Quotes Uncovered: What's the Plural of Anecdote?

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.

Eric asked:

“The plural of anecdote is not data.” I love this line as it appeals to my inner economist. Any idea who said it first?

This is a fascinating quotation, in that it gets 213,000 hits on Google, whereas its opposite, “The plural of anecdote is data,” gets only 9,000 hits. Yet “The plural of anecdote is data” is the original saying, and the logical one (what is data if not the accumulation of anecdotes?).

The earliest version I find is an article in the political science journal, PS, Autumn 1984, in which Nelson W. Polsby referred to “Raymond Wolfinger‘s brilliant aphorism ‘the plural of anecdote is data.'”

I e-mailed Wolfinger a few years ago and got the following response from him:

I said ‘The plural of anecdote is data” some time in the 1969-70 academic year while teaching a graduate seminar at Stanford. The occasion was a student’s dismissal of a simple factual statement — by another student or me — as a mere anecdote. The quotation was my rejoinder.

I also e-mailed Polsby, who didn’t know of any early printed occurrences.

David asked:

I have long thought Mark Twain was responsible for “Nothing needs reform like other people’s behavior,” but it is not included in common collections of his famous quotes. Would love to know it’s origin, as it is so useful these days.

This is a rare example of a quote attributed to Mark Twain that really was by Mark Twain. The Yale Book of Quotations has it as follows:

“Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”
Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)

matt asked:

I’ve always been curious about… “take it with a grain of salt” how did this evolve into advice to be dubious?

The Yale Book of Quotations says:

Addito salis grano.
With the addition of a grain of salt.
Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, bk. 23, sec. 149. Usually quoted as “Cum grano salis” (with a grain of salt). The reference is to salt being added to Pompey’s antidote to poison.

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


This is not about the origin of the platitude but rather the reasoning for a common misunderstanding. Why do people constantly say "I could care less" when they are trying to say that they couldn't care less?


The plural of anecdote is NOT, in fact, data. You should know this -- how often have readers told you they "heard" that a quotation comes from a certain person, when you know the source is a different person?

Martin Doonan

I always thought the anecdote quote was presented the other way around (and the way I prefer to use it): "the singular of data is not anecdote". A far stronger rejoinder to those who would dismiss mass evidence with a single observation.

Eric M. Jones

The plural of anecdote is NOT data; although this might point out the difference in Real Science and Softcore "sort-of-science".

In Real Science, anecdotes are just that. Data is something else again. Example: UFOs, ghosts, ESP, religion. All anecdotes but absolutely not a trace of data.

AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) has lots of data, but far too many anecdotes.

The term "anecdotal data" is an oxymoron.

Robyn Goldstein

Y'all are missing the point. Anecdote comes from anecdota (unpublished items (plural). It means "a short narrative of an interesting, amusing biographical incident" (in the singular) So how can such a word as anecdote refer to something singular and plural simultaneously. Is this not the problem of our aim in science or of the equivalence of the sciences "in a nutshell"-- i.e., anecdotally of course. Is this not the clear explanation that anyone can understand, but that no one will until it is made clear and obvious.

copyright May 5, 2010


"The exception that proves the rule." Not only would I like to know the origins, I would love to know what it means.




Does anyone know the original source of this:

"If it wasn't for America, the French would all be speaking German"

"If it wasn't for France, the Americans would all be speaking English"


I don't remember if you've covered this one yet or not, but:

"The key to a man's heart is through his stomach." Where did that line come from?


It's always been my understanding that the rock-and-roll ethos "it's better to burn out than to fade away" started with Neil Young on the song "Hey Hey My My" first released in 1979 (later revived in infamy when the quote was used in Kurt Cobain's suicide note).

But in full disclosure, I wasn't even born yet in 1979, and several people who were not only born but full-fledged adults by then have told me that they remember the phrase pre-'79, even going back as far as the late '60s. Can anyone verify for me either way?

Preston Riley

I don't see how Shapiro e-mailed Nelson Polsby, given that Polsby died in 2007. Another Jayson Blair at the Times?


"*I don't see how* Shapiro e-mailed Nelson Polsby, given that Polsby died in 2007. "

I feel sad for you.

"Another Jayson Blair at the Times?"

More likely you lack reading comprehension skills: "I e-mailed Wolfinger ***a few years ago*** ... I also e-mailed Polsby ..."

Q Wang

The plural of anecdote was data, originally. But the opposite quote grew popular as books like The World is Flat, Blink, Outliers etc started abusing the relationship between anecdote and data.

Chris Kelly

The original quote "The plural of anecdote is data" is very valuable, i think..
But you didn't answer the question! Who distorted it to "the plural of anecdote is not data"?
Science began with empiricism. Hence was entirely based on experiences of people. These experiences are anecdotes (unpublished) until they are published and enter the imaginary world of the academic establishment.
Ironically, scientists have abandoned empiricism in favour of an irrational belief in data as existing outside of their own experience.

copyright 10 January 2011

Steven Cody

To find the one "very valuable" and the other "distorted" ignores Cody's Law of Platitudes - for every platitude there is a platitude of equal and opposite valence. The two versions (is and is not data) both say something instructive.
Empiricism actually calls for people to accept data existing outside their own experience. We know people can misunderstand or misinterpret, perceive what they want to perceive, and are subject to any number of other influences on individual experience. In addition, individual experience is subject to sampling error.
How much of the knowledge in current science could be verified by someone's direct experience? Perhaps we can say that science was "entirely based on experiences of people" but those experiences are not universally instructive, accurately reported, or correctly understood.
Empirical investigation is how we sort through the experiences of people and determine what they mean about the world around us.
The sweeping characterization of scientists as having "abandoned empiricism" is hardly justified. It confuses two aspects of science described I think by Popper - the context of discovery and the context of justification. Anecdotal evidence stimulates investigation, but the hypotheses suggested by anecdotal evidence are then subject to something more rigorous. It is not hard to discover instances where an attractive idea is supported by some initial findings but fails when examined more thoroughly and rigorously.
The fact that anecdotes are unpublished is not probative. Further, publication is the outcome of that process of evaluating anecdotes, and what is published is still tentative and subject to disproof. It becomes part of the body of what we currently understand to be knowledge. In referring to the "imaginary world of the academic establishment" whose imagination are we talking about here?