Quotes Uncovered: Who First Said "If You Can't Beat Em … "


Each week, I’ve been inviting readers to submit quotations for which they want me to try to trace the origin, using The Yale Book of Quotations and my own research. Here is the latest round:

Josh asked:

If you can’t beat them, join them.

The Yale Book of Quotations, which attempts to trace all famous quotations to their earliest findable occurrence, lists this as a proverb. The earliest citation given, in the form “If you can’t lick ’em, jine ’em,” is from the Atlantic Monthly, February 1932, where it is described as one of Senator James E. Watson‘s “favorite sayings.”

Hayley Lauren asked:

I have been trying to find the roots of this quote, and if this is its original form:

“There have only ever been four or five stories in this world, we just tell them in different forms.”

This thought has probably been expressed by many people. The best-known version is from Willa Cather, O Pioneers! (1913): “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

John asked:

I remember seeing a phrase a long time ago that went something along the lines of “If it were not for women, all the money in the world would be worthless.” Just curious if I am remembering it correctly and who said it.

The YBQ has the following:

“If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning.” Aristotle Onassis, quoted in Barbara Rowes, The Book of Quotes (1979).

Next week: My long-awaited response to questions about the origin of “the whole nine yards”!

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?


“There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”

Hm. I recall hearing that there are only seven topics of conversation -- and two of them play for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Trevor L

"Up the creek without a paddle"


"Sacred Cows make the best hamburgers."

Jared C. Bernstein

This is a useful service; I can't beat it, so I'll join it.

How about "The most practical thing is the world is a good theory"? I 've heard it attributed to Wm. James and Lord Kelvin, but I haven't found any citation.


The book, "A Whack on the Side of the Head" by Roger von Oech credits "Sacred Cows make the best steaks," to Richard Nicolosi. It doesn't list a source, and I don't know when Nicolosi used it or whether he was first.

Dan M.

"God watches over drunks and little children."

Kristie C-B

As slow as molasses in January

Derek N.

I would like to know the origin of "bite the dust" or "to bite the dust" - you know, as in, "....another one bites the dust....."



I always thought that was mole asses in January. . .


I'd like to know who these 4 men were.
John, as in commode.
Jack, as in Jack of all trades.
Jerry, as in Jerry-rig.
And most importantly:
Josh, as in just Joshing.


"He who sacrifices liberty to obtain safety deserves neither." Usually attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but I've seen it in so many different phrasings that I'm wondering what the original (and the original context) is.

Lisa McElroy

I would like to know the provenance of the quote, "There is no justice. There is only the law." I have heard that it was said by Oliver Wendell Holmes, but I can't find any confirmation of that.


I've always wondered about the origins (and even the exact meaning) of the phrase "red headed stepchild" as in "beaten like a red headed stepchild"



Socrates quote "Children today are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers" People keep quoting it, and it shows up in dictionaries of quotes, but no one seems to cite the original source.

Roger von Oech

Jim in comment #5 says:

The book, “A Whack on the Side of the Head” by Roger von Oech credits “Sacred Cows make the best steaks,” to Richard Nicolosi.

I'm the author of that book. in June 1985, Dick Nicolosi (then a VP at Proctor & Gamble) made that comment to me in a meeting prior to a creativity seminar I did for his group in Cincy. I immediately wrote it down, and told Dick that it had the "ring of truth." He said, "Feel free to use it in one of your books!"

Roger von Oech


Go you must.
No guest shall stay
in one place for ever.
Love will be lost
if you sit too long
at a friend's fire.


"How you like them apples?"

Jim Frierson

Origins of "the real McCoy" and "high falutin."

The Delta Queen's onboard historian tells us these expressions can be traced to the steamboat era.


I have one which is commonly used in Australia. "Horses for courses".


"Trust is good, control is better"

I have heard it attributed to Reagan, Lenin and Stalin.