A Grain of Salt

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 researches.

Jamie asked:

‘Take it with a grain of salt’ is one I always have trouble with – do you know the origin?


The Yale Book of Quotations has the following entry:

“Addito salis grano
With the addition of a grain of salt.

Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis bk. 23, sec. 149.  Usually quoted as ‘Cum grano salis’ (with a grain of salt).  The reference is to salt being added to Pompey’s antidote to poison.”


Jim asked:

How about ‘If you love somebody set them free. If they come back to you…’  My quick web search didn’t yield anything definitive.

The YBQ is all over this one, with the following entry:

If you want something very, very badly, let it go free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.

Jess Lair, I Ain’t Much, Baby — But I’m All I Got (1974).  Lair had his students at Montana State University write comments, questions, or feelings on index cards.  This passage appeared on one of the students’ cards, although it might have been copied by the student from another source.  When these words became famous, a harsh parody arose:  ‘If you want something very very badly, let it go free.  If it doesn’t come back to you, hunt it down and kill it.'”

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


I have one that I have used since I was young, but do not know the source -

The highest mountain is your doorstep.


I believe the second quote in question actually originated from Antoine Saint-Exupery's "Le Petit Prince" (1943).

Imad Qureshi

I love the following variant of the above quote

If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was, and always will be yours. If it never returns, it was never yours to begin with. But if it sits on your couch, eats all your food, takes all your money, and
never behaves as if you actually set it free in the first place, then you either married it or gave birth to it.

Michael Vukovich

Play it by ear/year.

It is better to have loved and lost then never to have loved at all.

Eugene I.

I think i know this one, because i´ve used it in a paper for college a few months ago:

Lord Tennyson's poem In Memoriam:27, 1850:

I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

Marcus Kalka

As for the first quote, we must also remember that [aside from salt] a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Now if we could only differentiate what is the poison and what is the medicine.

As for the second quote, I remember reading a much more colorful variation on the quote on a store clerk's T-shirt in New Orleans seven years ago, but I would not be able to reproduce this variation on here. From my personal experience, to truly let anything go one must not only set it free, but one must also pretty much forget the thing entirely. At that point, even if it does come back, it's like finding something new anyhow.

In a similar vein, I'm wondering if St. Augustine was correct in saying that it's better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I tend to take St. Augustine's saying with a grain of salt, to say the least.


Rule of thumb. I have heard it was a common law rule about the thickness of a switch with which no punishment would occur for spousal abuse. I have also heard that this is not correct. I cannot find a definitive source and meaning.

Eric M. Jones.

Joseph, "Rule of Thumb".

Authoritive: http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/more/489/

The bible seems not to be the source of this wife-beating tale.

Mark Mandel

See if you have any better luck with this one than I did:

"A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him. He is not an interruption of our work. He is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider of our business. He is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him. He is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so."

Mohandas Gandhi, according to the great-great-grand-xeroxed page in an office I was in on Monday.

I doubt it. It's attributed to him on a whole lot of websites, but not, I note, the sites that seem to be seriously devoted to quoting him. L.L. (Leon Leonwood) Bean seems much more likely.

I put this on my blog (http://thnidu.livejournal.com/830260.html) along with a number of the hits and misses I found while looking for the source. If you want to look further, you're welcome to take those as a start.



Lately, I've heard the good old "I got to see a man about a horse."
Where did that come from?? (Especially given the context!)

merry staser

"Wham, bam...thank you ma'm" We have been looking for this one all over and can't
seem to find out where it came from...(travelling in a carriage....was one we found...but not
a full explanation). Thanks

Joanne Amador Zapata

Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart. (unknown)

I would be really interested to know! Thanks!!


I have many whose origins I do not know, but somehow stuck with me. This is my favorite one, although credited to someone in some website, I am not convinced because it is not consistent.

“Every morning in Africa, a Gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a Lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest Gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn't matter whether you are a Lion or a Gazelle... when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.”


People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones

Steve Bennett

I'm a curmedgeon for saying this, but I'm finding this series of "ask me a question and I'll look up the answer in my book" a little but underwhelming. It's not new research, it just smacks of self-promotion. What am I missing?


80/90% of life/success/business is just showing up.

I've found various percentages, typically 80% or 90%, and different goals used. The one commonality is that the quote is attributed to Woody Allen, but I cannot find a definitive original source. Thanks.