Quotes Uncovered: The Marx Brothers and Proverbs

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.

ceolaf asked:

I’m curious about the term “Boston Brahmin,” admittedly not quite a quote. Meryl Streep used the term “Brahmin” when talking about about American conceptions of class. When did this Indian (i.e as in from india) term come to this country? How?

According to the terrifically helpful Yale Book of Quotations, this originated from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.‘s book, Elsie Venner (1860): “He comes of the Brahmin caste of New England. This is the harmless, inoffensive untitled aristocracy referred to, and which many readers will at once acknowledge.”

Joe said:

What do you mean specifically when you say that something is a proverb? In some cases, that seems to imply that “it has been around for a long time, and nobody knows,” but is there a more technical definition? Could a 20th century quote become a proverb in this century?

The word “proverb” is notoriously tricky to define. Wolfgang Mieder, the world’s leading proverbs scholar, has defined it: “A proverb is a short, generally known sentence of the folk which contains wisdom, truth, morals, and traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form and which is handed down from generation to generation.” In this blog, I usually use the word very loosely to indicate that the origins of a saying are very unlikely to ever be traced to a known coiner. A 20th century quote could become a proverb in this century.

Melvin D. Melmac said:

Anything Groucho “said” could be assumed to have been written by S. J. Perelman, who authored the Marx Brothers‘ scripts.

Not so much. Among Marx Brothers films, The Cocoanuts had screenplay by George S. Kaufman, Animal Crackers was by Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, Duck Soup was by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, A Night at the Opera was by Kaufman and Ryskind, A Day at the Races was by Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, and George Oppenheimer, Room Service was by Ryskind, At the Circus was by Irving Brecher. And Marx had a career as a radio and TV host and general wisecracker and uttered a fair number of major quotations not on screen.

Gary asked:

I heard the phrase “snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory” on the Masters broadcast today referring to a golfer who lost an almost certain win on the last hole. It’s a play on the cliched opposite formulation, of course, but who coined it?

The Yale Book of Quotations, which attempts to trace all famous quotations to their earliest findable occurrence, has this from The New York Times, March 5, 1891. But there are a number of regular commenters to my postings on this blog who may be able to find an earlier occurrence by seeing what Google Books or other databases have now for “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory” or “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory” or “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.” Anyone care to rise to this challenge?

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


Fred mentions Irving Brecher as Marx Bros write of AT THE CIRCUS. Irv also wrote Marx Bros GO WEST, making him the only one to get two solo credits by the boys...

Details on this and other hilarity he had with Groucho and his other humorifical pals like G Burns, M Berle and J Benny are told in Brecher's memoir: THE WICKED WIT OF THE WEST
avail at Amazon.
(Quotations galore inside...)

The Real Virginian

As Harpo said in his autobiography, "Harpo Speaks", much of what was written by Kaufman for Cocoanuts was whittled down to a line or two "buried somewhere in the second act" according to Kaufman. The Marx Brothers were notorious ad libbers, even removing Berlin songs which later became big hits in their own right. They may have relied upon Ryskind and Kaufman and others for scripts in theory, but had a way of ignoring them when their own bits worked their way into finished films more successfully.

C Gilberti

Marx Bros were on vaudeville for 10 or more years before they made a movie. Much of their material came from then, I would assume.

Old Kansan

"Snatched one last defeat from the jaws of victory." I seem to remember that Lincoln said this of Civil War political general Benjamin Butler, in early 1865.


Do you know who first coined the word "anvilicious" ? It's an adjective meaning crushingly obvious and presumably derives from the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons.

Robert Galliher

I've got a quote I'd like to know the origin of.

"And one day we must begin our own great explorations. No longer will we find a hand to hold us, or a voice to call us back."

I've seen it a couple of times attributed to "anonymous" and that's pretty much all I've been able to find out about it.

Garson O'Toole

The phrase "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" is entertainingly sardonic. Thanks for the challenge! Here is an antedating.

1874 May 24, The Daily Inter-Ocean, Sporting News: The White Stockings Defeated by the Mutuals for the Second Time, Page 8, Illinois. (GBank)

Were they fairly defeated after having played a creditable game there would be no censure for them; but when they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory there can be little sympathy for there deserved misfortune.

Thanks for sharing your expertise and providing real information distinct from the miasma of misinformation on the nets.

Garson O'Toole


I don't see "Horsefeathers" mentioned in your list of Marx Brothers movies. From where did "Horsefeathers" originate? I ask because I found an old, old pamphlet titled "Horsefeathers and Other Curious Words" but there was no credit given for who authored it. Looking on the web, I see Mr. Funk (Funk & Wagnell fame) was behind some of such pamphlets, circa 1932?

