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The Quote 'May You Live in Interesting Times'

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In a speech in Cape Town, South Africa, on 7 June, 1966, Robert F Kennedy said:

There is a Chinese curse which says, 'May he live in interesting times'. Like it or not, we live in interesting times...

Journalists endorsed the phrase and it has become well known. While widely reported as being an ancient Chinese curse, the phrase is likely to be of recent and Western origin. When created it seems to be intended to sound Chinese in the 'Confucius he say' mould.

Most Chinese scholars will not recognise the 'curse' as Chinese, because if it is of Chinese origin, it has somehow escaped mention in all of the ancient Chinese literature. It may, however, be a paraphrase of a liberal translation from a Chinese source, and therefore unrecognisable when translated back to Chinese. One possibility is a relation to the Chinese proverb, 'It's better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period.'

One other possible source, although leading to a dead end on examination, is The Book of Insults (1978) by Nancy McPhee. She claims it to be an old Scottish curse, but to date (August 2002) it has not been possible to recover Nancy's sources or to get any verification on her claim.

Stephen DeLong started researching this quotation in 1996, and managed after several years to trace the quotation back to a 1950's science fiction story: U-Turn by Duncan H Munro, a pseudonym for Eric Frank Russell. The phrase might well have been coined by him, but there are indications making it likely that Russell found the phrase elsewhere. Namely, in a book by Richard Wilhelm about Chinese alchemy, The Secret of the Golden Flower (1931), to which the renowned psychoanalyst Carl G Jung contributed an essay. It was Jung who supposedly mentioned the phrase in this book. Unfortunately, it has not been possible to confirm this as both Jung and Russell are long dead and the curse was not mentioned in the English translation of the book available to DeLong.

Further Information

For the rest of the details and the full story of the search, as well as possible updates, please visit Stephen DeLong's sidebar: Get a(n interesting) Life!

More theories are available elsewhere online - for example the phrase is discussed on the Phrase Finder website and the Grammarphobia Blog.

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