Who said this?
February 9, 2011 5:26 PM   Subscribe

Who really said "You can't do anything about the length of your life, but you can do something about its width and depth." The quote seems to be attributed to 3 different people: H. L. Mencken, Evan Esar and Shira Tehrani. Bonus points if you can tell me when, where and why they said it.
posted by someonesomewhere to Grab Bag (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
That is so not something H.L. Mencken would say. H.L. Mencken was an incredibly cynical bastard who hated everybody.

My money is on Evan Esar, whose entire stock in trade was that kind of "drive on the parkway/park on the driveway" wordplay (yes, he predated George Carlin). If you've never seen Esar's books, they're giant bundles of little jokes of that ilk, some of them plagiarized from other people of his era, some of them quoted from people like Winston Churchill with attribution, others presumably original.

I have no idea who Shira Tehrani is or was; Google tells me that he or she seems to have had just about every famous quotation ever attributed to him or her, but doesn't enlighten me as to his or her identity.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:37 PM on February 9, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is it this quote? (from our refrigerator magnet)

"Don't just live the length of your life, live the width of it as well" (Diane Ackerman)
posted by desjardins at 5:46 PM on February 9, 2011

From Google Books, here is a citation from 1924 in The Stonecutters' Journal, a union periodical, where it appears as part of a larger snippet:
You Cannot Control --
The length of your life, but you can control its width and depth.
The contour of your countenance, but you can control its expression.
The other fellow's opportunities, but you can grasp your own.
The weather, but you can control the moral atmosphere which surrounds you.
The distance that your head shall be above the ground, but you can control the height of the contents of your head.
The amount of your income entirely, but the management of your expenditures is althogether in your own hands.
The other fellow's annoying faults, but you can see to it that you yourself do not develop or harbor provoking propensities.
"Hard times" or "rainy days" but you can bank money now to boost you through both.
Why worry about things you can't control? Get busy controlling the things you can.
Of course, it appears unsigned. Scanning through more results in Google Books seems to indicate that this exact snippet made the rounds through various union periodicals (Seamen's Journal, Machinists' Monthly Journal, etc..).
posted by mhum at 11:07 PM on February 9, 2011 [1 favorite]

Further poking around in Google Books finds this occurrence in a book from 2007 where it is called a "poem published in the Highway of Happiness". Tantalizingly, Google has made available one page of the bibliography available, but it doesn't contain an entry for Highway of Happiness. Is it a book? A magazine?

More googling finds this occurrence in Forbes magazine, allegedly in Volume 66 (I say allegedly because I've heard that Google Books is not always great about getting the volume/issue numbers right). If you look real hard, you can see that the phrase "Highways of Happiness" is cut off (note the "s" in "Highways"). Yet more googling seems to indicate that Volume 66 of Forbes magazine might be from 1950.
posted by mhum at 11:40 PM on February 9, 2011

According to Worldcat, Highways of Happiness was a periodical of some sort. The earliest issues I've found date to the 1930s. For some reason, the author/publisher is listed as either Utah Pipe and Steel Company or Thompson Pipe & Steel Company. Amusingly, it is possibly subheaded as "A Cheeriodical". I can't find any particularly useful information about it.
posted by mhum at 11:56 PM on February 9, 2011

It's too trite and too optimistic for Mencken. Also, Mencken's language tended to be more ornate: both the "you" and and the "can't" seem unlikely, as do the flabby words "anything" and "something". Mencken would have been more "A man cannot ..."
posted by orthogonality at 12:46 AM on February 10, 2011

Did whoever they said it to politely point out that you can control the length of your life?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:12 PM on February 12, 2011

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