October 01, 2022

“Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.”

The most famous line used by American humorist
Will Rogers when he poked fun at the latest antics of politicians or commented on other recent news stories was “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.” 

Many books and websites cite the September 30, 1923 edition of The New York Times as the source of this quip. It did appear on that date in a newspaper column Rogers wrote and it is certainly his most famous use in print.

However, Rogers actually began using the quip years earlier in his live stage performances.

It gained initial fame when he used line — and variations of it — during his appearances in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic shows in the fall of 1915.

In those live stage performances, Rogers would stand on the stage dressed in his cowboy outfit, leisurely twirling a lariat, while he talked about stories he’d seen in the news.

He typically started his Midnight Frolic monologues by saying something like:

       “Well, what shall I talk about? I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers.”

Of course, just about everything he said after that was funny.

In December of 1922, Rogers began writing a weekly column for the McNuaght Syndicate titled “Slipping the Lariat Over.”

It was published in The New York Times and eventually in 600 other daily and weekly newspapers.

Rogers’ column was like a written version of his stage show monologues. He would note recent items in the news, then make slyly witty remarks about them. His first use of the “all I know...” catchphrase in “Slipping the Lariat Over” was in his  September 30, 1923 column — which is why that date is cited by so many books and websites.

In that week’s column, Rogers commented on news stories which had speculated that a recent earthquake in Japan was the cause of an accidental grounding of U.S. Navy ships near New York City and various other unusual events.

Rogers wrote in his usual dry, folksy manner:

     “Well, all I know is what I read in the Papers. That Japanese Earthquake, in addition to being the greatest calamity in the history of the World, even at the time that it happened, has, according to Newspapers and Experts, not reaped half of its destruction yet. Every day something happens and we don’t know exactly just what it is, and it will turn out in the Morning Paper to be the Earthquake in Japan that caused it.
       We lost 7 Self Destroyers on the rocks just above here the other day. People thought at first that it might have been a Fog, but it wasn’t; it was the earthquake in Japan.”

Later in that column Rogers humorously praised fighter Luis Firpo for not blaming his defeat in a recent boxing match on the earthquake in Japan.

He added:

     “I read where Will Hays went to Europe with Ambassador Harvey [the US ambassador to Great Britain]. Now I don’t know if that was Politics or the Earthquake — either one is equally destructive.”

Rogers went on to use “all I know is what I read in the papers,” with minor variations, in many following “Slipping the Lariat Over” columns.

His column was hugely popular and he continued writing it until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935.

Rogers once said about the success of his newspaper column:

     “When I first started out to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant. But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.”

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September 19, 2022

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

In many books of quotations and on thousands of websites H.L. Mencken is credited with the famous quote “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

Most sources fail to mention that this “quote” by “The Sage of Baltimore” is actually the traditional paraphrase of what Mencken actually wrote — not a true quote.

It’s based on something the acerbic journalist, editor and social critic said in his column in the September 18, 1926 edition of Baltimore’s major daily newspaper, The Sun.

Mencken’s column was syndicated and published in many other newspapers after appearing in The Sun. The next day, September 19, 1926, it appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune and other newspapers around the country.

Mencken titled that entry in his column “Notes on Journalism.”

His topic was a recent trend in the American newspaper business: “tabloid newspapers” that were geared toward uneducated readers, including those Mencken described as “near-illiterates.”

Mencken noted that tabloids had several advantages over traditional daily newspapers like The Baltimore Sun.

They were lighter and less bulky than daily newspapers, which had “two or three sections and weigh a pound or more.”

Thus, in addition to being less formal and easier to read than most dailies, tabloids could be “distributed much more quickly than the larger papers.”

“A boy on a motorcycle,” Mencken wrote, “can carry a hundred copies of even the bulkiest of them to a remote junction in ten or twenty minutes, but the old style papers have to go by truck, which is slower.”

In his usual dry way, Mencken also poked fun at the idea that most people wanted the content of newspapers to be more substantive and intellectual than what tabloids typically offered.

