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.
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.
‘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.