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?

Garson O'Toole

Former President Harry Truman famously used the pre-existing exclamation "I'm a Hottentot" in his reaction to modern art. (Merriam-Webster now labels the word Hottentot with the tag "often offensive". Khoikhoi or Khoi is the current common term.)

Cite: 1947 February 18, The Washington Post, Merry-Go-Round by Drew Pearson, Page 9, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)

President Truman is strictly a conservative when it comes to modern art. "Ham and Eggs" art he calls the paintings of the surrealists, the futurists, and the cubists. ...

"I've been to a million circuses, and I've never seen a performer who looked like her," he said. "The artist must have stood off from the canvas and thrown paint at it. If that's art, then I'm a Hottentot."

Adam Oppenheim

What is the origin of the phrase "Why let a few details get in the way of a good story"? I can't believe I can't find more information about this on the internet, but, well, I can't. any thoughts?

Mark Ackerman

The phrase "See one. Do one. Teach One." I believe came from the medical profession, but I haven't been able to find anything on the origin of it.


Ironic, a famous feminist catch phrase draws its origins from a male author.