David Chowes, New York City


I do know that YOU BET YOUR LIFE was edited and some of Groucho's remarks were in some way most likely pre-planned. Anyway...

One night a program was broadcast and he was interviewing (I believe) a minister who mentioned that he had something like 15 children.

Groucho immediately countered with, 'You know I like to smoke cigars -- but, I take them out of my mouth at times.'

**Note:Mr. Shapiro, you may wonder what my comment has to do with your topic. Well, let me explain. So far as I know the term "Grouchophile was introduced by the writer of this post. (I may be incorrest.) And, his name is . . .


Lincoln said it, apparently.


Gordon Clow

"Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory" can be traced further back than 1891. In the Civil War, Gen. Ambrose Burnside commanded a spectacularly botched attempt to break the siege lines at Petersburg. A monumental charge was ignited under the Confederate lines, creating a colossal crater. Rather than attacking by charging around the crater Burnside's forces charged into the crater, and were cut to pieces in the Confederate counter-attack. When Abraham Lincoln learned of this, said "Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory".

Eric M. Jones

The "Jaws of Victory" is referenced in 1868-1870 in works discussing biblical translations (and earlier in the UK). Numerous Civil War era references are found that cite "snatched victory from the jaws of defeat", and I suggest one consider that the phrase might have been a clever turn on the phrase in Corinthians I, and not the other way around. --

-Death is swallowed up into victory.-.......... 'victoriously ' (Flacius); but it indicates the result of being swallowed up -"into victory," i.e. so that victory is gained, and the enemy is overcome. To this the following triumphal song is well appended. An argument may be urged against Osiander's local interpretation of ..., (by which victory is personified and represented as a ravenous beast, as though the expression meant '[death is] swallowed up in the jaws of victory'),

(Forgive the Google OCRs which has lots of Greek letters and odd punctuation. See Original)

My guess is that you'd better read early Greek scriptures if you want to follow the phrase back further.

Ref: Try Google Advance Booksearch for the phrase "jaws of victory" prior to 1870.



Where does this come from?

More___ than you can shake a stick at.

What the heck; shake a stick? What kind of stick? How many is too many therefore requiring the use of your stick?

Robert MacLeay

I have had no luck on my own tracing the origin of
"Denial ain't just a river in Egypt."

Can you help?

Garson O'Toole

Thanks to Ben and to Gordon Clow for mentioning the Lincoln quotation. I discovered something fascinating about that quote. It is a false quotation that began as a mistake with the book "From the Jaws of Victory" by Charles Fair. The origin is described in a UPI story published September 27, 1971. Here is an excerpt [CFL]:

Burnside, "so versatile in his stupidity as to defy categorization," pulled such a masterpiece of ineptitude during the Peninsular Campaign, the book's cover says, it prompted then President Abraham Lincoln to comment: "Only Burnside could have managed such a coup, wringing one last spectacular defeat from the jaws of victory."

The only thing wrong with that, Fair said, is that Lincoln never said it. Fair said the quote was actually his own, but somewhere along the line Simon and Schuster, New York publishers, got the idea Lincoln had said it. Not only did the "quote" provide the title, Fair said, "We've probably created another Lincoln legend."

[CFL] 1971 September 27, Bennington Banner, "New Book Details General's Goofs: From the Jaws of Victory" by David Haskell, Page 12, Column 1, Bennington, Vermont. (NArchive)


PPP Lusofonia

Proverbs represent "best pratices" over centuries.
Most interesting are the "economic" proverbs, in Portuguese:

"Quem compra o que não pode, vende o que não quer"

Those who buy what they cannot afford, end up selling what they would rather not.

The subprime crisis in 15 words or less.


"Academia is where the rubber meets the sky."
I love this phrase but I have no idea who came up with it.


Who said, "God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve?"

Garson O'Toole

Robert MacLeay said "I have had no luck on my own tracing the origin of 'Denial ain't just a river in Egypt.'"

The earliest citation I can find for the core of this joke is a "Daffynishion" that appeared in Boys' Life magazine in February 1960. At some point before 1990 the joke was embedded in a sentence like the one above that emphasized a psychoanalytic interpretation.

Cite: 1960 February, Boys' Life, Think and Grin, Page 90, Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books full view)

Daffynishion: Denial - A river in Egypt. - Ray Hallinan, Seattle 66, Wash.



I don't see "Horsefeathers" mentioned in your list of Marx Brothers movies. From where did "Horsefeathers" originate?

No idea who first used it, but it's obviously a euphemism for a vulgar term.