Quotes Uncovered: If Wolves and Sheep Could Vote

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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.

Beth asked:

I think I suggested this one before, but I’m still curious about its origin. I’ve seen it attributed to Ben Franklin, but without any supporting citation: “Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”

Garson O’Toole has traced a version of this back to 1990. He found the line “Democracy has been described as four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” in the Los Angeles Times, Nov. 25, 1990.

Gene asked:

How’s about “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”?

The Yale Book of Quotations traces an earlier saying, “A man without faith is like a fish without a bicycle,” to Charles S. Harris in a college newspaper, the Swarthmore Phoenix, Apr. 7, 1958. The YBQ cites People, July 26, 1976, as the earliest known printed documentation for “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle,” noting that the 1976 reference gives a T-shirt worn by Gloria Steinem as the source. The amazingly helpful YBQ goes on to note: “Steinem has credited Dunn [Australian educator, journalist, and politician Irina Dunn] as the originator. Dunn says she wrote ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle’ on two toilet doors in Sydney, Australia, in 1970, paraphrasing ‘A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle.'”

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

Pekka Taipale

The same proverb with a local adaptation was known in Finland at least in the early 1980's. It's more focused on the drinking habits of some people in the country, and goes like: "Democracy is that Archie, Ray and John each have a bottle of booze. They decide, votes 2-1, that all the booze belongs to everyone. Then they decide, votes 2-1, that the first bottle that they drink together is the bottle that John had. And then they decide, votes 2-1, that everyone drinks only his own booze."

Fern Mel

How about the classics .. "I know you are but what am I?" and "It takes one to know one!"

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Anyone know who coined the cheesy patriotic phrase:

'I am an AmeriCAN, not an AmeriCAN'T.''

......I see a great presidential slogan rivaling " Yes We Can."

I.S. Repentant

I have formerly worked in an aggressive environment, alpha male types, all very disingenuous, but I too have made many errors in my life, and not all where character building I can assure you. As my life has platonified somewhat and I have time for idle pursuits I can't help but retrospect ... on kick back's for dubious buy ratings, Lehman Bros, Fannie Mae etc, even as far back as Enron, punching a Saudi Prince, countless sexual harassment suits, most recently one involving, dare I say, the simple request of an intern to print some pictures, nothing of ill repute, just my now ex-wife and certainly not of the intern herself! ... I digress. As I enter this phase in my life I wonder what it means to err and how it defines us, as humans, so Fred, and your book of quotes, I wonder, where did the phrase 'to err is human' originate?


How about "It is impossible to overestimate the complete unimportance of almost everything," which I vaguely recall being attributed to a Church of Ireland bishop?


"Peace is found in libraries and laboratories." Which is often attributed to Louis Pasteur?

Pat McGee

"Busy as a one-armed paperhanger"

I thought this made sense until I read a news article about a paperhanger who had lost an arm. He said he was able to keep up just fine, thank you very much.

Tonight I read Robert Heinlein's "Glory Road". On page 187 (Berkeley paperback), Heinlein wrote, "I'm as busy as a one-armed beaver with paper hangers...."

Which leads me to wonder if the current expression is a contraction of an older one that actually made some sense.


Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on lunch. Liberty is a well-armed sheep monitoring the results.


What is the origin of the phrase "Never assume for you will make an "ass" out of "u" and me." The earliest reference I can recall is an episode of "The Odd Couple" in which Felix and Oscar get arrested for ticket scalping, and Felix uses that line to overcome the testimony of the woman to whom he sold a ticket.


"Hand over fist" in referring to the loads of money someone or some company is making.

Steve Nations

I think the quote about democracy and the wolves and sheep is funny. Another funny quote about democracy goes something like this: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.

Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY

The wolves and sheep thing is the paranoia of the haves with regard to the have-not needy (and their political representatives.) A deep-seated fear of democracy. The people who should be afraid are the have-nots, as the haves (thus their name) hold all the cards. But the haves are afraid of the moral persuasiveness of democracy's call for greater equality between the privileged and the impoverished. Thus their delusion of peril. See for example the writings of Ayn Rand, as she sees big business as a persecuted minority group. Ha! That's good propaganda! Even the business community had to admit that was outrageously propagandistic. MDM

Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY

For "Is Repentant" @ #4: "To err is human."

I just happen to be reading currently about Alexander Pope, a masterly eighteenth-century writer of trenchant satirical couplets. He was a classicist, a translator of the Illiad into English, a conservative satirist of social fashions, and a literary critic.

Pope is the author of "To err is human, to forgive divine," Which has since been an often repeated byword of our culture. I believe it might come from his long poem, "Essay On Man." I'll have to look it up. 'Course if I'm wrong I'm only human.

Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY

For "Is Repentant" @ #4: "To err is human."

Yup, I erred:

It's from one of Pope's earliest literary triumphs, his Essay On Criticism, a satirical poem in octasyllabic couplets which assembles all of his very conservative opinions on the fashionable writing of his era.

Pope, as a classicist, must've been aware of the Roman dramatist Seneca, who wrote:

"Errare humanum est, perseverare diabolicum."

(To err is human, to persist is evil.)

Pope appears to be consciously alluding to Seneca and creating a new wrinkle in a classic tradition, I think

I.S. Repentant

For "Michael Dennis Mooney" @ #14: "To err is human."

Michael, dear Michael, fabulous, fabulous work, bravo sir, bravo and indeed to persist is evil, I like Seneca's version that bit more, although it does leave me slightly melancholy, hope for abatement is removed, I'm lost to my indiscretions, forever chastised, and labeled "une menace" , and of course I speak only from a place of selfishness and self pity, as is self evidently my nature, but in Seneca's prose one's actions defines oneself, as so it should be, I like it for quite that reason, the wronged don't get to forgive, to assume the moral high ground, holier than tho, the beta male that prevails in the end, the good guy gets the girl, the tortoise. I made my choices, got the spoils and so to the moniker. One is also seduced by the allure of the Latin poema poematis, it gives it that poetic and prophetic feel, although I guess as does everything Latin to an empiricist, I am empiricist precisely because I am not a nobleman and paradoxily because I can not be nobleman, left bewildered by the noble folly, sidelined to a life of belittling those that partake but forever jealous. Michael you made my day, I will engrave it in gold now knowing the shine can never brighten my tarnish



I've seen the wolves and sheep quote attributed to Robert Heinlein in the 60s.

Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY

Alexander Pope produced many, many nuggets in his writings that have long been used as bywords:

"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

"Hope springs eternal in the human breast."

Many more

Michael Dennis Mooney, Albany, NY

Few more Popisms:

"Fools rush in where angels fear to tread."

"If that's art, I'm a Hottentot."

"The proper study of Mankind is Man."


Who first said "there is no I in team"

Who replied "But there is ME in team"

Fred Shapiro

Re #18: I believe that "If that's art, I'm a Hottentot" dates from 200 plus years after Alexander Pope.