Quotes Uncovered: The Full Monty

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.

jep asked:

I was told that Thomas Jefferson said this. But the wording doesn’t sound like it is from that era: “I predict future happiness for Americans if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.” Can you determine if it is a quote from Jefferson or what his real words were?

As I have said before, when you hear a quote attributed to Lincoln or Jefferson, and it sounds too modern, and it accords with some political agenda, usually a conservative one, you can take it to the bank that it’s phony. The same holds for quotes attributed to Lenin, Stalin or Hitler, although in those cases the quote usually expresses a viewpoint opposite to the agenda of whoever is quoting them.

keith asked:

The expression “The only way (I’ll lose) is if you catch me in bed with a live man or dead girl” recently came up, and I thought it was a Huey Long quote, but Google has it was actually as recent as the 1980’s, albeit still a governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards (whom I retain a great fondness for, as “Vote for the Crook, It’s Important” is the finest electioneering bumper sticker ever created). Did Edwin Edwards originate the quote after all, or did he make an obscure expression famous?

It’s often hard to tell whether the earliest known user of an expression is the coiner, or is merely repeating an already-existing saying. But the earliest citation for this in the files of the forthcoming Yale Book of Modern Proverbs is the following:

Throughout his 1983 campaign, [Edwin] Edwards entertained voters with such boasts as: “The only way I can lose is if I’m found in bed with a dead girl or a live boy.” (Pacific Stars and Stripes, Dec. 20, 1984).

Other early occurrences also associate it with Edwards, and in The Yale Book of Quotations I list it under his name.

QB asked:

This makes me wonder about the “Full Monty” – the British equivalent of “Whole Nine Yards”

The Oxford English Dictionary summarizes the current state of the “full Monty” scholarship as follows:

Many theories are proposed as to the origin of this phrase, but none of them is supported by reliable historical evidence. Perh. the most plausible is that it is from a colloquial shortening of the name of Montague Maurice Burton (1885-1952), men’s tailor, and referred originally to the purchase of a complete three-piece suit. Also popular but unsubstantiated is the belief that the phrase is somehow derived from Monty, the nickname of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976). However, the sheer variety of often vague, purely anecdotal, and mutually contradictory explanations for the connection-ranging from his wartime briefing style to his breakfasting habits – renders this less credible. Other suggestions, including references to MONTY n. and MONTE n.1, are still more speculative. Earlier currency is app. implied by the following names of fish and chip shops: 1982 Yellow Pages: Manchester North 264/3 Full Monty Chippy The, 30 Townley St, Middleton..Fullmonty Chippy, 61 Radclyffe St, Chadderton.

Ian Gilbert asked:

Is Dirksen also the source for Dirksen’s Third Rule of Politics, “Don’t get mad, get even.”?

This is associated with the Kennedys, and with Massachusetts rather than Illinois. The Yale Book of Quotations notes that the earliest known occurrence is in the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 21, 1967: “The motto of the Irish Mafia which Bobby [Kennedy] inherited has always been, ‘Don’t get mad — get even,’ a slogan which predates the Kennedys in Massachusetts politics.”

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



According to this, this quote is attributable to Jefferson and to one of his specific letters.


Unintentionally funny that "the Full Monty" may refer to a complete three-piece suit. I (and perhaps many Americans) became familiar with the phrase only as a result of a movie featuring male strippers.


I have heard that the association between Field Marshal Montgomery and "the full Monty" comes from the FM's fondness for an "Ulster Fry" for breakfast (similar to a "full English"). Montgomery, of course, spending much of his life in Northern Ireland. So a "full Monty" originally referred to a large fried breakfast with all the trimmings.

There is one caveat to this: my scholarly source is my Mum (our family hails from Belfast). But she may well be right!


The quote attributed to Jefferson is a slight paraphrase of something Jefferson did write to Thomas Cooper, Nov. 29, 1802:

"If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretense of taking care of them, they must become happy."



My mother used to say of a small place that there wasn't enough room to swing a cat. Any ideas?

Fred Shapiro

Re #1: So much for my theories of "I know it when I see it" with regard to phony Lincoln/Jefferson/Lenin/Stalin/Hitler quotes! I apologize for my haste in labelling this quote apocryphal.


"Get off my lawn!" as the quick, stereotypical quote to indicate that someone's a cranky old man.


I guess you can't "take it to the bank."

Dave Tonnes

I agree with Joshua. A 5-second search finds numerous, apparently credible sources attributing Jefferson to a quote essentially saying the same thing:

"If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy."

Mr. Shapiro, in this light don't you think your response to Jep's question is a bit disingenuous?


I have always wanted to know why surgeons think they made up "never complain, never explain". I thought it came from Elise de Wolfe, the interior designer.


Growing up in the 1930s, long before home air conditioning, we sat on our Baltimore row house front steps in the hot summertime, "enjoying the sea breezes off the gutter." I thought this was just a family joke, until I was told that Sammy Davis, Jr. quoted his grandmother as saying the same thing as she leaned out of her 15th floor window in Brooklyn. I haven't checked his two autobiographies, but I wonder if this was a punch line of a joke, or a line from a song.


If it were not Jefferson who said this, the it definately was Herbert Spencer. But then who said--"an Even Ten."

Jens Fiederer

If it hadn't been so necessary to get in a political dig (" usually a conservative one"), there might have been more energy left for research. I love that you can actually see the original handwriting.

Note that it is very hard to actually disprove a quotation - at best you can show somebody else said it first, or that it is absent from collected writings. Of course, if you see a quotation where Thomas Jefferson discusses the ramifications of the transistor, you are on solid grounds to dismiss it.


"Cotton picking minute"

As in, Hey You! Just wait a cotton picking minute...

Tim S

I love the sentiment, but can't find its author:

"Sometimes I wish I were a little kid again; skinned knees are easier to fix than broken hearts."

Fred Shapiro

Re #9: I don't think I was disingenuous, just very wrong.


We still have not been enlightened as to the origin of the phrase "high falutin'" mentioned in the previous article...


Re: "Not enough room to swing a cat". I was under the impression that this refers to the "cat o'nine tails", a whip used to punish sailors. Pretty morose: "not enough room in here to swing ma my whip".


"My mother used to say of a small place that there wasn't enough room to swing a cat. Any ideas?"

If I'm not mistaken, it was originally a nautical expression, referring to a very small compartment on a ship, and the "cat" was actually the type of whip also known as a cat-o'-nine-tails.


Why must you make political comments out of a simple question?

"and it accords with some political agenda, USUALLY A CONSERVATIVE ONE, you can take it to the bank that it's phony"

I guess by this statement that Liberals rarely exagerate or make stuff up....