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Monitoring the use of - and popularity of - particular quotations leads one to the conclusion that, at the moment, the clear winners – in the British media at least - are:

‘There are lies, damn lies - and statistics.’

Although sometimes attributed to Mark Twain – because it appears in his posthumously-published Autobiography (1924) – this should more properly be ascribed to Disraeli, as indeed Twain took trouble to do: his exact words being, ‘The remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”.’

On the other hand, the remark remains untraced among Disraeli’s writings and sayings and Lord Blake, Disraeli’s biographer, does not know of any evidence that Disraeli said any such thing and thinks it most unlikely that he did.  So why did Twain make the attribution?  A suggestion: Leonard Henry Courtney, the British economist and politician (1832-1918), later Lord Courtney, gave a speech on proportional representation ‘To My Fellow-Disciples at Saratoga Springs’, New York, in August 1895, in which this sentence appeared: ‘After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, “Lies - damn lies - and statistics,” still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.’

It is conceivable that Twain acquired the quotation from this - and also its veiled attribution to a ‘Wise Statesman’, whom he understood to be Disraeli.  The speech was reproduced in the (British) National Review, No. 26, in the same year.  Subsequently, Courtney’s comment was reproduced in an article by J.A. Baines on ‘Parliamentary Representation in England illustrated by the Elections of 1892 and 1895’ in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, No. 59 (1896): ‘We may quote to one another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, lies, damn lies, and statistics, still there are some easy figures which the simplest must understand but the astutest cannot wriggle out of.’

It would be a reasonable assumption that Courtney was referring to Disraeli by his use of the phrase ‘Wise Statesman’, though the context in which the phrase is used is somewhat complicated. For some reason, at this time, allusions to rather than outright quotations of Disraeli were the order of the day (he had died in 1881). Compare the fact that the remark to an author who had sent Disraeli an unsolicited manuscript – ‘Many thanks; I shall lose no time in reading it’ – is merely ascribed to ‘an eminent man on this side of the Atlantic’ by G.W.E. Russell in Collections and Recollections, Chap. 31 (1898).

Comparable sayings: Dr Halliday Sutherland’s autobiographical A Time to Keep (1934) has an account of Sir Henry Littlejohn, ‘Police Surgeon, Medical Officer of Health and Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University [Edinburgh] ... Sir Henry’s class at 9 a.m. was always crowded, and he told us of the murder trials of the last century in which he had played his part.  It was Lord Young [judge] who said, “There are four classes of witnesses - liars, damned liars, expert witnesses, and Sir Henry Littlejohn”.’  Lies, Damn Lies, and Some Exclusives was the title of a book about British newspapers (1984) by Henry Porter.  ‘There are lies, damned lies ... and Fianna Fáil party political broadcasts’ - Barry Desmond MEP, (Irish) Labour Party director of elections, in November 1992.

‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’

So Edmund Burke said, or at least is often quoted as having done. Bartlett (1968) cited it in a letter from Burke to William Smith (9 January 1795), but on checking found that this did not exist.  In his book On Language (1980), William Safire describes his unavailing attempts to find a proper source.  In the House of Commons on 23 April 1770, Burke said ‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle’ – which seems be heading somewhere in the right direction (also to be found in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, 1770).  But, for the moment, we have here another of those quotations which arrive apparently from nowhere, and gets quoted and re-quoted without justification.  On the other hand, it is fair to assume that Burke would not have wished to disown it.

Compare what John Stuart Mill said later in ‘On Education’, his inaugural address on being installed as Rector of St Andrews University, Scotland (1 February 1867): ‘Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.’



‘God is in the details.’

It seems generally accepted that this was something said by the German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) although almost certainly it was not invented by him.  His obituary in The New York Times (1969) attributed it to him but the saying also appears to have been a favourite of the German art historian Aby Warburg (though E.M. Gombrich, his biographer, is not certain that it originated with him).  In the form Le bon Dieu est dans le détail, it has also been attributed to Gustave Flaubert (1821-80). Subsequently, there has arisen the saying ‘The devil is in the detail’ which has been described as a maxim of the German pop musician, Blixa Bargeld.  He probably did not invent it himself as it is mentioned in Lutz Röhrich’s Lexikon der sprichwörtlichen Redensarten (1994) - as ‘Der Teufel steckt im Detail’.

(Of England and America) ‘Two nations separated by a common language.’

Sometimes the inquirer asks, ‘Was it Wilde or Shaw?’ The answer appears to be: both. In The Canterville Ghost (1887), Wilde wrote: ‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language’.  However, the 1951 Treasury of Humorous Quotations (Esar & Bentley) quotes Shaw as saying: ‘England and America are two countries separated by the same language’, but without giving a source.  The quote had earlier been attributed to Shaw in Reader’s Digest (November 1942).

Much the same idea occurred to Bertrand Russell (Saturday Evening Post, 3 June 1944): ‘It is a misfortune for Anglo-American friendship that the two countries are supposed to have a common language’, and in a radio talk prepared by Dylan Thomas shortly before his death (and published after it in The Listener, April 1954) - European writers and scholars in America were, he said, ‘up against the barrier of a common language’.

Inevitably this sort of dubious attribution has also been seen: ‘Winston Churchill said our two countries were divided by a common language’ (The Times, 26 January 1987; The European, 22 November 1991.)

‘Parents are the very last people who ought to be allowed to have children.’

