Quote: Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler (antedating attrib Albert Einstein 1950)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Thu Feb 25 06:21:41 UTC 2010

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

This saying (and variants) are usually attributed to Albert Einstein.
The Yale Book of Quotations has the earliest attribution and it is
dated 1972. YBQ also states "No source has been traced for this
quotation, which sometimes takes the form 'A theory should be made ...

The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations (2008) has an attribution
to Einstein in 1977 and says "The original source of this oft-quoted
remark has not been found despite much searching." The Oxford
Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (2006) has it without a date.

In 1950 the prominent modernist poet Louis Zukofsky writing in the
journal Poetry attributed a version of the aphorism to Albert
Einstein. The quote appears in a review by Zukofsky of the volume
William Carlos Williams by Vivienne Koch (The Makers of Modern
Literature Series). This is the earliest citation I have located.

Citation: 1950 June, Poetry, Reviews section, Poetry in a Modern Age
by Louis Zukofsky, Page 180, Vol. 76, No. 3, Modern Poetry
Association. (Google Books snippet view. Verified on paper.)

There is also the other side of the coin minted by Einstein:
"Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler" – a
scientist's defense of art and knowledge - of lightness, completeness
and accuracy.


Louis Zukofsky used the maxim in section A-12 of the poem A. The table
of contents of the 1978 edition of the poem says that section A-12 was
composed in 1950 and 1951.

Citation: 1978, A by Louis Zukofsky, Page 143, University of
California Press, Berkeley.

Had he asked me to say Kadish
I believe I would have said it for him.
How fathom his will
Who had taught himself to be simple.
Everything should be as simple as it can be,
Says Einstein,
But not simpler.


Syndicated newspaper columnist Sydney J Harris used a version of the
saying in 1964 without attribution.

Citation: 1964 January 9, New Castle News, Strictly Personal by Sydney
J. Harris. Page 4, New Castle, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)

In every field of inquiry, it is true that all things should be made
as simple as possible - but no simpler. (And for every problem that is
muddled by over-complexity, a dozen are muddled by over-simplifying.)

(This cite is not freely accessible. Here is a link to the column in
the Tri City Herald on January 14, 1964.(Google News Archive))

The WikiQuote webpage on Einstein presents the following interesting
1933 statement: "It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of
all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as
few as possible without having to surrender the adequate
representation of a single datum of experience." However, I think it
would still take a creative act to produce the elegant saying
"Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler" from
the 1933 remark.

Lastly, here is a bonus citation that I have not checked: New York
Times. 1963 December 8. (Google News Archive)
... wants help in locating a quotation which he remembers as:
"Everything must be made as simple as possible, but no simpler." ...


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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