Quotes Uncovered: Forgiveness, Permission, and Awesomeness

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.

Fritz Gheen asked:

Who is the Stuart in Stuart’s Law of Retroaction: It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission.

I have never heard this associated with a Stuart. It is often attributed to pioneer computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper, famous in etymological circles as the pseudo-coiner of the computer “bug.” The earliest I have found it credited to Hopper is in 1984, but “It is easier to get forgiveness than permission” appears earlier in Arthur Bloch, Murphy’s Law Book Two (1980). Can any of you Google Books / Google News / Newspaperarchive jockeys out there find any versions before 1980?

Nina Gilbert asked:

How and when did the word “awesome” become so trivial and ubiquitous? I wonder if a TV character used it, and then it exploded – first to teenagers, and then to other demographics. OED cites start around 1980, but they’re not first uses. The Official Preppy Handbook, for example, already defines “awesome” as “terrific, great” in 1980.

It is a privilege to respond to the great Nina Gilbert. Nina is a music teacher at The Webb Schools, Claremont, California, and was a stalwart of the late, lamented Stumpers listserve (now continuing in a diminished form as Project Wombat). Nina, Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1989) had this to say:

The use of _awesome_ as a generalized term of approval is relatively recent … _Awesome_ has been part of the standard hyperbole of sports broadcasting and writing for several years. It may have been popularized by professional football broadcases; when _great_ came to be applied freely to plays and players of average to good quality, _awesome_ was rushed in to supply the idea of being better than average. The use of the word in sportswriting is not quite so recent as you might imagine … Such use is, however, far from limited to the world of sports. Howard 1984 says that preppies favor the word. … we do have evidence of its use in the speech of young people … This use, which appears to be chiefly oral, often attracts the intensifier _totally_.

Webster’s goes on to speculate that the decline in the use of the word _awful_ in its meaning of “inspiring awe” contributed to the use of _awesome_ to mean “inspiring awe,” but that _awesome_ in this sense is now following a similar path to the one _awful_ did a century ago.

Glossolalia Black asked:

“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.”

Glossolalia, this sounds anachronistic for Plato by almost 2500 years. I haven’t researched it, but I invite the aforementioned Google Books / Google News / Newspaperarchive jockeys to see how far back they can trace this one.

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


The phrase "awesome" danced well but only had a minor role with the preppies in the early 80s. It wasn't overwhelmingly abused until Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure in the late 80s. Then it became not only an abused written word by the mainstream, it had to be orally said with the property Keanu Reeve's drawl and inflection. Almost a yell... with the first syllable "a" pronounced for at least 3 seconds. Then....THEN it became a word to hate.


Awesome was widely used by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and they predate Bill and Ted. I always thought it was west coast surfer lingo.


Maybe Wayne & Garth (Wayne's World) also helped to trivialize the word "awesome."

Garson O'Toole

Hi. Thanks for the challenge on an interesting quotation. There is a citation dated circa 1972 that credits Tom McConnell with the saying about forgiveness and permission.

Cite: Circa 1972, School Management, Page 9, Volume 16, A. L. Iger. (Google Books snippet view only. Unverified.)

To ride herd on this overpowering operation it is not unusual for Tom McConnell to "drop by in the middle of the night." However, he and his staff thrive on the challenge. He sums up his attitude with the statement, "It's easier to get forgiveness than to get permission."


The dates given by Google Books are unreliable but this citation passes some sanity checks. Volume 16 is dated 1972 according to a University catalog. Searching within the text indicates that 1973 and 1974 are future dates. I will ask a friend to check it on paper unless something better is found.



I like the southern version of the forgiveness/permission quote: "I'd rather be judged by twelve than carried by six."


I thought "awesome" took off with "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" with Sean Penn's character. I think it was also on some of the posters for the movie. I think Reeve's based his character on Penn's.

Josh J

Didn't the Ninja turtles use "awesome" well before Bill and Ted?

Ian Kemmish

"Give 'em an inch and they'll take a mile," please.

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a 17th Century bawdy song on the BBC, which included the line "GIve 'em an inch and they'll take an ell."

This got me to wondering - has this proverb always existed in a variety of forms? Or did the composer merely change units in the song in order to get a better rhyme? (Which would be yet another argument against universal adoption of the metric system!)


