Who Said...
October 10, 2007 12:37 PM   Subscribe

"Never apologize; never explain." Who said it first? And in reference to what?
posted by BClady to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The generally reliable though not infallible Bartlett's Familiar Quotations gives the source as the screenplay for the 1949 film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, written by Frank S. Nugent and Laurence Stallings. The line is spoken by John Wayne and the exact quote reads, "Never apologize and never explain--it's a sign of weakness." In a footnote, Bartletts' gives an earlier source, with a variant form: "Never contradict. Never explain. Never apologize. (Those are the secrets of a happy life!)." --John Arbuthnot Fisher (1841-1920), letter to The Times of London, September 5, 1919.
posted by azure_swing at 12:58 PM on October 10, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Fantastic. Thanks, azure.
posted by BClady at 1:03 PM on October 10, 2007

From p. 149 of Mea Culpa: A Sociology of Apology and Reconciliation by Nicholas Tavuchis:
Although this mot has been attributed to both Gertrude Stein and Benjamin Jowett, I have been unable to establish its source or authorship after consulting several standard reference works. Like most aphorisms whose philosophical premises are muted by brevity, this one may be interpreted in more than one way. For example, it could be taken as a mandate for hubristic behavior or as a profession of pessimism and futility about the possibility of accurate communication between human beings... In the same vein, PG Wodehouse at least provides us with a testable sociological rationale for total abstention: “It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort of people take a mean advantage of them.”
posted by languagehat at 1:19 PM on October 10, 2007

Best answer: Has to be earlier than She Wore a Yellow Ribbon; Edmund Wilson wrote a piece called "'Never Apologize, Never Explain': The Art of Evelyn Waugh" in The New Yorker of March 4, 1944. Aha, and the essay is in a collection that's on Google Books: "He exemplifies, like so many of his characters, the great precept of Benjamin Jowett to young Englishmen just starting their careers: 'Never apologize, never explain.'" Which sends us to Jowett, and googling turns up Peace and Quiet: A Novel (1916) by Edwin Milton Royle, where we find "Old Dr. Jowett, of Oxford, said: 'Never apologize, never explain. Get it over with and let them howl,' which was good advice." So even if we can't find it in an actual Jowett text, we've antedated it to 1916, which is pretty good!

Heh, the novel was turned into a play that same year, which the NY Times mentioned on June 20: "President Wilson, who has devoted nearly all his time for several days to the Mexican situation, tonight attended the opening performance of a play, "Peace and Quiet" by Edwin Milton Royle, based almost entirely on his handling of the question. The audience applauded him when he entered, and clapped frequently during the performance when his name occurred in the lines of the play." Gotta love the opening of the Times archives!
posted by languagehat at 1:51 PM on October 10, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thanks, languagehat, for the extra digging. Believe it or not, I've actually read the Wilson essay (within the last year) but it had completely slipped out of the brain when I posted the BFQ reference.
posted by azure_swing at 2:12 PM on October 10, 2007

Response by poster: And even more delicious background. Nice.
posted by BClady at 2:21 PM on October 10, 2007

Possible original source: From Brewer's Famous Quotations, "according to an article in the Oxford Chronicle (7 October 1893), a favorite piece of advice given to young men by Benjamin Jowett... was 'Never regret, never explain, never apologize'."
posted by ormondsacker at 3:46 PM on October 10, 2007

Also noted here. Jowett had died six days before the article appeared.
posted by ormondsacker at 4:06 PM on October 10, 2007

I've also heard it attributed to Nellie McClung, early 20th century Canadian suffragist. If you Google "never apologize McClung quote" you'll get quite a few references to it - including this one:

"Never retreat, never explain, never apologize—get the thing done and let them howl." - Nellie McClung
Source: Colombo, John Robert, ed.. New Canadian Quotations. Edmonton: Hurtig, 1987, p. 2 - from the Calgary Public Library page.

Hope that helps - although it's hard to beat Barlett's...
posted by rmm at 10:15 PM on October 10, 2007

I thought it was "Never complain; never explain." Which the Internet attributes to Benjamin Disraeli.

I've always thought of it as advice for soldiers in basic training.
posted by cda at 5:54 AM on October 11, 2007

I saw "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" last year, and was amazed when John Wayne said "Never apologize, it's a sign of weakness" because it's what my dad always says.

So I think the source of "never apologize, never explain" is elsewhere.
posted by Rash at 10:29 AM on October 11, 2007

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