Chapter & Verse

A correspondence corner for not-so-lost words

Alon Ferency requests the source of a quotation that runs, roughly, “Oh life! That we would die a little each day, rather than live all at once.”


Edward Lowry wonders if someone can outperform Google by providing a precise source for “No man is safe in his life, liberty, and property while the Legislature is in session.” He has seen the statement attributed to both Twain and Tocqueville, and notes that the remark was quoted with approval, but without attribution, by a New York State probate judge: Estate of A.B., 1Tucker 249 (N.Y. Surrogate, 1866).


Frank Slaninger hopes to learn who first said, “Never attribute to mendacity what is sufficiently explained by stupidity,” and if this version of the remark preceded or followed the variant that uses “malice” instead of “mendacity.”


William Bayliss would like the title of a short poem, possibly by Goethe, about the heights of joy and depths of sorrow that uses the image of a swing to suggest that the higher one soars, the greater the depth one sinks to on return.


Peter Pullman asks if anyone can identify original sources—perhaps “from various bad poems that composer-pianist Earl ‘Bud’ Powell had to memorize in primary school”—for Powell’s lyric “The Great Awakening.” What may be its earliest version, found among the papers of fellow musician Mary Lou Williams, runs: “I was sitting in the Garden one late afternoon/And out of the sky a feather fell!/And not a moment to[sic] soon./I didn’t stop to regard from what source it came/I only know it lifted me from out of the depths of shame./You see, I never really lived/All I’ve done was exist/For all the joy I’ve ever known, was from a knife, a gun, or fist./I came up the hard way, that is, the boys, a drink, and a broad/But from this moment hence,/I’m drawing my sword./ And I’m going to cut the weed of temptation, before it entangles me./And live the way God intended/This short but sweet life to be./Oh, but there’s one thing I’ve not cleared up, and that’s the missing link/From whence the feather came has started me to think./And as I looked up at God’s creation/A school of pigeons flew by./It was then I knew where it came from/God had used a spy.”


“Miss Diana Dingy” (January-February). André Mayer notes that “dingy” or “dinge” was long a slang term for a person of color, and that “Diana” is “likely a classicized version of the biblical ‘Dinah,’ a stereotypical servant’s name (as in ‘Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah’). Thus the name identifies her as a woman of [Job Jerryson’s] own race and station in life; the honorific ‘Miss’ and somewhat high-flown language of the rest of the quotation, together with Jerryson’s claim to be the manager of a theatrical troupe, are all signs of social and cultural pretensions no doubt intended to amuse” an audience.


Send inquiries and answers to “Chapter and Verse,” Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138.


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