H.E. Bell, a former British university administrator, has an unusual problem - a remark has been fathered on him and he does not know whether he is entitled to claim paternity. In March 1977, as Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of undergraduate admissions at the University of Reading, he was speaking to a mixed group of people about the increasing complexity of the selection procedures and the variety of guidance available to prospective students.  ‘In this respect, being a parent of three children myself,’ he noted (1992), ‘I happened to say that in my view, “Parents are the very last people who ought to be allowed to have children”.  Reporters were present (I had invited them), the words appeared in The Guardian, and they were repeated in “Sayings of the Week” in The Observer. Later, in 1980, they appeared under my name in the second edition of The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations.’

In truth, Bell was merely saying what oft had been thought but ne’er so pithily expressed.  According to The Treasury of Humorous Quotations (1951), Bernard Shaw (inevitably) was credited with making the same point in rather more words: ‘There may be some doubt as to who are the best people to have charge of children, but there can be no doubt that parents are the worst.’  In fact, that was a misattribution. In Everybody’s Political What’s What?, Chap. 19 (1944), Shaw quite clearly ascribes the remark to William Morris (‘great among the greatest Victorians as poet, craftsman, and practical man of business, and one of the few who remained uncorrupted by Victorian false prosperity to the end’).  Speaking ‘as a parent and as a Communist’, Morris is quoted as having said: ‘The question of who are the best people to take charge of children is a very difficult one; but it is quite certain that the parents are the very worst.’

An unverified suggestion is that ‘Parents are the last people on earth who ought to have children’ appears in Samuel Butler’s Notebooks.  This is according to Medical Quotations (1989).

Chris Wain of the University of Keele, having seen this on the website, drew attention to the similar idea in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Chap. 6 (1726) where, of the Lilliputians, he writes: ‘Their opinion is, that parents are last of all others to be trusted with the education of their own children: and therefore they have in every town public nurseries, where all parents, except cottagers and labourers, are obliged to send their infants of both sexes to be reared and educated when they come to the age of twenty moons.’  Not quite the same as the William Morris/Bernard Shaw view, but an interesting precursor.



‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’

John 4:23 has ‘But the hour cometh, and now is’ and there is an English proverb ‘Opportunity makes the man’ (though originally, in the fourteenth century, it was ‘makes the thief’), but when did the phrases come together?  Harriet Martineau entitled her biography of Toussaint L’Ouverture (1840), The Hour and the Man.  An American, William Yancey, said about Jefferson Davis, President-elect of the Confederacy in 1861: ‘The man and the hour have met’, which says the same thing in a different way.  P.G. Wodehouse in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974) has: ‘And the hour ... produced the man.’

Earlier, at the climax of Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering, Chap. 54 (1815), Meg Merrilies says, ‘Because the Hour’s come, and the Man’. In the first edition and in the magnum opus edition that Scott supervised in his last years the phrase is emphasized by putting it in italics.

Then, in 1818, Scott used ‘The hour’s come, but not [sic] the man’ as the fourth chapter heading in The Heart of Midlothian, adding in a footnote: ‘There is a tradition, that while a little stream was swollen into a torrent by recent showers, the discontented voice of the Water Spirit [or Kelpie] was heard to pronounce these words.  At the same moment a man, urged on by his fate, or, in Scottish language, fey, arrived at a gallop, and prepared to cross the water.  No remonstrance from the bystanders was of power to stop him – he plunged into the stream, and perished.’  Both these examples appear to be hinting at some earlier core saying which is still untraced.

It appears from a survey of ten British newspapers in recent years that the saying is especially a weapon (or cliché) in the sportswriter’s armoury. From Today (22 June 1986): ‘Beating England may not be winning the World Cup, but, for obvious reasons, it would come a pretty close second back in Buenos Aires.  Cometh the hour, cometh the man?  Destiny beckons. England beware.’  From The Times (13 August 1991): ‘“Graham [Gooch] is a very special guy,” [Ted] Dexter said.  “It has been a case of ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man.’  I do not know anyone who would have taken the tough times in Australia harder than he did”.’  From The Scotsman (29 February 1992): ‘In the maxim of “Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” both the Scotland [Rugby Union] manager, Duncan Paterson, and forwards coach, Richie Dixon, indicated yesterday the need to look to the future.’

The reason why the phrase is so popular with sports writers may be because it was notably used (about himself) by Cliff Gladwin, the Derbyshire and England cricketer, during the first Test Match against South Africa at Durban (20 December 1948).  England were 117 for 8 requiring 128 to win, when Gladwin walked out to bat, remarking to Dudley Nourse, the South Africa captain, as he did so: ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man!’  The last ball of the match hit Gladwin on the thigh and he and Alec Bedser ran a leg-bye to win the match for England.

‘The whole nine yards.’

Meaning the entire problem – so defined in an article about Pentagonese in The Times (2 April 1984) – everything, the whole lot.  Of American origin and known by 1970.  A consensus has developed that the phrase comes from concrete mixing – presumably the distance it would be possible to cover using one truck load, or, the cubic contents of one cement truck.  As a form of measurement, it is quite normal to describe a load in these terms.  From Terry Major-Ball, Major Major (1994): ‘Whenever a truck came with a delivery of sand, usually five or six yards at a time, it simply dumped it in the road leaving me to cart it away.’  Other theories include that it derives from the length of material required for a good suit or that it has to do with the length of fighter-plane machine-gun belts/bomb racks.  An American WWII pilot remembers it being used thus.

Another suggestion is that the phrase comes from the days of sailing ships – a typical square-rigger had three masts with three yards on each mast.  So if you had all these square sails flying, you would have the whole nine yards in operation, i.e. everything.  But I have no citations of the phrase being used in this way in those days (Q497).


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