Roald Dahl? Willy Wonka? Gene Wilder? Horace? Lord Byron? Horace Walpole? Hudibras? Samuel Butler? Anonymous?
Grandpa Joe: It’s an educated eggdicator.Henry Salt: It’s a lot of nonsense.Willy Wonka: A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.
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Would you please trace this saying?
Quote Investigator: The popular English author Roald Dahl published the children’s book “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” in 1964. Dahl also wrote the screenplay for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” based on his book. The line spoken by Wonka in the movie is not in the 1964 book, but Dahl included it in the 1972 sequel called “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”.
The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the newspaper “The New-York Mirror” in 1823. The reviewer of a new melodrama called “Undine, or the Spirit of the Waters” did not consider it a serious work, but he enjoyed it and recommended it. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
As a drama, it is not of the family of legitimates; but what then, who has not experienced the truth of that good old couplet, that
“A little nonsense, now and then, Is relished by the wisest men!”
The reviewer disclaimed credit for the expression by labelling it an “old couplet”; hence, earlier citations probably exist. Nevertheless, quotation expert Nigel Rees deserves kudos for placing this valuable instance in his compilation “The Best Guide to Humorous Quotations”. 3
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The famous Roman lyric poet Horace who died in 8 BC included thematically germane lines in the fourth book of his Odes. Here is an English translation: 4
Misce stultitiam consiliis brevem:Dulce est desipere in loco.
Mingle a little folly with your wisdom; a little nonsense now and then is pleasant.
Horace. Carmina. Bk. iv. Ode 12, 1. 27.
In 1744 the well-known English literary figure Horace Walpole wrote a letter containing a thematically similar remark: 5
A careless song, with a little nonsense in it now and then, does not misbecome a monarch; but to pen manifestos worse than the lowest commis that is kept jointly by two or three Margraves, is insufferable!
In 1804 “The European Magazine and London Review” printed a thematically comparable statement: 6
That wisdom should be the predominating principle of our actions is universally admitted; but I have some doubts that, formed as we are, a little folly, now and then, is indispensably necessary. Many of our enjoyments, indeed, depend upon it.
In 1823 the quotation was printed in “The New-York Mirror” as mentioned previously. In 1832 the couplet appeared again in the same periodical within a collection of miscellany. No attribution was given: 7
A little nonsense, now and then, Is relished by the wisest men.
In 1839 an exactly matching couplet appeared in the London periodical “Cleave’s Penny Gazette of Variety and Amusement” within a column with the following title: 8
Whims and Waggeries of Brother Jonathan!
Also in 1839 the couplet appeared in the London newspaper “The Champion and Weekly Herald” within a column titled: 9
WHIMS AND ODDITIES OF JONATHAN.
In 1842 a newspaper in Charlotte, North Carolina printed a variant using the word “folly” instead of “nonsense”. The saying appeared in an article describing a newly launched periodical: 10
Nor, sinceA little folly now and then, Is relished by the wisest men,do they intend to exclude those lighter articles of information, familiarly designated the chit chat of the day. . .
In 1853 “A Cyclopaedia of Poetical Quotations: Consisting of Choice Passages from the Poets of Every Age and Country” implausible ascribed a variant couplet using the phrase “best of men” instead of “wisest men” to Lord Byron. QI has found no substantive support for this attribution: 11
A little nonsense now and then Is relished by the best of men. Byron.
In 1868 the very popular collection of “Familiar Quotations” assembled by John Bartlett included the couplet in a supplement section at the end of the book. Bartlett was unable to identify the creator of the saying: 12
A little nonsense now and then Is relished by the wisest men. Anon.
In 1883 the couplet was used in a speech delivered at a meeting of the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture. The speaker stated that the words were from “Hudibras”, a mock heroic poem by Samuel Butler that was published in 1684, but QI has found no substantive support for this ascription: 13
All this proved the poetic aphorism of Hudibras: “A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the best of men.” Also that fun and farming are not incompatible.
In 1891 “The Illustrated American” printed a variant that used a different word order: 14
If it be true that the wisest men relish a little folly now and then, surely at no period can they relish it more than at this holiday season, when it is the part of the graybeard sage to become even as a little child.
In 1971 the titular character in the movie “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” employed the expression as noted previously. In 1972 Roald Dahl published “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator” which was a sequel to his beloved 1964 book. Dahl included the saying: 15
“I have never met a man,” said Grandma Georgina, “who talks so much absolute nonsense!”“A little nonsense now and then, is relished by the wisest men,” Mr. Wonka said.
In conclusion, Roald Dahl helped to popularize the expression in modern times by including it in his 1971 screenplay and his 1972 book, but it has a long history. An interesting precursor was composed in ancient Rome by the poet Horace. The earliest exact instance known to QI was printed in a New York newspaper in 1823. At that time the expression was described as old, and the creator was anonymous. Lord Byron and Samuel Butler have received credit for more than one hundred years but these ascriptions are unsupported.
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Image Notes: Reduced-size, low-resolution images of a movie poster for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and a book cover of “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”. Portrait of Roald Dahl by Carl Van Vechten accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to illustrator Laura Stitzel whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. She told QI about the instance in the movie and the linkage to “Hudibras”.)