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Opinions: Where did that phrase come from - Great minds think alike, or do they?

By: Stan St. Clair

St. Clair




Great minds think alike is a well-known proverb. Though it has not been around as long as many of them, it’s been in use for hundreds of years. 


The root dates to at least 1618. Dabridgcourt Belchier wrote the following in his comedy “Hans Beer-Pot” that year: “Though he made that verse, Those words were made before. Good wits doe jumpe.”


Here “jump” meant “agree with,” something we would never say today. British novelist, Laurence Sterne also used it that way in “Tristram Shandy” in 1761: “Great wits jump: for the moment Dr. Slop cast his eyes upon his bag the very same thought occurred.”


The “think alike” wording wasn’t found in print until quite a while later. The earliest example known is in Carl Theodor von Unlanski’s short biography, “The Woful History of the Unfortunate Eudoxia,” published in 1816: “It may occur that an editor has already printed something on the identical subject - great minds think alike, you know.”


U.S. founding father, the English-born Thomas Paine, like many today, had a different way of looking at the idea that “great minds think alike,” i.e. “No, they don’t,” he implied in the 1792 political pamphlet, “The Rights of Man,” edition 2: “I do not believe that any two men, on what are called doctrinal points, think alike who think at all. It is only those who have not thought that appear to agree.”


Politician Ben Carson made the statement, “And I’ve always said, ‘If two people think the same thing about everything, one of them isn’t necessary.’ We need to be able to understand that if we’re going to make real progress.”


Larry Dixon also said something very close: “If two people were exactly alike, one of them would be unnecessary.”


But wait! It goes back much further. A version of this was credited to both Ezra Pound and Henry Ford. Chewing gum mogul William Wrigley Jr., who said in an article titled “Spunk Never Cost a Man a Job Worth Having” in The American Magazine in 1931:


“Business is built by men who care — care enough to disagree, fight it out and finish, get facts. When two men always agree, one of them is unnecessary.”


However, The American Magazine recognized that the axiom was older even then. It stated that in 1894 a Chicago Journal had criticized a system which selected two individuals to represent the same group of people, stating of these individuals:


“If they agree, one is unnecessary. Both do not represent the people.”


Another important principle comes into play nowadays. Sometimes we must merely “agree to disagree.”


If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at stan@stclair.net.  

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