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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September 01, 2019

“We must love one another or die.”


September 1, 1939
is now known as the day when World War II started.

On that day, Germany’s Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler ordered his military forces to invade neighboring Poland.

He claimed it was an act of self defense, necessary to protect German citizens and the territorial rights of Germany.

“Germans in Poland are persecuted with a bloody terror and are driven from their homes,” Hitler claimed, in a proclamation he issued that day. “The series of border violations, which are unbearable to a great power, prove that the Poles no longer are willing to respect the German frontier. In order to put an end to this frantic activity no other means is left to me now than to meet force with force.”

Nobody could know at the time that it was the beginning of what would become a horrific worldwide conflict in which 60 million people would die.

But many people who heard the ominous news recognized it as the start of something very bad.

One of them was British author and poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973).

It led him to write a poem reflecting his thoughts upon hearing the news that day.

He initially titled it “September: 1939.”

But the title was changed to “September 1, 1939” when it was first published in New Republic magazine on October 18, 1939.

One line in the poem became an oft-cited quotation: “We must love one another or die.”

It comes at the end of the next to last verse:

       “All I have is a voice
        To undo the folded lie,
        The romantic lie in the brain
        Of the sensual man-in-the-street
        And the lie of Authority
        Whose buildings grope the sky:
        There is no such thing as the State
        And no one exists alone;
        Hunger allows no choice
        To the citizen or the police;
        We must love one another or die.”

“September 1, 1939” is an eloquent condemnation of totalitarian governments and war; a plea for human empathy and peace.

Soon after being published, it became famous.

But Auden himself soon decided it was sappy and self-indulgent, calling it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written.”

In 1945, when a major collection of Auden’s was published, he insisted on cutting the entire stanza that ended with the “love one another” line. And, in the 1950s, he started refusing to let the poem be printed at all.

He did give special permission to include it in the 1955 edition of The New Pocket Anthology of American Verse. But he had the famous line changed, inserting the word and in place of or, so it read “We must love one another and die.”

He later said that the original line was “a damned lie! We must die anyway.”

Nonetheless, it was his original line that remained famous.

It was later recycled — infamously — during the 1964 presidential campaign, in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s 1964 TV attack ad against Barry Goldwater, called the Daisy ad.”

That pioneering negative ad was designed to scare the bejeesus out of voters by painting Goldwater as a dangerous warmonger who would be likely to start a nuclear war if he became president.

In it, a pretty little girl is shown in a field picking petals off a daisy and counting.

Suddenly, an announcer is heard giving a missile-style countdown, followed by shots of a nuclear bomb explosion and mushroom cloud and the voice of Lyndon Johnson saying: “These are the stakes — to make a world in which all of God's children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

At the end of the spot, the announcer says ominously: “Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd. The stakes are too high for you to stay home.”

The Daisy ad debuted on Labor Day evening, September 7, 1964, during NBC-TV’s showing of the movie David and Bathsheba.

It was so shocking and so negative for the time that it created a huge hubbub in the press and was only aired during the campaign that one time.

However, the point of the spot and the debate it helped stoke over whether Goldwater could be trusted to have his finger on the nuclear trigger benefited Johnson, who won the election in a landslide on November 3, 1964.

Auden was not a fan of Johnson, Goldwater or politicians in general. The political use of a version of his words “We must love one another or die” probably made him dislike the line even more.

Yet it remains his best-known bit of verse. And, the TV ad in which Lyndon Johnson spoke a version of it remains one of the most famous political commercials of all time.

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August 21, 2019

“Everybody loves a lover” (as Shakespeare never said)...


On July 21, 1958, a week after being released, Doris Day’s recording of the song “Everybody Loves a Lover” entered the Billboard Top 40.

The 45 RPM single, issued by Columbia Records, eventually reached #6 on both the CashBox and Billboard charts.

It was a last big charting hit in the US for Day and has remained one of her most popular songs.

The lyrics were written by veteran lyricist Richard Adler; the music by composer Robert Allen.

Adler and Allen had previously collaborated on the songs for the 1954 Broadway musical The Pajama Game, which was a huge success.