Sean Penn's surfer-dude character, Jeff Spicoli, used the word "awesome" to mean "great" in the 1982 movie "Fast Times at Ridgemont High". I don't remember if I heard it being used in that manner before then, but due to the popularity of the movie the catchphrase "Awesome! Totally awesome!" exploded overnight among people my age (I was 15 at the time).


agree with the posters' cultural origins of awesome- as opposed to the nerdy analysis given in the official answer- i would surmise awesome came from surfer slang, which provided much of the new slang in the 80's when picked up by the near-beach movie industry cited above- and don't forget valley girl as another great spawn of surfer slang into the mainstream (like totally)

Garson O'Toole

Stephen Goranson has located and verified on paper an earlier citation for the quote about forgiveness and permission. The Reader's Digest of February 1971 contains a humor section with an anecdote in which a soldier violates rules to obtain drinks for his thirsty comrades. Here is the cite:

Cite: 1971 February, Reader's Digest, Humor in Uniform, Page 138, Reader's Digest Association.

"Soldier, don't you know you are not supposed to be using this vehicle for such a purpose?"
Taking a nervous gulp, the young GI replied, "Yes, sir. But sometimes forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission."
-- Capt. David L. Benton III (Fort Sill, Okla.)


James Curran

Could you find the origin of "Those who are not with us, are against us" ?

I know it goes back to at least biblical times, with one Gospel quoting Jesus Christ saying essentially the reverse ("Those who do not oppose us, are with us"), leaving the question "Are modern speakers misquoting Christ, or was He reworking an existing common expression?"

Brendan K

Many people attribute the quote "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." to Mark Twain. I've been told recently that it was not him... who then?


The gospels include gist of the phrase both ways round:

Matthew 12:30
He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.

Mark 9:39-40
Do not stop him, Jesus said. No-one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me,
for whoever is not against us is for us.

(Quoting New International Version - UK)


Where does the ubiquitous solecism "The problem is is that ...." come from? And when did folks start saying "Absolutely!" when they mean to say "Yes"?

Glen Thompson

There's no written record but I remember Captain Hopper (later Admiral) use the phrase at a ACM talk at Virginia Tech in the mid 1970s - probably 74 or 75.

Garson O'Toole

The quote given by Glossolalia Black can be traced back to the 1970's where it is repeatedly credited to John Watson, a pseudonym for Ian Maclaren. The Wikipedia entry for Maclaren says he was a Scottish author and theologian who died in 1905. Searching Maclaren's works reveals a passage whose meaning closely accords with the modern saying.

The precise theme of the aphorism is present in the section of a book Maclaren wrote that discusses courtesy. The following passage may have been condensed and simplified to yield the aphorism in its current concise form:

Cite: 1904, The Homely Virtues by John Watson (pseudonym for Ian Maclaren), Courtesy, Page 159, Hodder & Stoughton, London.

This man beside us also has a hard fight with an unfavouring world, with strong temptations, with doubts and fears, with wounds of the past which have skinned over, but which smart when they are touched. It is a fact, however surprising. And when this occurs to us we are moved to deal kindly with him, to bid him be of good cheer, to let him understand that we are also fighting a battle; we are bound not to irritate him, nor press hardly upon him nor help his lower self.


Summarization and condensation is a known mechanism for the evolution of quotations. However, it is also possible that Maclaren himself expressed the idea of the text above more concisely somewhere else in his written corpus.


Garson O'Toole

I have located an earlier version of the Ian Maclaren quotation. It uses the word "pitiful" in a way that is now rare. Here is the appropriate definition from the Oxford English Dictionary (Draft June 2010) followed by two citations:

pitiful, A. adj. 1. Full of or characterized by pity; compassionate, merciful, tender. Cf. PITIABLE adj. 1. Now rare.

Cite: 1898 January 6, Congregationalist, In Brief, Page 9, Volume 83, Issue 1, Boston. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers, American Periodical Series)

"Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle," was the tender Christmas message sent by Ian Maclaren to the readers of The British Weekly.

Cite: 1898 January 26, Zion's Herald, Be Pitiful, Page 101, Volume 76, Issue 4, Boston.

"IAN MACLAREN," along with other celebrities, was asked to send a Christmas message to an influential religious weekly in England. He responded by sending the short but striking sentence: "Be pitiful, for every man is fighting a hard battle." No message is more needed in our days of stress and storm, of selfish striving and merciless competition.


Russell Hogg

Years ago I read "Only the incredibly smart and the incredibly stupid are capable of completely ignoring the facts". I've googled off and on for years trying to find the exact quote and who said it.

I believe it's true.

John Schaible

"Be kind . . . ": Jacob Stein, in his monthly "Legal Spectator" column for The Washington Lawyer (D.C. Bar magazine), deploys this quotation. nearly verbatim, at least three times, and each time he gives a different attribution. In the column from 12/03, it was a character in Gogol's story "The Overcoat." In 12/05 it was William Gardner, a jurist. And in 12/08 it was Marcus Aurelius. Neither Stein nor his attributions were included in the 2010 posting on this subject on the quoteinvestigator blog.