Rules of The Game

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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.

Michael asked:

“The best swordsman does not fear the second best, he fears the worst since there’s no telling what that idiot is going to do.”

The Yale Book of Quotations traces this to an authentic Mark Twain quote:

Don’t you know, there are some things that can beat smartness and foresight? Awkwardness and stupidity can. The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to.
-Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)

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


The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire

Joe Zaccardi

I have one that I was thinking about recently. Where did "It is what it is" come from? I only recall starting to hear it over the last 3 or so years, but it is everywhere!

Joshua Northey

Well the greeks, romans, and ancient chinese were familiar with the phrase, so I don't think it came from anywhere. It is a pretty straightforward tidbit of "wisdom" if you spend any time taking day to day events in perspective.


Not sure if it's a quote, but in the South they say "The Devil's beating his wife" when it's raining while the sun is shining. Always wondered where that came from.


Can you trace this quote, typically attributed to Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”? I really doubt Einstein said it.


But there are fish which climb trees :-)


Never argue with an idiot. He'll drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.


"Root hard little pig or die young."

"Mean as a strip-ed snake."

"Too lazy to work as a taster in a pie factory."

Some of heard from my southeast Tennessee kin.

Mike P

Applies well to poker, too. When your foe knows nothing of hand strength or game theory, his predictability and your E(V) edge drop significantly.


Applies in many areas, amazingly. In tennis, if you're decent and play against a near-beginner, they tend to hit lots of balls at you that land short, are slow, and have weird (unintentional) spin on it, and this is such a difference from the type of aggressive shots the you are used to from a decent player, that it can throw you off a bit, esp if you haven't practiced against those kinds of shots. Those kinds of shots are not used at the pro level because they can easily be put away by pros who have no real weaknesses, but for only a "decent" player, they may not be well rounded enough to adapt to such an odd opponent, and therefore may lose to what is objectively a worse player.

Like in poker, part of your strategy in predicting your opponents thoughts is knowing what they know about odds and strategies, but with a beginner opponent, you can't be sure what they know are can be less predictable.



Politics is like football. You have to be smart enough to play the game, but stupid enough to think it matters

Sarah C.

When and where did the term "doggie bag" ( as in bringing home leftovers from a restaurant) originate?


This might be another one of those quotes that has no true author but it might also have been written in an article. However, a few decades ago it was considered very unfashionable to bring home left over food. The leftovers, were then only good enough for the dog.

Peter McGraw

Humor is tragedy plus time. - allegedly Mark Twain, but I am looking for confirmation
Comedy is tragedy plus time. - allegedly Carol Burnett, but I am looking for confirmation

Jason kernan

I've always wondered where "close but no cigar" came from.


Pretty sure this came from carnival barkers where the prize for winning the games of "skill" were often cigars.


Rationality at the macrolevel depends upon irrationality at the microlevel.


Is the substance of the quote accurate? Not being a sword fighter, I have no idea. However, it seems strange to think that the inept is more dangerous than the truly competent.

Daniel Greenwald

Can you trace the following quotations:

1. If a man is not a liberal when he is 20, he has not heart; if he is not a conservative when he is 40, he has no head.

2. Reading history does not demonstrate that history repeats itself; it merely demonstrates that historians repeat each other.


How about the origins & meaning of "23 skidoo"