Arts & Culture

You can quote them

You can't be too rich or too thin.

Yale law librarian Fred R. Shapiro is the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations.

Photo Illustration: John Paul Chirdon

Photo Illustration: John Paul Chirdon

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In the Yale Book of Quotations, I sought to bring a new kind of research to the quotations field by questioning all received wisdom about the origins of quotations. I have tried to get to the bottom of the years of quoting and requoting, attributing and misattributing, by making use of state-of-the-art online resources and extensive networks of researchers around the world. This enterprise did not stop with the publication of the book. Every week brings new discoveries and information from readers. Below, and in the next few installments of this column, I present some of the post-publication revelations.

"Too rich or too thin"
In my book, I attributed "You can't be too rich or too thin" to Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, because the earliest evidence I found was a 1970 newspaper article crediting her. The duchess was the cause of King Edward VIII's abdication. Her own life was devoted to being, well, too rich and too thin.

Recently, further searching yielded a 1969 Los Angeles Times article quoting socialite Babe Paley: "A woman can never be too rich or too thin." (Babe's father was Yale professor Harvey Cushing, Class of 1891, the pioneer of neurosurgery.) Paley thus takes priority over the duchess as a possible coiner.

But an older article, published October 15, 1967, in the Chicago Tribune, puts both attributions in doubt - though it provides no alternative: "'A woman can never be too rich or too thin,' said one of the Beautiful People as reported by Suzy Knickerbocker last spring." Knickerbocker (pseudonym of Aileen Mehle) was a columnist for the New York Daily News; I have not so far found her original column.

"The butler did it"
The quintessential solution of all mystery stories is usually traced to Mary Roberts Rinehart's 1930 novel, The Door. The phrase does not appear in that book, but the guilty party is the butler. In researching the YBQ, the earliest occurrence I found (Kansas City Star, March 30, 1930) referred to Rinehart.

But I have now found a usage in the Charleston (West Virginia) Daily Mail of October 26, 1929 - too early for The Door to be the model. And a comic novel of 1922 suggests the phrase was already a cliche, and a joke, by then. In Jiminy, a Gothic spoof by Gilbert Wolf Gabriel, the title character and her husband write their landlord to ask about the decor of a cottage. He replies that a former employee handled it. "'He knows nothing -,' gasped Jiminy," and her husband says, "His ex-butler did it!"

"A dark and stormy night"

One of the pastimes of Charles M. Schulz's Snoopy was sitting on top of his doghouse typing a novel, always with the first line "It was a dark and stormy night." These are the opening words of an 1830 novel, Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (commemorated annually in the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest for the most memorably bad first sentence of an imaginary novel).

Now, however, etymologist Barry Popik has found new information. On the listserv of the American Dialect Society, Popik explained: "It appears that 'it was a dark and stormy night in winter' was the standard start to a story in the 1820s. . . . The oft-reprinted Dutch short tale, 'Jan Schalken's Three Wishes,' dates before 1830 and seems to have popularized 'dark and stormy night.'" The earliest use Popik located was a story in the Saturday Magazine, June 20, 1822.

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