For a time in my 20s, I worked as “assistant to the publisher” at Schocken Books, now part of Random House. Like anyone with that sort of glorified-secretary position, I took on a lot of tasks that weren’t part of the job description. At one point, my boss realized that a charming “book of days” desk calendar, with clever quotes and illustrations — for which he had purchased publishing rights and print-ready films from a British publisher — lacked the permissions to reproduce most of the clever quotes. My project became finding quotations that existed in the public domain, fit the illustration or the time of year, and, most important, fit neatly into the space that had been occupied by the quote for which we couldn’t afford the permission fee. I reached for ditties like the one my mother used to recite:
Nobody loves me, everybody hates me
I’m goin’ out and eat worms.
Big long skinny ones, little short slimy ones,
and fat ones that stick in your throat.
(Various versions of this charming song exist; I can’t swear that’s the wording I used, but I was confident that no one owned the rights to it.)
Another quotation I wanted, for reasons that now escape me, came, I was certain, from W.C. Fields and had something to do with hating children and dogs. I asked around the office. Everyone had heard of it, but no one was sure of the wording. That afternoon, walking home, I ducked out of a sudden rainstorm into a bookstore. In the back was a collection of Hollywood books: gossip and history. As I thumbed through them, the store owner asked if I needed help finding something, and I told her about the quote. “I think it’s ‘A man who hates dogs can’t be a bad guy,’” she said.
“No,” said a handsome young man who was browsing postcards. “It’s about children, about hating children. And dogs.”
The young man, it turned out, also worked in book publishing, at Little Brown. The next day, I took my lunch break at the New York Public Library and managed — I thought — to track down the W.C. Fields quote. The version I found, “Any man who hates children can’t be all bad,” said nothing about dogs. I jotted it down on a postcard and sent it to the young man at Little Brown, just for fun. Two years later, we were married.
Had I known about Quote Investigator — or, more properly, had the internet existed to give Quote Investigator a home — that romance might never have started. Not that Garson O’Toole, who operates the website, has looked into the Fields quote, at least not yet. But he relates so much else about who said what that I wouldn’t have bothered with the bookstore or the library.
For instance, there’s the clever line, “The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” People have attributed it to sources as varied as Coco Chanel and Albert Einstein. But Quote Investigator proves convincingly that it came into circulation by way of an English broadcaster, C.E.M. Joad, in 1926.
Then there’s Mark Twain, to whom all kinds of witticisms are attributed, including, “Life is one damn thing after another,” an anonymous expression that stuck to Twain only because H.L. Mencken said so.
Vladimir Nabokov really did write, “Literature is of no practical value whatsoever.” But most quotations seem not to have been uttered — or, at least, not coined — by the person whose name we generally attach to them, including several famous Yogi Berra sayings, like “When people don’t want to come, nothing will stop them” (spoken first, apparently, by the impresario Sol Hurok).
Far be it from me to ask where Garson O’Toole, who, according to the site, “has a doctorate from Yale University, and exploring quotations is one of his avocations,” gets the energy to track down all these bons mots. But I’m sure that if I’d known I could use the quote “Insanity is hereditary. You can get it from your children,” apparently correctly attributed to the humorist Sam Levenson, I might have stopped chasing W.C. Fields’s hatred of the little tykes. Had the internet existed, I might have learned that dogs were indeed relevant to the quote, which was said about Fields by a scriptwriter, Leo Rosten. But then, as Yogi Berra apparently did say, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. And I did.Return to Top