Assuming Oscar Said It

Oscar Wilde

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

–Dorothy Parker

Wilde’s sayings – aphorisms, epigrams – are seen and heard everywhere; but how many of these are genuine?

On this page, we list the probable and improbable attributions, seek their origins, and encourage readers to join the game.

‘Bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy’

  • This is a relative newcomer, attributed to Wilde but, as usual, without source.  It seems to me more likely to be dreived from one of the ‘laws’ formulated by C. Northcote Parkinson in Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress (London, John Murray, 1958). — D.C.R.

[Posted 26.vii.2020]

‘Beauty is in the eye of the gazer’: An Aphorism in Jane Eyre

IN Book II, Ch. II of Jane Eyre, the narrator remarks ‘Most true it is that “beauty is in the eye of the gazer” ’1, her inverted commas implying that she makes no claim to the originality of the sentiment, and that the commonplace has done the rounds (‘Most true it is’ approximates the force of ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’). The idea of aesthetic relativity goes back at least as far as Hume—‘Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them’2—but Brontë offers a more frankly sensuous paraphrase, and is more pithily memorable. In the natural sciences, credit always accrues to the person who first reports (as opposed to merely observing) phenomena—one reason why Linnaean nomenclature is always undergoing revision, and Brontosauruses must yield to the Apatosauruses, no matter how long established in the popular mind. It occurs to me that a similar convention should obtain in literature, and credit be given to the person who first captures a widely disseminated aphorism in print. Although my consultations haven’t been exhaustive, all the dictionaries of quotations that I’ve looked at give this credit to Margaret Hungerford, who wrote ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ in Molly Bawn (1878). There is, however, a different and earlier registrar of the commonplace: Jane Eyre, after all, was published in 1847.


Yasmin Wooldridge writes:


  1. ‘Be yourself, everyone is already taken’ (or ‘Be yourself, everyone else is already taken’ sounds much more like Groucho Marx than Oscar Wilde.

  2. The “spend time alone” quote is fact that of Olivia Wilde:

  3. could you tell me the origin of the quote “never love a person who thinks you’re ordinary” (or something like that)…
    everywhere I look it has been attributed to Oscar Wilde, but I haven’t seen a source cited.

  4. The “sing a song only you can hear” quote seems to have been adapted from something said by Elizabeth Cooper:

  5.  Picturemewilde

    The one about being talked about is from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says it to Basil.

  6. Apart from false quotations, there are also false anecdotes. Here two are joined together:

    ‘At the best of times, there were elaborate champagne dinners … and pre-dinners and post-dinners; Wilde ordered his staff to serve champagne “at intervals” throughout the day. And at the worst of times – after being imprisoned for charges of indecency and sodomy – Wilde made the most of things by ordering cases of his favorite vintage, an 1874 Perrier-Jouët, straight to his cell…. In a famous anecdote, Wilde was elegant until the very end, ordering champagne to his deathbed …’
    Many more such inventions were reported in ‘The Other Oscar’, a feature on the old oscholars website. Try googling oscholars the other oscar

  7.  Ryan

    I’m pretty sure the ‘everything is about sex’ quote is Germain Greer and in fuller form is, ‘Everything is about sex, except for sex. Sex is about power.’

  8.  queenhyena

    “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power” – this misattributed Oscar Wilde quote is driving me mad. To me it’s an obvious fake and yet it’s attributed to him everywhere on the Internet – always without a source though. It lacks his usual wit and sounds like an anacronism – I don’t think the word “sex” was used in that modern 20th Century sense during the Victorian era. Ryan suggests Germaine Greer but I can’t find any evidence that she said it either. I’m beginning to suspect that some anonymous copywriter or t-shirt maker just made it up in the 90’s. 1990’s, that is. Still, I’d love to be able to prove this. Please help!.

  9. Oh silly pinterest, because if a quote has a pretty background it is clearly a reliable source.


  10.  Zach

    “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes, they forgive them” It should read ‘after a time they judge them, rarely if ever do they forgive them.’

    I don’t know about the rest of them, but this one is actually correct in both its forms. The first is from The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the “corrected” verse was simply recycled and slightly changed in one of his plays (I can’t remember which at the moment). Wilde was known for recycling verses from one work to another, the only differences between them perhaps being a minor rewording.


1 Response to Assuming Oscar Said It

  1. cardsandstars says:

    “Except sex. Sex is about power.” What’s the story here? To me it looks like the original quote was from Robert Klitzman, In a House of Dreams and Glass: Becoming a Psychiatrist, 1995, p. 73, which reads “I once had a supervisor who used to say that ‘Everything in therapy is really about sex except sex, which is about aggression.’ ” Klitzman was born in 1958 and must have been doing a residency in the mid-80s. The quote seems to sum up a perspective on Freudian psychology informed by the 1970s feminist associations of sex and power. After Klitzman, the sentiment was repeated by Susan C. Vaughn in The Talking Cure, 1997, p. 60. The association with WIlde seems to begin with The Advocate vol. 862, 2002, pg. 25 in a review of Brendon Lemon. Here, I suspect the advocate has a preference for iconic gay sources. Next seems to be Richard Canning’s 2003 “Hear Us Out: Conversations with Gay Novelists” p. 106. The quote seems to have been adopted as emblematic of a gay sensibility. As late as 2014, though, The Iowa Review, vol. 44, p. 16 suggests Freud as the origin.

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