Quotes Uncovered: Running a Railroad and Famous Misquotes

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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.

Paul Robichaux asked:

That’s a h*** of a way to run a railroad.

One of my Senior Research Editors for The Yale Book of Quotations, Thomas Fuller, recently verified at the Library of Congress the cartoon that is said to have originated this saying, appearing in the humor magazine Ballyhoo:

On examining the June 1932 issue, I found the cartoon. It’s a full-page cartoon that shows a country scene (with a billboard in the background saying SMOKE ADMIRAL CIGARETS), railroad tracks, and two locomotives (with following cars) speeding directly towards each other on the same track, about 20 feet apart. There is a small two-story railroad tower beside them, with a railroad worker wearing a cap, smoking a pipe, and looking out of the second floor window with his arms crossed. He clearly is the speaker or thinker — there’s nobody else in the cartoon — and the caption reads “Tch, tch! What a way to run a railroad!”

The cartoon was by Ralph Fuller, no relation, as far as we know, to Thomas Fuller. Thanks, Tom!

Justin asked:

What about famous misquotes? For instance, what is the first use of ‘Play it again, Sam’, which appears in popular memory but not in Casablanca?

The Yale Book of Quotations tracks the earliest known evidence for famous misquotations as well as famous quotations. According to the YBQ, “Nigel Rees notes in Cassell’s Movie Quotations that Jack Benny said ‘Sam, Sam, play that song for me again, will you?’ in an Oct. 17, 1943 radio parody of Casablanca. Woody Allen cemented the fame of the paraphrase by using Play It Again, Sam as the title of a 1969 play and 1972 motion picture.”

Roger asked:

Who said “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”?

This very familiar quotation does not even appear in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The Yale Book of Quotations sources it as follows:

“What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols “Maxims and Arrows” sec. 8 (1888) (translation by Walter Kaufmann). Popularly rendered as ‘Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.'”

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

Dan Ehlke

I've oft wondered the origin of the phrase 'Kiss me--I'm Irish.' It seems to have become more or less generic, but I wonder if there are individuals to whom it can actually be credited.


Don't forget about "Luke, I am your father"--he really says, "No. I am your father."

Glossolalia Black

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." It is attributed to Plato on this little thing I have up in my office, but I was told by a friend that it wasn't him.


Where did "Tighter than Dick's hat band' originate? Does it refer to an actual hat or a band that is "tight.' I've heard the phrase all my life...in the foothills of North Carolina.


This phrase popped in my head this morning: "Character is defined by what you do when no one is looking."

Roman Goldstein

Given the enormous recent health care bill and the complex pending financial reform bill, I would like to know the origin of "I admit this new bill is too complicated to understand. We'll just have to pass it to find out what it means."

Justice Felix Frankfurter attributed the quote to a "recent cartoon" in a speech he gave before the New York City Bar on March 18, 1947. Judge Alex Kozinksi used this quote in a piece in the Wall Street Journal (January 31, 1989), as did the Supreme Court of Texas in Entergy Gulf States, Inc. v. Summers, 282 S.W.3d 433, 473 n. 60 (2009) (Willett, J., concurring).

It would be terrific to have a copy of the cartoon, if it is indeed the source of the quote! Many thanks in advance.


Referring to the Obama Health Care bill, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, said, "We have to pass it to know what's in it."


who said, "academia is where the rubber meets the sky?"

Eric M. Jones

Who said, “academia is where the rubber meets the sky?”

Probably your professor.

Sounds like a turn on the Firestone tires advertising slogan: "Firestone. Where the rubber meets the road."

Yoram Bauman

I've been trying without any luck to track down an authoritative citation for William McChesney Martin's famous quote about the job of the Federal Reserve being [some variant of] "to take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going." Any ideas?


"Too big to fail." Where does that particular phrase first appear?

Garson O'Toole

Roman Goldstein you asked a fascinating question and I could not resist trying to answer it. The comic you mention appears in the syndicated strip "Grin and Bear It" by Lichty (George Lichtenstein). The strip is one panel, and the date of appearance is March 12, 1947 in the Los Angeles Times. This syndicated panel must have appeared in many other newspapers but the exact date may vary.

The strip shows six men meeting in an office around a table. One rotund man is pronouncing the words in the caption. The door to the office is open and the words 'Senate Committee on New Legislation' are written on it.

The caption differs a little from the version that you give above. It reads: I admit this new bill is too complicated to understand … we'll just have to pass it to find out how it works! Verified in the database ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Hope this is useful to you. Great comic!

John in NYC

"All good things must come to an end"

I believe the original Chaucer quote was 'there is an end to everything, to good things as well."

Ron Ledford

We practice hours, weeks, months and sometimes years trying to control a golfball for a milisecond!

Money does change you, but it only makes you more of the person you already have become!

Be a mirror and show people what they bring to you!

these are my thoughts and no one else's, Ron

Paul Reinhard

The expression, "Tighter than Dick's hat band" from Dfox. I too have heard that phrase for years, but instead of North Carolina (where I live now), I heard it growing up in Detroit, Michigan! I have no idea what it means either. Sounds like something WC Fields might have said.

Also, how about the phrase, "Dressed to the nines". Sounds like a golfing reference but who knows... PRR

Larrie D. Ferreiro

Thucydides never actually said “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day” in his work “The Peloponnesian War”, but it is attributed to him. Do you have any information on where this apocryphal citation began?

Ann Smeltzer

Who was the Secretary of the Interior that said, "What good is a tree looking at another tree?" And what under what administration did he serve?

Larrie D. Ferreiro

Galileo has been quoted as stating,

"Measure what can be measured, and make measurable that which cannot be measured".

Did he actually write that? If so, what is the original source?