October 20, 2019

Spiro Agnew vs. the “effete intellectuals” and “nattering nabobs”…



Nowadays, Conservative provocateurs like Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter get lots of media attention for coming up with snarky, quotable insults aimed at Liberals.

But the way was paved for them decades ago by Republican politician Spiro Agnew (1918-1996), the former Governor of Maryland who became Vice President of the United States under President Richard M. Nixon in 1969.

Agnew unleashed one of his most famous zingers on October 19, 1969.

He was speaking that day at a Republican fund-raising dinner in New Orleans.

Four days earlier, opponents of the Vietnam War had organized a major anti-war demonstration, the October 15th Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in moratorium events in the United States and Europe.

Agnew was a staunch defender of the Vietnam War, so naturally he had to take a swipe at the protesters.

He characterized them as people who “overwhelm themselves with drugs and artificial stimulants.”

He went on (and on and on) to say:

“Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated in a contemporary antagonism known as ‘The Generation Gap.’ A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” 

Other Conservatives and the press especially loved that last sentence. And, soon, the pithy core of it was compressed into the phrases still used today: “effete intellectual snobs” and the shorter version “effete intellectuals.”

Spiro uttered a number of other catchy, insulting names for Liberals during his four years as Vice President.

Two others that are still cited are “the nattering nabobs of negativism” and “the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” 

Most of Agnew’s catchy phrases as Vice President were written for him by Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire, who went on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist for The New York Times. (I was a big fan of Safire’s “On Language” column in the NYT and highly recommend his many excellent books about the origins of famous quotations and phrases.)

Agnew’s verbal attacks on Liberals made him a darling of Republicans until 1973, when his past caught with him.

That year, he was charged with taking bribes and evading taxes during his tenure as Governor of Maryland.

He resigned as Vice President on October 10, 1973, as part of a plea deal to avoid jail time.

It was quite a scandal at the time. But, hey – at least Spiro Agnew wasn’t taking any of them there psycho-delic drugs or acting like a damn effete intellectual.

However, I do think he may have qualified as a nattering nabob.

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September 28, 2019

“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”



One of the most famous quotes in sports history is linked to the date September 28, 1920.

On that day, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson supposedly admitted during testimony to a grand jury that he was one of eight Chicago White Sox baseball players who took bribes to let the Cincinnati Reds win the 1919 World Series.

It came to be known as the Black Sox scandaland it was devastating for baseball fans.

A crowd of fans were gathered outside the Cook County Courthouse where Jackson was testifying.

Word spread among them that their hero had admitted he’d helped throw the series to the Reds.

According to legend, as Jackson left the courthouse, a heartbroken young boy went up to him and begged: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.”

It’s legend rather than fact because there are holes in key aspects of the story.

For one thing, there’s no court record of Jackson ever admitting he was involved in fixing the game — and, publicly, he always denied it.

In 1921, Jackson was found innocent by a Chicago jury.

In addition, other players who admitted to being on the take said Jackson was not at any of the meetings they had with the gamblers involved.

What about the tear-jerking line by the crushed kid?

Quotation experts have determined the legendary quote is a misquote of a quote that was probably fabricated by a reporter in the first place.  

One of the best overviews of the facts is in Ralph Keyes’ must-have quote debunking book, Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations.

As noted by Keyes, an Associated Press sportswriter named Hugh Fullerton was at the courthouse when Shoeless Joe left it that day.

In the original version of the story he filed, Fullerton wrote that a young kid approached Jackson as he emerged and said: “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?”

Fullerton wrote that Jackson replied “Yes, kid, I’m afraid it is.”

Somehow, by 1940, the words “It ain’t so, Joe, is it?” morphed into “Say it ain’t so, Joe” in rewritten accounts of the incident.

Then it became legend.

Eventually, it became an idiomatic expression used humorously as a comment about some disappointing revelation or bad news.

However, no other eyewitness accounts corroborate either version of the alleged quotation by the young baseball fan.

Jackson himself always denied any such thing was said to him by a kid or anyone else that day.

So, basically, the quote and story were apparently made up by a reporter — and then further distorted in later accounts.

In recent decades, public awareness of the “Black Sox Scandal” and “Shoeless Joe” Jackson has been renewed by various books and movies, most notably by two best-selling books that were adapted into hit movies: Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams.

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September 24, 2019

Sherlock Holmes quotes that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock did and didn’t say…



Naturally, some of the best known Sherlock Holmes quotations and catchphrases come from the classic detective stories written by Sherlock’s creator, British author
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).    

For example, there’s the famed sleuthing maxim that’s cited by thousands of quotation books and websites: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Versions of that Holmesian principle are used in several Sherlock Holmes stories. The first is spoken by Sherlock in Chapter 6 of Doyle’s story “The Sign of Four” (1890).

