposed to have said, "If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have been surrounded by dwarfs."


I ran across the following quote somewhere years ago, perhaps in a Ph.D. dissertation: "If I have not seen as far as others, it is because giants were standing on my shoulders."

I assume it was a dig at their thesis advisor or somesuch.

science minded and an opinion

Dear Taed;

I think that you have a point, but I don't think of it as a dig at their advisor. Merton was a teacher of mine (and a good one), but he was not my advisor. Joe Bensman was my advisor and he died before seeing the fruits of his labor.

I looked up to my dad, so it was hard to really see him as an individual. In grad school, I looked up to Max Weber through his writings and so much so that it was hard (to almost impossible) for me to imagine myself as developing sociology in a way that I would stand out as an individual. Women are taught to be modest- perhaps too much. Men tend to be ingrained with the idea of standing in the foreground.

We all need a dose of reality from time to time. Yesterday, I went on a wild goose chase only to find out that an idea that I had was oncorret. So be it. Better to take a chance and to learn from one's mistakes, then not to learn at all.

science minded and an opinion

Should be "incorrect." That is what happens when you rush.