April 4, 2014

“If at first you don’t succeed…”


“‘Tis a lesson you should heed:
Try, try again.
If at first you don’t succeed,
Try, try again.”
       Popularized by William Edward Hickson (1803-1870)
       British philanthropist, music scholar and educational writer
       Lyrics from the first verse of the song “Perseverance; Or Try Again,” printed in Hickson’s book The Singing Master (1836)
       The saying “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” comes from the initial stanza of a work that began appearing in British and American books in the late 1830s and early 1840s, sometimes as song lyrics and sometimes as a poem. Some sources claim it was coined by the British-born American publisher and author Thomas H. Palmer (1922-1861). Palmer did include what he cited as a poem with those lines in a teacher’s manual he published in 1840, as did several other guides for teachers published around the same time. But the same “poem” had previously been published in 1836 as the lyrics of the song “Perseverance; Or Try Again” by William Edward Hickson, in his book The Singing Master. Hickson wrote lyrics for a number of songs during his lifetime, most famously an updated version of the British national anthem “God Save the King.” However, his book The Singing Master reprinted the lyrics of many existing songs for children, including popular nursery rhymes that had been put to music. So, the “Perseverance” song, with the famed motivational saying in its first verse, may simply have been recorded rather than created by Hickson.


“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it.”
       Attributed to W.C. Fields (1880-1946)
       American comedian and actor 
       Variations of this sardonic quip have been attributed to Fields since at least September 1949, when the version above was cited by Reader’s Digest magazine. Often, it’s given without the word “There’s.” Sometimes “no use” is replaced by “no point.” If Fields did actually say one of these versions, it may have been a quip he uttered in real life, since it does not seem to be a line from any of his films.


“If at first you don’t succeed, you may be at your level of incompetence already.”
       Dr. Laurence J. Peter
       Canadian professor and author, best known for creating “The Peter Principle” and writing the book of the same name (with Raymond Hull)
       This saying is widely attributed to Peter, but without a specific source. It does not seem to be in any of the editions of his popular book The Peter Principle, which was first published in 1969 and has remained in print ever since. The book does include the variation “If at first you don’t succeed, try something else” — which he may have stolen from the Fifties television Western Maverick.


“As my old Pappy used to say, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try something else.’”
       Bret Maverick (actor James Garner)
       The line above is one of the many sayings Bret attributed to his father Beau Maverick in various episodes of the classic American TV Western, Maverick, which ran from 1957 to 1962. 
       Other bits of wisdom Bret cited as things “my old Pappy used to say” include: 
            “...a man does what he has to do, if he can’t get out of it.”
            “...man is the only animal you can skin more than once.” 
            “...never play in a rigged game, unless you rig it yourself.”
            “...never cry over spilled milk; it could’ve been whiskey.”
            “...early to bed and early to rise is the curse of the working class.”
            “...if the Lord had more respect for money, He would have given it to a higher class of people.”


“If at first you don’t succeed then skydiving definitely isn’t for you.” 
       Steven Wright
       American comedian
       This dry joke is usually attributed to Wright, who apparently used it in his stand-up routine. However, another version is commonly attributed to comedian Henny Youngman, and other variations have long been popular among skydiving enthusiasts, suggesting that it may be have been, er, floating around for many the years.
       Wright is also commonly credited with another good “try again” takeoff: “If at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you tried.” 


“If at first you don't succeed, do it the way your wife told you.”
       A popular t-shirt, card and sign slogan, appearing in several variations. (The example shown at left is a sign available from Amazon.com.)

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