In 1957, Doris Day was tapped as the female lead for the movie adaptation, which was also highly successful.

After working on The Pajama Game, Day told Adler she was looking for a novelty song to record.

Adler’s marriage to his first wife, songwriter and playwright Marion Hart, had hit the rocks at the time — a fact that led, ironically, to the song he wrote for Day.

On a trip to Europe in 1957, he had been introduced to actress and singer Sally Ann Howes.

According to Adler, it was love at first sight.

On January 1, 1958, the same day his divorce from Marion was finalized, Adler married Sally Ann.

Marion was apparently furious and threatened to ruin Adler’s career by publicly attacking him as a philanderer in the news media.

In his 1990 autobiography, You Gotta Have Heart, Adler says he called his lawyer, Sidney Cohn, and expressed his concerns about her threat.

Cohn felt press coverage of Adler’s love for and marriage to Howes was unlikely to create a scandal that would hurt his songwriting career.

“Be happy,” he told Adler. You know what Shakespeare said. All the world loves a lover.”

Adler recalled thinking: “Shakespeare doesn’t know what Marion said. Still, I could relax now, think about the future, and get back to writing.”

When Doris Day approached him about writing a novelty song for her, he remembered the line Cohn had attributed to Shakespeare.

In fact, “All the world loves a lover” doesn’t appear in any of William Shakespeare’s works. Nor did he ever use the words “Everybody loves a lover.”

From what I can tell, the Shakespeare line that comes closest is in his play As You Like It. In Act 3, Scene 4, the character Rosalind says: “The sight of lovers feedeth those in love.”

Some people have attributed “Everybody loves a lover” to American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, probably because he did say something like it. In 1841, Emerson wrote in his essay “Love,” that “All mankind love a lover.”

However, it appears that Richard Adler deserves credit for creating the now proverbial formulation “Everybody loves a lover.”

The biography Doris Day: Sentimental Journey (2010) by Garry McGee says Adler remembered Cohn’s mistaken Shakespeare quote then “took the line, reworked the wording, and came up with lyrics that became ‘Everybody Loves a Lover.’ He met with composer Bob Allen and in a short time the two had a completed song, which they felt was a hit.”

They were right. The song was a hit for Day and was covered by a long list of other singers and bands.

My own favorite is the classic early rock version recorded by The Shirelles in 1962.

Adler’s use of “Everybody loves a lover” as both the title and the first line in the lyrics of what became a highly popular song also made those words a famous quotation, though most people don’t know who wrote them.

In case you want to queue up one of the many versions of song on YouTube and sing along, you can find the full lyrics on these sites.

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August 09, 2019

“Our long national nightmare is over.”



In August of 1974, faced with Congressional hearings, a mountain of bad press and the looming threat of impeachment over the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon became the first president in U.S. history to resign.

His official letter of resignation was delivered at 11:35 a.m. Eastern Time on August 9, 1974.

A half-hour later, Nixon’s Vice President Gerald Ford took the Presidential Oath and was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.

After the swearing-in ceremony, Ford gave a brief acceptance speech that was broadcast live on radio and television.

He acknowledged that he was taking office “under extraordinary circumstances” and urged Americans to “go forward now together.”

He then made a remark that became — and remains — a famous political quotation:       

      “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.”

Following that, Ford alluded to another famous political quote.

“Our Constitution works.” he said. “Our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men. Here the people rule.”

The phrase “a government of laws, and not of men” reflects a political idea that dates back as far as the ancient Greeks.

But it was enshrined in quotation history by John Adams in one of his Novanglus letters, published in the Boston Gazette in 1774.

Written anonymously under the pen name “Novanglus,” these letters argued that Great Britain’s treatment of American colonists violated their rights under British law.

In the seventh Novanglus letter, Adams wrote that “the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire...a government of laws, and not of men.”

By the 20th Century, British monarchs had virtually no real power.

In contrast, American presidents have many significant powers under the law.

One of them is the power to pardon criminals, both after or even — as Ford showed — before they are convicted.

