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 19:04:55 UTC 2010

Thanks for your response Victor. I think the snippet you located that
Google Books dates as 1949 is really a snippet in the June 1950 issue
of Poetry that I have verified on paper. Before verifying cites on
paper I typically use "date probes" to check for plausibility when
document viewing is restricted to snippets. In this case probing the
document with dates provides very useful information.

I am certain that the following paragraphs describe an obvious
strategy to you Victor and to many other list members. But I include
them here because they may be useful to other individuals who are
starting to use Google Books for research and who are confronted with
the aggravating restrictions imposed by snippet view combined with
notoriously inaccurate metadata.

Here is a link to the volume under discussion:

If you type "June 1950" into the search box for the Poetry journal
document then GB will display three matches. The match on page 125 is
the correct page number of the first page of the issue dated June
1950. If you type "July 1950" into the search box then GB will display
another three matches. The match on page 188 is the correct page
number of the first page of the July 1950 issue of Poetry.

The Einstein attribution appears on page 180 according to GB. That
number is accurate, and the page falls between the first page of the
June issue and the first page of the July issue. Indeed, the citation
is located in the last article of the June issue. Sometimes the
information obtained by typing in dates is not clear-cut. It can be
incomplete, confusing, or misleading, but I still recommend the
procedure as a "sanity check".

Thanks for mentioning the aphorism instance dated 1948. I also found
this match in the collection of critical essays by Louis Zukofsky
titled "Prepositions" that was published in 1981. An earlier version
of this collection was published in 1967 or 1968.

Citation: 1981, Prepositions: the collected critical essays of Louis
Zukofsky (Expanded Edition), Page 50-51, University of California
Press. Berkeley. (Google Books limited view)


When I looked at the full text of the 1950 review written by Louis
Zukofsky in the journal Poetry I saw that it was the same as the text
of the essay in Prepositions. The review by Zukofsky is of the volume
titled "William Carlos Williams" by Vivienne Koch (part of The Makers
of Modern Literature Series). The essay in Prepositions is a large
excerpt of the review in Poetry.

The date 1948 does appear at the end of the Prepositions text. When I
typed up my post last night I omitted this cite because I prefer
public publication dates to this type of internal document date of
perhaps uncertain reliability. But the real reason was indolence.
Thanks for your thoroughness in locating this cite. I should have
included it. Publication in a journal does require a lead time, so
maybe the 1948 date is from a notebook of drafts. Further confirmatory
evidence for the 1948 date would help.

Thanks for finding and sharing another stylish version of the quote:
"Everything should be as simple as it _is_, but not simpler." And
thanks for the valuable feedback.


On Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 3:13 AM, Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at gmail.com> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Victor Steinbok <aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Re: Quote: Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not
>              simpler (antedating attrib Albert Einstein 1950)
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> A couple of VERY minor points that in no way detract from Garson's work.
> Another reprint of Zukovsky's essays dates the same passage (or, at
> least, that particular part of the essay) to 1948 and it looks like a
> letter to WCW that's published as an essay--or perhaps the editor just
> made it appear that way. Perhaps both are wrong--I found this snippet
> that GB dates to 1949
> http://bit.ly/bhiHSd
> It is unquestionably the same excerpt and it in the journal Poetry, so
> it seems to be the right place. Should be verified.
> There is a parallel quotation from William Saroyan (1964, apparently):
>> The matter of style is one that always excites controversy, but to me
>> it's as simple as A B C, if not simpler.
> No, I am not suggesting the two are in any way related. In fact, this
> turn of phrase is quite common.
> As for the original quotation, there is an interesting Dore Ashton
> version (apparently from 1972 Studio International):
>> Everything should be as simple as it _is_, but not simpler.
> Ashton credits someone else attributing the line to Einstein. (Can't
> tell who the intermediary is from the snippets.) In fact, the same
> version appears in a couple of other sources (1965 and 1971) but I could
> not identify or verify them.
> The version "as simple as possible" appears in some intermediary
> publications--in 1969 by Jonathan Williams and again several times in
> the 1970s, but it seems to be the version that is most commonly used
> today--George Will seems to have opened this can of worms on Mar. 18,
> 1982. But the NYT had the same version nearly a month earlier (free
> version here: http://bit.ly/baCFHZ) in a story about an 18 year old
> Rhodes scholar. Only a year earlier, Time put out a Newswatch column by
> Thomas Griffith (Apr. 27, 1981) that used "as it can be" version. So
> both coexisted for some time, perhaps even on mass-produced posters
> (that seems to be the most likely possibility for an 18-year old to have
> pinned it on her wall).
> VS-)
> On 2/25/2010 1:21 AM, Garson O'Toole wrote:
>> 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.
>> http://books.google.com/books?id=GQEKAAAAIAAJ&q=minted#search_anchor
>> 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.
>> http://books.google.com/books?id=1GvlVBB8soEC&q=Einstein#v=snippet&q=Einstein&f=false
>> 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))
>> http://bit.ly/cJVkMh
>> 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.
>> http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein
>> 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." ...
>> http://bit.ly/cUwI0f
>> Garson
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