September 14, 2004
A long story on short letters

Executive summary: The story of a famous quote by Blaise Pascal

One of the world's favourite quotations is the one that goes something like

I apologize that this letter is so long. I did not have the time to make it short
I had erroneously remembered the source as Marcel Proust, possibly because of his well known tendency to write rather long texts. Today an acquaintance wrote to me, citing this reference, where the quote is given to Mark Twain, and altered somewhat. I immediately fired back with my opinion on the matter, and only then thought to check that fact on Google.

Google didn't help.

Google did however puzzle and amuse. It turns out that various forms of this line has been attributed to quite a number of people. A good discussion quickly turned up on Ward Cunningham's ur-wiki. The discussion there attributed the quote in a number of forms claimed to be "the original" to H.D. Thoreau, Voltaire, Augustin, Mark Twain and most prominently to Blaise Pascal. Elsewhere it is also attributed to Albert Einstein, Oscar Wilde and Thomas Jefferson among others.

The best reference was to this delightful thread, First Excuse For A Long Letter, which adds Lord Chesterfield and Mme de Stael as sources for the quotation.
The first post is the best one though. In it, a librarian tracks the quote back to classical times. He first establishes the basic facts, and recognizes Blaise Pascal as the direct source:

"Je N'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parceque je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.
--I have only made this letter rather long because I have not had time to make it shorter."
Pascal. Lettres provinciales, 16, Dec.14,1656. Cassell's Book of Quotations, London,1912. P.718.

It turns out the joke is much older, dating back maybe even to Cicero. The oldest quote of interest uncovered is a slight moderation by Augustin:
"In regard to the questions which you have asked me, I would like to have known what your own answers would have been; for thus I might have made my reply in fewer words, and might most easily confirm or correct your opinions, by approving or amending the answers which you had given. This I would have greatly preferred. But desiring to answer you at once, I think it better to write a long letter than incur loss of time....."

About the executive summary: This post is found about once a day on Google by people looking for the source of the quote, just as I was back when I wrote it. Recently I came across a guy who had bookmarked this very blog post on del.icio.us tagged "quotations mark-twain". I just couldn't stand the fact that people were still getting this fact wrong because I chose to indulge myself, tell a story and bury the facts, so I added a short statement of the facts at the top. - Claus 20061114

Posted by Claus at September 14, 2004 01:30 AM | TrackBack (0)
Comments (post your own)

Now I'm gonna link to this and call it "quotations by Benjamin Franklin erroneously attributed to Blaise Pascal". You are so screwed.

Posted by: Jay Levitt on January 2, 2008 12:34 AM

Haha, verry funny Jay - I know I'm fighting a lost battle here...

Posted by: Claus Dahl on January 2, 2008 12:36 AM
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