The full sentence in which he used it, in a conversation with his mystery-solving partner Dr. John H. Watson, is: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Doyle also used variations of it in two other stories: “The Beryl Coronet” (1892) and “The Blanched Soldier” (1926).

In “The Beryl Coronet” Holmes says to a banker named Mr. Alexander Holder: “It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Early in the story “The Blanched Soldier,” Holmes explains to some concerned clients that his investigation process “…starts upon the supposition that when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Another famous Sherlockian catchphrase is “a three-pipe problem.” It comes from the story “The Red-Headed League” (1891). In that, when Dr. Watson asks Holmes what he will do to begin to solve a new case they’d been presented with, Holmes says he will start by smoking his pipe. He explains: “It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.”

One of the best-known phrases that comes from Doyle’s stories about the adventure of Sherlock Holmes is “the game is afoot.” It’s so well known you’d think it was some repeated line of Sherlock’s. But in the Doyle stories it is used in only one, “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange” (1904).

In that story, Holmes rousts Dr. Watson out of bed and says: “Come, Watson, come!…The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!”

The famous quotations from Doyle stories noted above have all been used in later radio, movie and TV adaptations.

However, two of the most widely-quoted Sherlock Holmes quotations used in those mediums don’t come from the stories penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

For example, Doyle’s Sherlock never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

In the story “The Crooked Man” (1893), Doyle’s Sherlock does say the word “Elementary” to his friend Doctor Watson, after Watson expresses surprise that Holmes had correctly guessed the doctor had had a busy day. But Holmes does NOT say “Elementary, my dear Watson” in that story or in any other Sherlock Holmes story written by Doyle.

As noted in a definitive post by Garson O’Toole on his Quote Investigator site, the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” was floating around in the early 1900s, but Sherlock Holmes movies probably deserve the credit for making it a widely known catchphrase.

The first movie to use it was The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929). It starred Clive Brook as Sherlock and was released in the USA on October 26, 1929.

The line was then reused in several other Sherlock Holmes films, including: Sherlock Holmes' Fatal Hour (1931), The Sign of Four: Sherlock Holmes' Greatest Case (1932), Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), Pursuit to Algiers (1945), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959).

Another line often cited as a Sherlock Holmes quote which does not appear in Doyle’s stories is “Quick, Watson, the needle.” 

That originated in a comedic operetta titled The Red Mill (1906), which premiered on Broadway on September 24, 1906.

Ironically, the operetta is not a Sherlock Holmes story. The “needle” line is a quip by a con man who is impersonating Sherlock as part of a scam.

The Sherlock Holmes film Hound of the Baskervilles, released on March 31, 1939, further confused the facts about whether it was “real” Sherlock quotation.

In that film — one of the best of a series Holmes films that starred Basil Rathbone as the great sleuth — Basil says: “Oh, Watson, the needle.”

There’s no such quote about a needle in Doyle’s stories, though Doyle did tell us that Sherlock was a user of both cocaine and morphine.

In Doyle’s story “A Study in Scarlet” (1887), Watson comments that he often found Sherlock in a dreamlike state and “suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic.”

Three years later, in Doyle’s “The Sign of Four,” fans of Sherlock first read about the “seven-percent-solution.”

As that story begins, Watson sees Sherlock injecting himself with a needle and notices ugly track marks on his arm.

“Which is it today,” Watson asks, “morphine or cocaine?”

“It is cocaine,” Sherlock replied, “a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?”

Since then, the drug habit of the world’s greatest detective has sparked continuing controversy, articles, books and a great movie, Nicholas Meyer’s film The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), adapted from his novel of the same name.

Sherlock’s use of cocaine and versions of various Sherlock quotes continue to show up in recent Sherlock Holmes movies, TV series and books. Indeed, the great detective seems to be more popular than ever. And, if you’re a fan (like me), it’s no mystery why.

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September 19, 2019

Hanging … It concentrates the mind wonderfully.


Many of the famed witticisms uttered by British writer, lexicographer and wit Samuel Johnson were recorded for posterity in a journal kept by his admirer and friend James Boswell.

Boswell used entries from the journal as a foundation for his classic biography, Life of Johnson (first published in 1791).

One of Johnson’s oft-quoted quips comes from the entry Boswell wrote on September 19, 1777.

It’s a great bit of literal gallows humor that is widely cited in the short form:

       "When a man knows he is to be hanged...it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Johnson made the remark in reference to an Anglican clergyman named William Dodd.

Dodd, whose clerical background led people to call him Dr. Dodd, had been executed by hanging at England’s Tyburn prison on June 27, 1777.

The “heinous” crime he was guilty of was a loan scam.

He had asked a money lender for a sizeable loan that he claimed was for his former student, the 5th Earl of Chesterfield.