He opined that when a tabloid became successful the owner often tried to make it more respectable and “reach out for customers of a higher sophistication.”

Mencken said that was a mistake and, near the end of column, summed up why by writing the words that were later turned into the shorter famous “quote” about underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

His actual words were:

“No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Over time, this longer quote came to be paraphrased and misquoted, most commonly in the form “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

In the column, Mencken continued his thoughts about the public’s choices in reading matter and politicians by adding:

“The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.”

Looking around at the media and political landscape today, Mencken’s opinion might be deemed more prescient than ever.

Editor’s note: Thanks to reader James C. Morrison Jr. for the note clarifying publication dates of Mencken’s “Notes on Journalism” column!

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September 01, 2022

“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 16, 2022

The story behind the phrase “The Year of Living Dangerously”

The Year of Living Dangerously book & movie 01

Google has a cool tool for researchers of words and phrases (including quotations) called the Ngram Viewer.

It graphs the occurrence of a word or phrase in books published between the years 1500 and 2008.

If you do an Ngram search for the phrase “the year of living dangerously,” you’ll see a huge, continuing spike starting in the early 1980s.

That’s because it gained major worldwide popularity with the release of the ‘80s film The Year of Living Dangerously.

The movie, directed by Australian filmmaker Peter Weir, first debuted in Australia on December 17, 1982.

It was initially given a limited released in the United States on January 21, 1983, then released nationwide here on February 18, 1983.

The Year of Living Dangerously is one of my own favorite romantic adventure films.

It stars Mel Gibson (back when he was still cool and hot), Sigourney Weaver (who is still cool and hot) and Linda Hunt, in her breakthrough, Oscar-winning role as a man.

Depsite how much I liked it then and now, The Year of Living Dangerously was only a modest hit at the box office. (It grossed a mere $10.3 million during it’s run in U.S. theaters.)

However, the movie’s title became a huge linguistic hit as a catchphrase that has become embedded in our language and spawned many variations.

Indeed, if you Google “the year of living *” -dangerously (using Boolean search techniques to look for versions of the phrase that don’t include the word dangerously), you’ll see thousands of different variations.

A few examples include:

Although the movie made “the year of living dangerously a widely-known catchphrase, it’s not the origin.

Nor is the 1978 novel The Year of Living Dangerously by Christopher J. Koch, which the film version is based on.

The setting for the book and movie is Jakarta, Indonesia during the chaotic period that led to the overthrow of the country’s long-time dictator, President Sukarno.

Author Koch took his title from a speech Sukarno made in 1964.

The President had a custom of giving a special name to each year in his annual “National Day” speech.

In the National Day speech he gave on August 17, 1964, Sukarno named the upcoming year “the year of living dangerously.”

This reflected the challenges he knew he faced from his political enemies, who included both hard-line Communists and radical Muslims.

The multilingual leader’s name for the year was based partly on an old Italian phrase he was familiar with — “vivere pericoloso” (“living dangerously”).

Although Sukarno gave the speech in the Indonesian language, he inserted those Italian words after the Indonesian word for year, tahun, to create the name.

The year ahead, he said, would be the “Tahun vivere pericoloso.”

The Google Ngram for “the year of living dangerously” suggests that it first appeared in English-language books around the time Sukarno gave his 1964 National Day address.

Some sources credit him with coining it and, based on what I know at this point, I think he probably did.

Either way, his choice of the name for the coming year certainly turned out to be prophetic.

In September of 1965, a bloody coup began that led to his overthrow.

Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were killed in the power struggle. Sukarno survived and was allowed to live out the rest of his days under “house arrest,” until his death in Jakarta on June 21, 1970.

His phrase “the year of living dangerously” and its numerous linguistic offspring live on.

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August 13, 2022

“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.

So, Madame Cornuel’s letter is not the origin of the quip about valets. She was using a version of an existing proverb and her line was misquoted in English to fit the saying.

So... Je suis désolé, 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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