Quotes Uncovered: Dancing About Architecture

Photo: nemesis91

I’m back to 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.

William C. Waterhouse commented:

The question on “writing about music” seems to have reached a resolution. A column in The Online Photographer, Saturday, 17 July 2010 runs as follows: [Waterhouse goes on to report evidence that Elvis Costello credits Martin Mull as the originator of “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” and that Mull confirms this.]

First, I am honored to have William C. Waterhouse, a distinguished mathematician and historian of mathematics who has a longstanding scholarly interest in quotations, commenting. I have addressed “dancing about architecture” on this blog in 2009, but the answer is worth updating. In The Yale Book of Quotations, I traced the quote as far back as an attribution to Elvis Costello in 1983. But Garson O’Toole has subsequently done brilliant research on this saying. On his great website?quoteinvestigator.com, he provides a 1979 citation attributing it to Martin Mull. O’Toole also has found earlier analogues, such as “singing about economics”:

Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.

-Citation: 1918 February 9, The New Republic, The Unseen World by H. K. M., Page 63, Vol. 14, The Republic Pub. Co. (Google Books gives an incorrect date of 1969. Quotation verified on microfilm)

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

Swimming about politics.

Like commenting about economics.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Buildings do not move as part of their solid engineering. However built structures that do move are all around us: Autombiles, Trains, Ships, and Rocketry.

I would consider the formidable engineering and complex docking of the Apollo Saturn V Moon rockets--which are bigger than most skyscrappers--to be a balletic exceution of grace by monumental architecture.


"Words mean things."

Othar Hugh Manati

Excellent work. I had long seen this attributed to Frank Zappa, but no one could ever point to a definitive source.


"war is God's way of teaching Americans geography"

I've seen this one attributed to at least 3 different people.


There's a oft republished quote without attribution that goes something like "85% of swimsuits never touch the water."


"Life is a series of lessons. The lessons will be repeated until they are mastered." Been trying to figure that out for a long time.

Robin Mizell

In 1902, in his book WISDOM AND WILL IN EDUCATION, on pages 16 and 17 of his introduction, Charles William Super says, "It is well to recall often the weighty words of Lincoln's second inaugural: 'I see in the near future a crisis arising which unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all the wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic will be destroyed. I feel at this time more anxious for my country than even in the midst of the war.' "

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library possesses a 20th-century broadside of uncertain origin on which is printed a very similar quotation. Other sources attribute it to an 1861 message from Lincoln to Congress or a letter from Lincoln to William F. Elkins in 1864. It would be interesting to authenticate this one.


Jess Hurchist

I've suspected for some time* that the 'dancing about architecture' quote is related to Goethe calling Architecture 'Frozen music'

*about 4 hours as I write


Research request for you: What is the origin of the phrase, "I don't suffer fools gladly"? I've also heard, "I don't suffer fools well."

Thanks very much for your most interesting posts.


"...This too shall pass." I think it's often attributed to Lincoln, but I think he attributed it to an ancient wise man.

Gregory McIntosh

The original Mull remark was "Writing about TELEVISION is like dancing about architecture." It was from his first comedy album.