Tag Archives: Laurence Sterne

What Is The Origin Of (278)?…

Great minds think alike

It is always a delight when you find someone who agrees with you. This momentous occasion is sometimes greeted with the observation that great minds think alike. Whilst the phrase could be regarded as one denoting mutual self-congratulation, there is often a hint of mockery in its use. After all, few of us can claim to have great minds and the unspoken irony of the phrase is that whilst great minds may often concur, it is more unusual when two unexceptional minds agree. Sometimes, to make the point crystal clear, the rider, and fools seldom differ, is added.

The earliest use of the phrase, or at least a variant, appeared in a play dating to 1618, Hans Beer Pot, written by the wonderfully named Dadridgecourt Capability Belchier, although he may have translated it from a Dutch original. Sergeant Goodfellow is challenged to come up with a new piece of verse and when he does so, he is informed that Sir Philip Sidney had come up with the same formulation. The sergeant, unabashed, comments, “good wits doe jumpe”.

At the time, the verb to jump had a meaning akin to agree with, a usage that has passed into obscurity in modern times. But it was still in use and, presumably understood, in the mid 18th century, the Irish writer, Laurence Sterne, using it in his novel, Tristram Shandy, in 1761. There he wrote, “great wits jump: for the moment Dr Slop cast his eyes upon his bag the very same thought occurred”.

Its days were number and a replacement, think alike, more recognisable to modern eyes, had already emerged. The English historian and pamphleteer, John Oldmixon, produced the Arts of Logick and Rhetorick in 1728, a translation of the work of a French Jesuit priest, Dominique Bouhours. Oldmixon wrote without trace of the phrase’s later irony, “Great Minds often think alike on the same Occasions, and we are not always to suppose, that such Thoughts are borrow’d from one another when exprest by Persons of the same heroic Sentiments”.

A biographer’s dread is that they are retreading old ground, a concern that Carl Theodor von Unlaski assuaged in the Woful History of the unfortunate Eudoxia, published in 1816, by commenting that “it may occur that an editor has already printed something on the identical subject – great minds think alike, you know”. Thomas Paine had used the phrase with a hint of irony in the introduction to the second edition of his The Rights of Man from 1792; “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”.

The addition of the rider, fools seldom differ, seems to have been a later accretion. The Leader Post from Saskatchewan announced on February 1, 1932 that they were running a competition for the best illustrations to well-known proverbs. One such listed was “great minds think alike; fools seldom differ”, possibly the first time it appeared in print but, clearly, one that was already in use in speech. The germ of the idea that the phrase had humorous connotations may have come from the French, the French playwright, Michel Baron, putting into the mouth of a servant the words, “les beaux esprits se rencontrent”, in his Les Enlevemens of 1686.

The French also had a similar phrase, les grands esprits se encontrent, which appeared in a translation of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. There is a great circularity emerging here but, obviously, great minds do think alike.

Hot Ticket


Madame Cornelys’

For just over a decade from 1760 Madame Cornelys’ establishment in Carlisle House on Soho Square was the place to be seen at. Teresa Cornelys, an erstwhile operatic soprano and impresario, born in Venice in 1723, arrived in London in 1759, rented Carlisle House and began giving entertainments there in the autumn of 1760, for which admission was gained by buying tickets in advance.

Initially, the entertainment provided consisted of card games and dancing but these alone proved so successful that Cornelys was able to buy the leasehold and extend the property by building a large extension to the rear housing a concert hall or ballroom above a supper room at which up to 400 guests could be seated around a crescent-shaped table. The furnishings in the ballroom were valued at £730 and although she hired most things, her financial situation was always precarious and in 1762 she had her first run in with creditors who had the audacity to reclaim some of the furnishings.

Events were held twice a month, normally in the winter season, and were enormously successful and popular. The hottest ticket was for the Cornelys masked ball and so many people wanted to attend that she had to have an additional front door added to the property. If you were fortunate enough to score a ticket you might find members of the royal family there as well as the Prince of Monaco, the King of Denmark and his entourage and half of the House of Lords. Parliament famously adjourned early in February 1770 to enable the members to attend one of la Cornelys’ masked balls.

The novelist, Laurence Sterne reported that a visit to Mrs Cornelys’ was “the best assembly and the best concert I have ever had the honour to be at” while Smollett recorded in his novel Humphrey Clinker (1771) that …” Mrs. Cornelys’ assembly, which for the rooms, the company, the dresses, and decorations, surpasses all description”. She also gets a name check in Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon and Dickens’ article on Soho.

Alas, though, she was a terrible business woman and her outgoing vastly exceeded her income. In those days to stage operatic performances you needed a royal licence. Cornelys cheerfully ignored this and were fined for their troubles. All this did was raise the price of the ticket for the next soiree by the amount of the anticipated fine.

Nevertheless the end was nigh. Arrested and declared bankrupt in 1772 after running up debts of £5,000 in just five years she was evicted that year and languished in debtors’ prison until 1775. She recovered from this set back and returned to Carlisle House, this time as a manager, and ran two immensely successful season of rural masquerades. Key features of these events were that the reception rooms would be decorated with fresh turf, hedges and exotic flowers and there would be goldfish swimming in the fountains.

But whilst she undoubtedly knew what her public wanted she couldn’t change her old habits and in 1779 was back in debtors’ prison. After a further career involving what is euphemistically termed ducking and diving she died in 1797 at the ripe old age of 74, appropriately enough in Fleet prison.