On September 8, 1974, President Ford announced that he had granted Richard Nixon a “full, free, and absolute” pardon for any crimes he “has committed or may have committed” while president.

Since shortly after Donald Trump became president there has been speculation about whether he had committed crimes that could land him in jail after he leaves office or is forced out by impeachment.

Some political pundits have suggested that Vice President Mike Pence would pardon him if that happens or that Trump might even give himself a pardon.

Either way, whenever Trump does leaves office, those Americans who hate him — and those who are simply tired of the constant heated news coverage and arguments he generates — are likely to feel like another national nightmare is finally over.

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July 22, 2019

“Kill them all and let God sort them out.”



In 1209,
Pope Innocent III decided it was time to crack down on followers of a religious sect that had become popular in Southern France.

Originally called Albigensians, they came to be more widely known as the Cathars.

Cathars were Christians. But they rejected the authority of the Pope and other key aspects of Catholicism, so they were deemed heretics by the Catholic Church.

This apparently didn’t matter much to most people living in the French town of Beziers.

Catholics and Cathars had lived there together for many years in relative harmony.

On July 22, 1209, they were celebrating the annual Feast of Mary Magdalene together, a religious holiday observed by various Christian religions.

Suddenly, the festivities were cut short when an army of “Crusaders” sent by Pope Innocent III  showed up outside the walls of the town.

The military leader of the army was Simon de Montfort, a French nobleman highly motivated by the Pope’s promise that he could keep the land of any heretics he killed.

The Crusaders were accompanied by an official representative of the Pope, a French Cistercian monk named Arnaud Amalric (also variously referred to as Arnald Amalric and Arnauld-Amaury).

De Montfort demanded that the leaders of Beziers turn over the town’s Cathar heretics to him. They refused. The Crusaders attacked.

According to accounts written decades later, as the attack began, a soldier asked Amalric how they would be able to tell which Beziers townspeople were Catholics and which were Cathars.

Amalric supposedly answered (in French):

       “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.”

Some sources give the alleged quote as “Kill them all, for the Lord knows his own” or as “Kill them all. The Lord knows his own.”

It eventually came to be most commonly paraphrased as:

       “Kill them all and let God sort them out.”

Scholars have debated whether Almaric actually said anything like those words.

But there’s no question that they reflect what happened that day.

De Montfort’s army killed virtually every man, woman and child in the town — estimated to be as many as 20,000 people — and burned Beziers to the ground.

The Beziers Massacre was just one of the first of many atrocities that occurred during the Albigensian Crusades.

Over the next four decades, roughly a million more people were killed during those bloody religious conflicts.

Amalric’s infamous quotation was updated during the Vietnam War, when the saying “Kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out” became popular among American Special Forces troops.

That “witticism” was put on unofficial Special Forces military patches, pins and t-shirts that are now sold as “collectibles” on eBay.

More recently, American troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan updated the saying again in the form: “Kill ‘em all. Let Allah sort ‘em out.”

T-shirts and bumper stickers using this newer variation are sold on various Internet sites.

It’s disconcerting that anyone can blithely talk about killing innocent people and letting them be “sorted out” later.

But as they used to say in ‘Nam — there it is.

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July 15, 2019

Jimmy Carter’s “Malaise Speech” (which didn’t include the word ‘malaise’)...

On the night of July 15, 1979, in the midst of his third year as president, Jimmy Carter gave a televised speech from the White House that is often called his “Malaise Speech.”

Malaise is a French word meaning a feeling of uneasiness or discomfort, adopted into English long ago.

It definitely fit the timing of Carter’s speech. In 1979, most Americans were very unhappy about an energy crisis that had caused huge lines at gas pumps, spiraling inflation and a high unemployment rate.

Rightly or wrongly, Americans tended to blame the president for those problems.

Polls showed that voter approval of Carter had sunk to 30% — lower than the worst rating of any recent President except Richard M. Nixon or Harry S. Truman.

Carter decided to try to address the country’s energy and economic problems and voter attitudes toward him in a speech that was intended to be part inspiring pep talk and part grand vision. (The full speech is online here.)

