March 05, 2006


David Beaver recently posted about the price of his weight in gold, under a title ("... and the value of nothing") that alludes to one of Oscar Wilde's many bon mots:

LORD DARLINGTON. What cynics you fellows are!
CECIL GRAHAM. What is a cynic? [Sitting on the back of the sofa.]
LORD DARLINGTON. A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
CECIL GRAHAM. And a sentimentalist, my dear Darlington, is a man who sees an absurd value in everything, and doesn't know the market price of any single thing.
[Lady Windermere's Fan, Act 3]

This is widely quoted in various monologic forms (e.g. "A cynic is a man who..."), but David's post may be the first time that the quotation has been applied to a linguist, at least in print.

In fact, it's striking how rarely this little zinger is used as a phrasal template, of the kind that we've taken to calling snowclones. It starts with all the advantages: rich, thin, elegant, famous, parallel, memorable. Google suggests that thousands of web pages have succumbed to the temptation to apply this witticism to economists rather than to cynics, and also to accountants and a few other money-related professions. But at that point, our collective creativity seems to have stalled. "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing" is apparently a noclone: often quoted, rarely adapted.

Among the few exceptions that I've been able to find, there's a little clump where various movie-industry statistics are substituted for price:

Were he alive today, Oscar Wilde would describe a movie buff as a man who knows the weekly gross of everything and the value of nothing. [link]

A new figure emerged: the movie buff, who knows the credits of everything and the value of nothing. [link]

And there are a couple of puns on price:

One unintended side-effect of buying an offbeat car is that it encourages one’s friends to make outrageous puns. I’ve already been asked if I will become ‘Prius sensitive’. And someone has even adapted Oscar Wilde’s crack about a cynic being “someone who knows the prius of everything and the value of nothing”! It’s tough being an innovative consumer. Sigh. [link]

But compared to other patterns that we've looked for, such as "X is the dark matter of Y", or "in X, Y Z you", this one is rare.

The most obvious dimensions of generalization would be the blanks in:

___ is [someone] who knows the ___ of everything and the ___ of nothing.

In the first blank, it's natural to substitute economists and others concerned with prices, but apparently not much else. In the second blank, it's natural to substitute other measures that can be opposed to price, but not many substitutions show up. For example, the various controversies about psychological testing don't seem to have inspired anyone to write about those who know "the score(s) of everyone and the value(s) of no one", or anything similar that might be caught by the pattern {"scores of * and the values"}.

And I haven't found any full-out treatments at all, along the lines of "An X is someone who knows the Y of everything and the Z of nothing". I guess the relationship X:Y:Z in this case is just too specialized, or perhaps too abstract. Try completing sentences like "a computer scientist is someone who knows the __ of everything and the __ of nothing", or even "a lawyer is ..." It's hard to come up with any completions that aren't totally lame. But send me counterexamples, whether found or concocted, and I'll post them.

[Update: Several readers -- Grzegorz Chrupała was the first, and others included Will Fitzgerald and Bill Findlay -- have reminded me of a long-established and widely quoted variant: "Lisp programmers know the value of everything and the cost of nothing", due to Alan Perlis. JS Bangs explains: Lisp, every statement returns a value, but Lisp tends to be very costly in terms of processor power and memory. This is a complete snowclone, with all three spots given over to something different than their original, although the general cost/value pun remains.

With respect, I think that "pun" is not quite the right word here. In a variation of this, Don Porges suggests that "a computer scientist knows the address of everythng and the value of nothing. Or maybe that's a non-optimizing compiler."

Adrian Morgan observes that the simpler phrase "An X is someone who Y everything and Z nothing" is more productive of variants, such as

An internist is someone who knows everything and does nothing. A surgeon is someone who does everything and knows nothing. A psychiatrist is someone who knows nothing and does nothing. A pathologist is someone who knows everything and does everything too late.

Adrian also points to a penumbra of more loosely related cases, which probably aren't intended to evoke Wilde at all, such as this Oysterband lyric:

The shadow of the Pharaohs freezes up the earth
They know what the price is, they don't know what it's worth

In stricter imitation of the cynic quote, Adrian suggests a candidate of his own "A materialist is someone who knows the cause of everything and the reason for nothing".

And Bruce Rusk suggests that

Isn't Wilde working with the resonance of "everything ... nothing," which is often used to form parallel phrases? Things like "knows everything but understands nothing."

Quick LION check:

Wilde, The Critic as Artist (1891--the year before Lady Windermere's fan was first produced, presumably written the same year?): "Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing."

Melville, Typee: For my own part, although hardly a day passed while I remained upon the island that I did not witness some religious ceremony or other, it was very much like seeing a parcel of "Freemasons" making secret signs to each other; I saw everything, but could comprehend nothing.

At what level would the snowclone lie?

As Bruce observes, the pattern here is just the parallel contrast of everything/nothing as objects of two semantically-related verbs with the same subject. Bruce also suggested that linguistics offers many opportunities, such as

"A phonetician is someone who knows the pronunciation of everything and the meaning of nothing."
Replace with grammar, derivation, etc.


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 5, 2006 08:43 AM