[Ads-l] Adage: It is the victor who writes the history (and counts the dead) 1889

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Nov 9 01:42:37 UTC 2019

Fred Shapiro just posted about "Murphy's Law", and his note
highlighted a difficulty in tracing the origin of adages. When does a
statement refer to a specific circumstance? When does a statement
present a general principle?

A journalist at Slate contacted me recently about the adage: History
is written by the victors.

"The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs" has citations beginning in 1903:

[Begin excerpt]
1903 Clement A. Evans, “Introduction,” History of the Doles-Cook
Brigade, Army of Northern Virginia, C.S.A., by Henry W. Thomas
(Atlanta: Franklin) ix: “It is an old saying, that the victor writes
the history of a struggle. . . . Lands overrun by conquerors have been
blighted, their resistance defamed and their heroes maligned in story.
. . .”
[End excerpt]

Here is an 1889 citation that I think presents the adage in English
with the implication of general applicability:

[ref] 1889 (Reprint 1892), Charles George Gordon by Colonel Sir
William F. Butler, Series: English Men of Action, Chapter 1: The Name
and the Clan, Quote Page 6, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google
Books Full View) [/ref]


[Begin excerpt]
How many Gordons perished in the butcheries and the burnings that
followed the defeat of the clans at Culloden will never be known: it
is the victor who writes the history and counts the dead, and to the
vanquished in such a struggle there only remains the dull memory of an
unnumbered and unwritten sorrow.
[End excerpt]

There are earlier instances, but it is not clear to me whether they
are presented as general assertions.There are versions of the saying
in English, French, Italian, and German.

Way back in 2009 I initiated a discussion thread with a 1919 citation.
(The 1889 citation I just gave is superior.)

There were several valuable replies. Here were two:

But most of the early instances in these messages do not seem to
contain the adage in general form.


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

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