Proverb: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em (antedating 1901 July 10)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 27 01:21:27 UTC 2011

If you can't beat them, join them.

This saying is listed in several texts that are part of the Oxford
Reference Online database: The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, Oxford
Dictionary of Quotations, Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. A
1941 cite is the earliest and it is given in the first reference.

Fred posted about this saying on the Freakonomics blog today and
provided a February 13, 1902 cite from the forthcoming Yale Book of
Modern Proverbs.

Here is a small advance backward in time:

Cite: 1901 July 10, Puck, A Winning Precept, Unnumbered Page [Page 5
after cover], Keppler & Schwarzmann, New York. (Google Books full

"What, in your judgment, Colonel," asked the Ambitious Beginner,
"would be a good motto for a young politician? How would 'I would
rather be right than - ,' and so forth, do?

"That will, and does, exceedingly well for publication," replied the
Successful Veteran; "but for private consumption, 'If you can't beat
'em, join 'em,' will always prove a great deal more lucrative."

While searching I came across a less scrupulous alternative maxim that
appears before this date.

Cite: April 1896, [Railway and] Locomotive Engineering, The Premium
System Promotes Dishonesty, Page 317, Edited at 256 Broadway, New
York. (Google Books full view)

In other words, has some third person put in practice the well-known
remark: 'If we can't beat 'em, we must cheat 'em?'

Here is a song-based precursor for beat-em-cheat-em in 1799:

Cite: 1799, The Columbian songster: Being a large collection of
fashionable songs, Page 20, Printed by Nathaniel Heaton. (Google Books
full view)

Then let them come, with force or hum,
If they'll fight fair we'll beat 'em:
And for their Skill and tricks - but num -
By zounds - we've folks can cheat' em.
   Yankee Doodle, &c

Comedian George Carlin offered another idea according to:
Ifferisms: An Anthology of Aphorisms That Begin with the Word "IF" by
Mardy Grothe:
And George Carlin cleverly quipped: "If you can't beat them, arrange
to have them beaten."


The American Dialect Society -

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