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?


How to I ask for a quote trace? Simply post here in the comments?

I am interested in finding the origin of:

"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture"

Attributed to either Elvis Costello or Martin Mull or Steve Martin. There seems to be quite a bit of controversy on this one.


I once read, and have yet to see duplicated, the following:

"Consistency is the harbor of a weak mind"

is this even a real quote?


"Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel".


Eric L

I've found some good explanations of what "tit for tat" means, but why that phrasing and what are the origins?


Fanon, #22 It's a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.


"If I was down to my last dollar, I would spend it on PR."

Some PR geeks claim Bill Gates said this, but I did not find any reference supporting this argument.



"A few bad apples spoil the barrel".


My professor at University of Leiden asked today if any of the students knew the origin of:

"the sport of kings....... and the king of sports"

and by sport referring to politics.

The professor haven't found it either so..

I hope you could help me with this one

A.J. Venter

The "capitalism/communism" quote is a favorite proverb in Poland. It has been around since the dawn of the Soviet take-over but became very popular (in an almost daily-use level, with frequent newspaper appearances etc.) after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Polish independence.

I wrote a play in University based on the Polish legend of Wanda - part of the assignment was to write in the language and style of middle-English playwrights like Shakespeare and Marlowe - a frequent technique of theirs was deliberate (and often obvious) anachronisms. Usually be referencing historical events that happened at a completely different time (for example, the passage in Macbeth about king Edward). So I did researched current and past popular Polish proverbs.
This particular one stood out - as a clear "must-have". It was also, wonderfully anachronistic to have it said in a play based on events that, according to legend, happened around 700AD.


Stephen Goranson

January 17, 1969 reports in both the Washington Post and NY Times quoted Liz Carpenter of the Johnson administration: "There are already a lot of new faces in the White House. All the new people want an office close to the President's. You should see them scramble; it's like fighting for a deck chair on the Titanic."