Foreshadowing Bill Clinton, Carter said he was a president who “feels your pain.” He also acknowledged voters’ unhappiness.

In the policy part of the speech, he said he was setting a goal of cutting America’s dependence on foreign oil in half over the next ten years by increasing the use of domestic energy sources. And, although he did mention increasing energy conservation and solar power, his primary “solutions” would probably be viewed as shocking by today’s progressive Democrats.

He argued that America needed to increase the use of energy from US sources of coal, oil shale, and gasohol. He said he would ask Congress “to require as a matter of law, that our nation’s utility companies cut their massive use of oil by 50 percent within the next decade and switch to other fuels, especially coal, our most abundant energy source.”

Much of the rest of the president's speech was preachy and meandering. He said it was “clear that the true problems of our nation are much deeper — deeper than gasoline lines or energy shortages, deeper even than inflation or recession.”

Carter cited the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, America’s defeat in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal as some of the reasons Americans were suffering from what he called “a crisis of confidence.”

“It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will,” Carter said. “We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation.”

His rhetoric about how to deal with that “crisis” sounds almost Trump-like. He noted some of the great accomplishments of America’s past, then said what was needed was “the restoration of American values.”

Carter ended his speech with words he undoubtedly hoped would be uplifting, memorable and quotable.

“Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country,” he urged. “With God’s help and for the sake of our Nation, it is time for us to join hands in America. Let us commit ourselves together to a rebirth of the American spirit. Working together with our common faith we cannot fail.”

Unfortunately for Carter, the speech was an epic fail, a widely-panned downer that seemed to blame Americans for causing the country’s problems by having bad attitudes.

However, nowhere in the speech did he use the word malaise.

So, why is it called the “Malaise Speech”?

Carter laid the groundwork for that in an address he gave in Bardstown, Kentucky two-and-a-half weeks later, on July 31. It was essentially a campaign appearance since, at the time, he was running for reelection against former California Governor Ronald Reagan.

In his opening remarks in Bardstown, Carter referred to the July 15 TV speech, saying:

“I thought a lot about our nation and what I should do as president and Sunday night before last I made a speech about two problems of our country — energy and malaise.”

For some reason, the term malaise and the phrase “national malaise” had been floating around in 1979, even before Carter made his remarks on July 31.

For example, in a widely-read article published in the June 1979 issue of The Futurist, Herman Kahn, Director of the Hudson Institute think tank and his colleague John Phelps, warned that the US and other “advanced nations” were facing “a period of malaise” marked by slow economic growth and social clashes.

On July 12, three days before Carter’s televised speech, political pundit and language maven William Safire predicted in an essay in the New York Times that President Carter “will try to transfer the wide dissatisfaction with his own performance into a ‘national malaise.’”

When Carter himself described his July 15 address as a speech “about…malaise,” Republicans pounced on it. It was an egg-heady, foreign word and the speech seemed like a criticism of the American people.

Reagan and other Republicans began using the word derisively and suggested that Carter was wrongly trying to blame Americans for the problems caused by his failure as a president.

Reagan played the malaise card throughout 1979 and 1980. He used it to paint Carter as a snooty critic of America and working class Americans and to make himself seem like their defender.

“There is nothing wrong with the people of this country,” he said in a typical attack on Carter in 1980. “There’s no malaise.”

The “great malaise debate” helped seal Reagan’s victory in the November 1980 presidential election, which he won by a landslide.

It was so effective that he kept using it when he ran against Carter’s former Vice President Walter Mondale, during the campaign leading up to the November 1984 presidential election.

In 1983, Reagan started mocking Mondale by calling him “former Vice President Malaise.” He warned that electing Mondale would mean a return to the type of economic problems experienced during Carter’s presidency.

On election day, Reagan crushed Mondale in another landslide victory.

Today, most people don’t remember or are too young to know about “the great malaise debate.” And, many of those who do know about it think Carter used the word malaise in his July 15 speech.

He didn’t. But because, shortly thereafter, he described it as a speech “about…malaise,” he gave Republicans a term and a theme that helped Ronald Reagan win two presidential elections.

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