For many years TeleRead has been in the vanguard in advocating the creation of huge national digital libraries, ideally well-linked with each other and as comprehensive as possible. A natural and wonderful offshoot of large corpuses of digital texts would be search tools of unprecedented power.

Massive digital libraries would enable stimulating new methodologies for observing the evolution of language. Google Book Search isn’t TeleRead, but offers an enticing preview of the possibilities. Consider my recent search to examine the origin of one piquant and controversial expression—“May you live in interesting times”—described as an ancient Chinese curse.

RFK and why this is a curse

To understand why this is a curse one must grasp that “interesting times” is an acerbic reference to the unstable and perilous times that history books label interesting. The saying was probably most famously used by Robert F. Kennedy in a speech in South Africa circa 1966 as noted in Wikipedia. The Wikipedia article on the curse further states that “many people have searched for the original Chinese language version and have not been able to determine its origin.” Skepticism about the origin is shown in the following quote attributed to Torrey Whitman, former President of China Institute in New York City:

But what is most noteworthy about the expression is that it is not Chinese. There is no such expression, “May you live in interesting times,” in Chinese. It is a non-Chinese creation, most probably American, that has been around for at least 30 or 40 years.… I speculate that whoever it was who first coined it attempted to give the expression a mystique, and so decided to attribute it to the Chinese.

A geology professor named Stephen E. DeLong collected citations for two years in an attempt to trace the phrase, and he created a web page detailing his investigation. The oldest reference DeLong located appeared in the April 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction in the story “U-Turn” by Eric Frank Russell (using the pseudonym Duncan H. Munro). Wikipedia also gives the 1950 citation as the earliest known verified instance. There was a long thread of posts about the phrase at the Washington Monthly political website that shows continued attention to the expression and its unknown origin.

Was this famous “ancient Chinese curse” really invented by an SF writer in 1950? I decided to explore this enigma using Google Book Search and found that the tool exhibited serious flaws but it was still powerful enough to partially answer the question.

Yale U Press used same idea

The idea of using a large digital database to research word and phrase origins is not new and was recently exploited by Yale University Press in the creation of a competitor to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. The editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations” harnessed multiple search engines including one at JSTOR (scholarly journal archive) to scrutinize quotation origins as described in this New York Times article entitled “A New Way of Verifying Old and Familiar Sayings”.

The “interesting times” saying has been used by Rhodes scholars and politicians. It has penetrated mass culture, and perhaps the best single exemplar is from legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson who said:

There is an ancient Chinese curse that says, “May you live in interesting times,” which was told to me by an elderly dope fiend in a rainy night in Hong Kong near the end of the War in Vietnam, He was a giddy old man, on the surface, but I knew – and he knew that I knew – of the fear and respect he commanded all over Southeast Asia as a legendary Wizard in the far-flung Kingdom of Opium (from “Kingdom of Fear” a collection published in 2003).

Two examples of false hits

There are many possible variants to the phrase “May you live in interesting times”, so I decided to look for the subphrase “interesting times” and to specify a constraint on the date using the Advanced Book Search. My initial query to Google Book Search found a bonanza of citations that predated 1950 and displayed snippets that fit the desired semantics. However, careful examination of multiple citations revealed that the publication dates provided by Google Book Search were incorrect or misleading. Here are two examples of false hits:

“Analog Science Fiction & Fact”; Published in 1930 by Conde Nast: This match actually referred to the quote in Astounding SF magazine from 1950. The publication date was misleading. Astounding magazine became Analog and apparently the initial publication date for Astounding is 1930. Hence the date provided by Google Book Search does not help identify the relevant individual magazine issue.

“The American Oxonian”; Published in 1914 by Association of American Rhodes Scholars: This match was to a document that also mentioned Citigroup and the Clinton Administration. Once again the publication date was misleading; probably because it referred to the first issue of a periodical instead of the relevant matching issue.

There were other problems with Google Book Search such as blurry unreadable scan images together with improperly cropped images and half-images. In addition there are sometimes fingers visible in scans and inaccurate optical character recognition (OCR) results. The snippets are quite small and the graphical image companion for each snippet sometimes is cropped too tightly, shows the wrong text, or is non-existent.

A promising citation

Finally I found a promising citation. “The American Character” by Denis William Brogan; Published 1944 by A. A. Knopf: This match looked good but there were some oddities. Google said the document was 168 pages in length, and yet bizarrely the match was on page 169. Also, the reprint edition of the work published in the 1950s did not contain a match. So I decided to double-check with the actual physical book. On the last page of the concluding section I found the following:

It is, I have been told, one of the most formidable of Chinese imprecations to wish that your enemy lived “in interesting times.” We live in very interesting times; times not to be made better by any simple formula. Understanding each other is not enough, but it is an indispensable beginning.

I think that this may be the oldest verified attestation, since the 1944 date beats the previous 1950 date. Interestingly, the Columbia Encyclopedia says Brogan was a British historian and political scientist. Thus the probability that the saying was concocted by an American is reduced, and the probability that it was invented in the UK or Europe is increased. Of course, it is still conceivable that it is an ancient Chinese curse or a variant that has not been ferreted out yet. In any case, it is now certain that the saying was not invented in 1950 by a science fiction writer.

Google Book Search was the key to this excursion and it illustrates the nascent power of a massive digital library. Etymological research would be greatly aided by publication dates of superior accuracy and improved granularity within a text database. Despite the imperfections of the search tool it did succeed, and I extend big thanks to the team creating the search engine with hopes that it will continue to improve and remain a wonderful resource for all.

Moderator’s: Also see From Babel to Knowledge Data Mining Large Digital Collections, in the March 2006 issue of D-Lib Magazine. – DR


  1. You mention The Yale Book of Quotations and its sophisticated research, but you don’t actually consult the YBQ. If you did, you would find it has a 1939 citation for “May you live in interesting times.” In general, the YBQ is going to have better information about quotation origins than you will find anywhere else.

  2. Thanks to Fred Shapiro for the wonderful information about the phrase “May you live in interesting times”. Shapiro is apparently the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations” (YBQ) and it is great that he took the time to provide a valuable pointer. The YBQ contains a 1939 citation that predates the 1944 citation given in the article above. This experience does provide evidence that “the YBQ is going to have better information about quotation origins than you will find anywhere else.”

    The earliest citation I could locate anywhere on the web was 1950. For example, this library based web page resource traces the quotation back to 1950 as does Wikipedia. I apologize to readers for not looking in the YBQ. I do not own it, and it is not in my local library, but I should have made a greater effort to check it. Yet, I do think that the article above still illustrates the power of Google Book Search, especially when one notes that it is a search engine that is open to all users online without fees.

    Precious resources such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), JSTOR, and the Yale Book of Quotations do not appear to be easily accessible online. The OED has an annual subscription fee of $295 in North and South America. JSTOR requires affiliation with a participating institution, and I was unable to find a way to access YBQ online. Perhaps someday resources like these will be smoothly accessible online even for the hoi polloi.

  3. An article entitled “Google Book Search: A powerful tool for investigating phrase origins” that updates and expands the information in the note above can be found here. The update provides evidence that the phrase ”May you live in interesting times” was in use as early as 1936.

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