That particular young gent was son of the 4th Earl of Chesterfield, Philip Dormer Stanhope, known for those famous windy letters to his son that included platitudes like: “Take care of the minutes: for the hours will take care of themselves.”

Dodd didn’t actually give the money to Stanhope’s son. He pocketed it. And, when he failed to repay the loan, he was taken to court by the money lender, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Even in those days, when capital punishment was common in England, some people thought Dodd’s sentence seemed a bit harsh. One of them was Samuel Johnson.

Johnson tried to stop the hanging with a little scam of his own.

He penned an eloquent plea for mercy, full of Biblical quotes, and had it delivered to the court. Instead of signing it himself, Johnson made it seem as if it were a letter written by Dodd.

Unfortunately for Dodd, it didn’t work. He was hanged anyway, alongside another criminal named Joseph Harris.

The entreaty Johnson had ghost-written was “leaked” and soon published under the title The Convict’s Address to His Unhappy Brethren. It was credited to Dodd on the cover and became quite popular.

In his journal entry for September 19, 1777, Boswell noted that a friend of Johnson’s told the great man he suspected Dodd didn’t actually write the letter himself. It just seemed a bit too well written.

Johnson didn’t fess up at the time. But his response, as recorded in Boswell’s journal and published in the Life of Johnson, includes the memorable quote about hanging that appears on many websites and in many books of quotations:

“Why should you think so?” responded Johnson. “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

Eventually, Johnson’s authorship was revealed and The Convict’s Address is now generally – and properly – credited to him.

By the way, my favorite edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson is the “Classix Comix” version. It's edited with illuminating notes by writer Dan Leo, author of the mindbending series of novels about bohemian poet Arnold Schnabel (RAILROAD TO TRAIN HEAVEN, THIS WORLD OR ANY OTHER WORLD, and THE BRAWNY EMBRACES). It’s also wonderfully illustrated by digital artist and writer Rhoda Penmarq, who has published her own series of books collecting her witty stories and artwork on Lulu.


(creator of the great Railroad Train to Heaven online novel).

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September 13, 2019

“No man is a hero to his valet” – the backstory on a famous proverb and misquote...



Charlotte Aïssé (1693-1733) was quite a celebrity in France in the early 18th Century — part heroine, part sex symbol, part intellectual.

As a child, her father’s palace was raided by the Turks. They took her captive but soon sold her to Count Charles de Ferriol, the French ambassador at Constantinople.

She was raised by Ferriol's sister-in-law in Paris and became a beauty who attracted the attention of several prominent French aristocrats.

After her death, her fame grew.

Three French plays were written about her. The letters she wrote to her friend Madame Calandrini were edited by the eminent French writer Voltaire and published in 1787, in a book titled Lettres de Mademoiselle Aïssé a Madame Calandrini [“Letters of Mademoiselle Aïssé to Madame Calandrini”].

In one of those letters, dated August 13, 1728, Aïssé mentioned a quip she’d heard.

It was a comment by another prominent French lady, Anne-Marie Bigot de Cornuel (1605-1694), who was once the mistress of King Louis XIV.

A simplified English translation of part of what Madame Cornuel said became cited as a famous proverbial quotation:

      “No man is a hero to his valet.”

Many books and online posts attribute this quote to Cornuel by way of Aïssé’s letter.

However, although Aïssé did write something like that, the attributed quote is a case of something gained in translation.

In the original French, what Aïssé actually wrote in her letter was:

“Je vous renvoie à ce que disoit madame Cornuel, qu’il n’y avoit point de héros pour les valets de chambre, et point de pères de l’Église parmi ses contemporains.”

A literal English translation of her words is something like this:

“I refer to what Madame Cornuel said, that there were no heroes to valets, nor to the Fathers of the Church among their contemporaries.”

Somewhere along the line, in English translations, the valet part of Aïssé’s comment morphed from “there were no heroes to valets” into “No man is a hero to his valet.”

I suspect that is because the saying “No man is a hero to his valet” already existed as a proverbial saying in French.

Indeed, “No man is a hero to his valet” is listed in many sources simply as an old French or English proverb

The meaning of the proverb is that a servant (such as a valet) does not usually have the same grand, positive view other people may have of the servant’s master or employer.

Why? Because servants get to know the bad sides of their masters better than people who don’t spend time with them on a daily basis. In addition, “underlings” are often treated worse by their masters or employers than other people.

My guess is that what Madame Cornuel wrote was a reference to the existing proverb and that her line was misquoted in English to fit the saying.

So... Je suis désolé, Madame Cornuel. Sorry, Madame Cornuel.

You apparently don’t deserve credit for coining “No man is a hero to his valet” — or even for saying those exact words.

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