Abraham Lincoln? Adlai Stevenson? Edward J. Stieglitz? Edward Barrett Warman? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There are posters, shirts, mugs, and other commercial products displaying the following inspirational quote:
And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
Abraham Lincoln is credited with this aphorism, but I cannot find it in his collected works. Can you determine who really said it?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Lincoln used this expression. Some quotation references attributed the remark to Adlai Stevenson II who was the Governor of Illinois and a Democratic Presidential nominee. Indeed, Stevenson did employ a version of this adage in speeches as early as 1952.
But the earliest strong match located by QI was in an advertisement in 1947 for a book about aging by Edward J. Stieglitz, M.D. The image at the top of this article shows the ad for “The Second Forty Years” which ran in the Chicago Tribune newspaper. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1
The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!
The rhetorical technique of reversing word order in successive clauses is called antimetabole. In this case, “years in your life” was transformed into “life in your years”, and the contrast between the two subphrases was highlighted.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The saying under examination emerged from a collection of precursors that evolved over a period of decades. An interesting example appeared in the 1889 book “Warman’s Physical Training, Or The Care of the Body” by Edward Barrett Warman: 2
If you wish to add years to your life, and life to your years, make it an invariable rule to take your daily siesta—your afternoon nap. You should never begin mental physical exercise directly after a meal.
The expression above also employed antimetabole; the phrase “years to your life” was transformed into “life to your years”. However, there was a crucial difference: the two subphrases were not contrasted; instead, they were additively combined.
Warman used this rhetorical device again in an 1892 article in the New York periodical “Demorest’s Family Magazine”: 3
If you take but fifteen minutes of mental and bodily rest after each meal, it will add years to your life and life to your years. You need not be entirely idle, for you can well utilize the time in the care of the teeth.
A variety of nostrums used advertisements containing versions of the saying. The following appeared in 1901: 4
Danger, disease and death follow neglect of the bowels. Use DeWitt’s Little Early Risers to regulate them and you will add years to your life and life to your years.
In 1906 Warman employed the saying while advocating the occasional removal of footwear and clothing: 5
Go barefooted occasionally, and let the children go barefooted; go bare-bodied when and where you can, but when your body is restricted in its breathing through its millions of pores in consequence of fashion’s decree, then conserve your force by proper insulation. By so doing you will not only add years to your life but life to your years.
As mentioned previously the earliest strong match appeared in a 1947 advertisement for a book by Edward J. Stieglitz:
The important thing to you is not how many years in your life, but how much life in your years!
In February 1949 a columnist in the Hartford Courant newspaper of Connecticut credited the adage to Stieglitz: 6
Dr. Edward Stieglitz says “the important thing is not how many years in your life but how much life in your years.” He’s got something there.
In April 1949 a different advertisement for “The Second Forty Years” was published in the New York Times. This ad featured the two subphrases, but they were not presented in contrast. The text suggested that it was possible to have more years and more life: 7
The new science of Geriatrics shows you how to put more years in your life, and more life in your years.
In 1952 an article in the Oregonian newspaper mentioned a version that was similar to the statement in the New York Times without an attribution: 8
The exhibit, based on the theme, “Put more years in your life and more life in your years,” was a stopper!
In 1952 Governor Adlai Stevenson delivered a speech to students at the Boston Globe High School Press Forum. He used a version of the adage that closely matched the statement provided by the questioner: 9
Fight for a better future with confidence, he urged the students. “However else you live your life, live it freely. It is not the years in your life that count, it is the life in your years.”
In 1954 Stevenson spoke at Princeton University’s annual senior class banquet and the newspaper reporter said that his “voice often shook with feeling”. Stevenson deployed the maxim again: 10
At another he declared: “Don’t be afraid to live, to live hard and fast, because it is not the years in your life, but the life in your years that count.”
The Barnes & Noble Book of Quotations (1987) credited the politician with the following instance: 11
It is not the years in your life but the life in your years that counts.
By 2000 the saying had been reassigned to a politician with much greater fame: 12
“And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” — Abraham Lincoln
In conclusion, QI would tentatively credit Edward J. Stieglitz with the saying. However, it is possible that the statement was crafted by an advertising copywriter instead of Stieglitz himself. In addition, earlier instances may exist. This possibility is heightened because precursors were circulating decades earlier.
Adlai Stevenson did use the saying on more than one occasion while giving speeches. The attachment to Lincoln is currently unsupported. The wording in the advertisement for the book by Stieglitz does differ somewhat from the version used by Stevenson, but the semantics and word-order reversal match.
(Thanks to Kurt Wolbrink whose inquiry led to the construction of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace. Special thanks to Christopher Philippo who told QI about valuable precursor citations in 1899 and 1901.)
Update History: On February 13, 2017 this article was partially rewritten. Citations dated 1889, 1892, 1901, and 1906 were added. In addition, the bibliographic note style was changed to numeric.
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