Who Was “Josh Billings”?

There are a tremendous number of misattributed quotations out there. I’ve attributed quotations to the wrong people myself from time to time and I assume that I still do. I try to correct my mistakes over time.

I’ve noticed a pattern in misattributions. There’s a sort of system of archetypes at work. People attribute sayings to Einstein as a shorthand for indicating they think it’s smart, Ben Franklin when they think it’s clever, and Sam Clemens when they think it’s witty.

Just as “Mark Twain” was Sam Clemens’s pseudonym and the name of the character that he portrayed on the lecture circuit, very different from his actual personality, so “Josh Billings” was Henry Shaw Wheeler’s pseudonym and the character he played on the lecture circuit, sort of a rough-hewn Westerner. Wheeler was a rough contemporary of Sam Clemens’s, second only to him in popularity as a 19th century American humorist.

Here are some of the many quotations that are things that Henry Shaw Wheeler wrote that are generally attributed either to folk wisdom, Mark Twain, Ben Franklin, etc. (I’m translating from the original thick dialect in which he wrote and spoken on the lecture circuit.)

  • The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
  • It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble but what you do know that just ain’t so.
  • The lion may lie down with the lamb but the lamb generally doesn’t get back up again.
  • There is as much difference between vivacity and wit as there is between lightning and the lightning bug.
  • Love is like the measles; we can’t have it bad but once, and the later in life we have it the tougher it goes with us.
  • As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand.

There are dozens if not hundreds of others. Here are some of his witticisms I wish were more widely known:

  • You should watch out for someone who pities everybody. The changes are they are profiting slily from the misfortunes of others.
  • About half the pity in this world is not the result of sorry but of satisfaction that it’s not our horse that’s broken its leg.
  • When a woman wears the britches, she generally has the right to them.

I think that more people should be familiar with Henry Shaw Wheeler, just as with Finley Peter Dunne (Mr. Dooley).

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