Quotes Uncovered: Hindsight and Crowds

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.

Jacib asked:

“How do you answer these quotations? For example, the second example of this post, the asked quotation is pretty significantly different from the answered one. How did you find them? Surely even your mighty book does not have an index THAT good. Did you find the connection by memory? Through vigorously searching your database? How? I don’t know how it would be possible to find the connection, unless you had one or the other memorized already when you saw its counterpart. And as someone currently living abroad, without access to your volume, surely the first two answered quotes aren’t listed together. That must surely have been a result of connections that exist only in your mighty memory. I’m really curious about your methodology for creating these blog posts.”

The “mighty” Yale Book of Quotations does have an intensive keyword index, but you’re right that even the best index may not help in correlating quotations expressing similar ideas. Database searching is also limited in uncovering analogies (how many people think about the limitations of full-text searching in the age of Google?). I have worked with quotations, probably more than anyone else in the world, for a fair number of years; and I have a pretty good memory, so memory plays a big role in my being able to come up with quotations expressed in different words than those the inquirer formulated. The Yale Book of Quotations, which to a large extent is the printed version of my memory, also has many cross-references from one quotation to another, and many annotations that explain connections among quotations.

A reader calling himself Duane Allman asked:

“Hindsight is 20/20”?

The earliest I have found for this one is in the Van Nuys (Cal.) News, Feb. 17, 1949, where “Most people’s hindsight is 20-20” was attributed to humorist Richard Armour.

Fritz Mills asked:

I’m curious about “two’s company, three’s a crowd.” I always thought it referred to the preferred number of companions. But in his 1989 book, One Up On Wall Street, Peter Lynch wrote: “…words of wisdom that came either from Aeschylus the playwright, Goethe the author, or Alf, the TV star from outer space: Two’s a company, three’s a crowd…”

I’m pretty sure none of his attributions are correct, but I also noticed that he added a word, “a,” prompting me to wonder what the original source and meaning of this bromide was.”

This is a proverb. The earliest citation found by the ever-helpful Yale Book of Quotations is in the magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sept. 1892.

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

Jared C. Bernstein

There's nothing so practical as a good theory.


"It costs an arm and a leg" - I've heard this referenced the fact that artists back in the 1800s charged per limb painted, which is why many were seated with arms to their sides (no limbs shown in full). Is this true? If so, (if not)When did this originate?

John Mihalec

"Happy as a clam at high tide"


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

Josh Fisher

One of my favorite quotes, "attributed" to Winston Churchill, is "A fanatic is someone who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.". He was supposed to have said it on his post-WWII tour of the US. But I've looked through all the NY Times issues from that tour, and couldn't it. Not there, nor anywhere else. Can you verify this quote?


"Just because I am paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get me."

While my parents swear this was my grandfather, I am pretty sure i read it or it is from someone slightly more well know.


"Cop in a wheelchair"

I've heard people say this when they are saying, "hey stuff happens" or maybe they mean when bad things happen to good people.


"Hindsight is 20/20" is often attributed to director Billy Wilder. Any possibility he could be the originator?


Bang for your buck.
I've seen it being referenced to prostitution among other things.

Varinder Grewal

re Winston churchill's quote

I'm pretty sure he wrote that in "The Second World War," his Nobel prize-winning, six volume epic

AJ Venter

During the transition period in South Africa (basically between the F.W. De Klerk's pardon of Nelson Mandela and the 1994 Elections which saw Mandela become president) South African politics gained two new phrases which were heavily used in just about every day's newspapers and became very commonplace in any political discourse.
The phrases were "verkramp" and "verlig". Literal translations would be "cramped up" and "enlightened" - but "verlig" can also mean "relieved".
Verlig became the description of those in favor of the transformation process and the end of appartheid seeking continued negotiations with the ANC, while Verkramp described those steadfastly clinging to this old idea (they had a remarkable similarity to present day American conservatives - and in fact their major political party was even called the "conservative party").
The double-entendre of course is to suggest that the conservatives were constipated (which said something of what the liberals thought about the ideas they were holding on too) and that the liberals were enligtened after having "relieved" themselves of this constipation burden.

Legend here has it that the terms originated in De Klerk's household to describe actual stomach troubles, were later applied to describe people's attitudes -and he himself originated it's use in politics as a way to poke fun at his opposition and make a serious case for the transformation process. The terms were an instant meme

I know this may be far too location specific (if the legend is true the moreso) but I would love to get some verification on this, especially if similar terms are/were used in similar ways elsewhere in the world ?



Quote attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.:

"If your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi and non-violence. But if your enemy has no conscience like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer."

I think this quote is fake and MLK never said such a thing.

tyler whitehouse

this guy is an expert on quotations. and he is braying about it. "a printed version of this memory" (which i probably misquoted) hahahahahah

i guess he makes a living at it.

Charles Rouse

This is not a quotation. I don't think anyone that I'm aware of has discovered the origin of the word, "copacetic." And then there was my Mom, full of old chestnut saying, "Snug as a bug in a rug."

Bob Mc Kenzie

Where there's a will, there's relatives.


Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining.

E.M. Bergman

"until the last dog is hung (my mother's version) or "until the last dog is dead" (Bill Clinton's mother's version), or variants thereof.


"If only we had ham, we could have ham and eggs, if only we had eggs."


If you think I will leave a quotation for you to track down,
"you have another think coming!"


"Talking about music is like dancing about architecture." I've heard all Steve Martin, Alan Scott, and Elvis Costello, among others. Any idea?