Overestimating, underestimating, whatever

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This post hits a trifecta of LLOG themes: the troublesome interaction of multiple negations with scalar predicates that we call "misnegation"; the flexible phrasal or conceptual templates we call "snowclones"; and the multiplication of careless variant quotations.

It started when a friend, in conversation, said something like "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. [pause] Or overestimating. Whatever."

To start with, I took a look around for other over-under confusions with respect to this quotation. The bulk of the versions use "underestimating the intelligence", but there are plenty of overestimations as well. From a N.Y. Daily News column:

For years the people who run boxing have ridden two axioms by P.T. Barnum all the way to the bank. The first being there's a sucker born every minute. And the second is that no one ever went broke overestimating the intelligence of the American people.

From a sports story in The Scotsman:

As H L Mencken, with reference to his fellow Americans, once memorably observed: "Nobody ever went broke by overestimating the intelligence of the public."

A Guardian correction:

In a story about drugs in sport – Exposure risks new batch of cheats, page 33, Sport, October 24 – we wrote: "As the consummate American huckster PT Barnum once said: Nobody ever went broke overestimating the intelligence of the American public." What HL Mencken said was "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."

Other replications vary in many other dimensions:

Nobody ever lost money by overestimating the taste of the American public.
No one ever went broke overestimating the intelligence of the American people.
Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people.
Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.
No one ever went broke by underestimating the taste of the American public.
No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
No one ever went broke underestimating the public intelligence.
No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American middle class.

There's no underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

And third, no one in Hollywood ever lost money by overestimating the intelligence of the American public.

I guess what P.T. Barnum said still holds true "no one ever lost money overestimating the intelligence of the American public".

So then I wondered what the original quotation really was, and where it first appeared. I didn't succeed in nailing down the answer to either of those questions, but here are some clues:

Vincent Fitzpatrick, 'H.L. Mencken', in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 137: American Magazine Journalists, 1900-1960, 1994, gives the quotation in this form:

No one in the world, so far as I know — and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the plain people.

John Leland, Hip: The History, 2005, gives it this way:

No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the plain people.

Roger Lathbury, American Modernism (1910-1945), 2006, gives this form:

No one in the world, so far as I know . . . has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.

Whatever the original really was, many people have produced creative variants. Among the many things that nobody (or no one) ever went broke (or lost money) by underestimating are these:

the insecurities of gay consumers
the gullibility of Facebook users
the need of Americans for the Effortless Solution
the vapidity of the American newsmedia
the anxiety women feel about getting married
the desperation of composers
the Bush administration's capacity for doing the wrong thing
Tony Romo's ability to absolutely puke away winnable games
the intolerance levels of the Daily Mail readership
the motivation of The American Freshman
students' calculational skills
the Christmas single market

the spine of congressional democrats

And among the many things that nobody ever went broke by overestimating:

the neurotic stupidity of Floridians
the foolishness of any given group of people
the laziness of the American public
the gullibility of the American public
the racism of Today's GOP
the self-absorption of the Democratic Party
the vulgarity of the American people
how bad people could be
the heartfelt panic that the average woman feels about her body
Americans' ability to value fantasy over reality
the treason of the democrat party
the desperate unhappiness of the American public
the political knowledge of the people
the appetite of Texans for red meat

Note that in both directions, the majority of these are things that on balance one would rather have less of. (I've put in red the quantities that seem clearly to be negatively evaluated.)

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16 Comments »

  1. Fiona Hanington said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

    I find this confusing. As, I think, do many of the writers you quote from.

    If your goal is to imply that Americans aren't very intelligent, would you say, "no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people"?
    (i.e., if you bet they're not very smart, you're likely to win that bet")

    If so, then I'm thinking the red quotations you list for "underestimating" are communicating the opposite of what their authors intended, right?

    For instance, taking the first case:
    "… underestimating… the insecurities of gay consumers" seems to indicate that gay consumers are NOT insecure (but is likely not what the author intended)

  2. Steve said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 4:08 pm

    In the Lathbury quote, should it be "even lost money" (which is what he is said to have said) or "ever lost money"? Both are plausible, but I suspect "ever lost money" is what Lathbury said Mencken said.

    [(myl) Scribal error. Fixed now.]

  3. Sven said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 4:09 pm

    Yes, all but the last three "underestimating" examples are saying the opposite of what the writers intended. (Otherwise, they are pointless.) But all "overestimating" examples but the penultimate one make sense and seem to convey exactly what the writer meant.

  4. Steve Kass said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 4:15 pm

    @Fiona,

    If you won a bet that Americans aren't smart, then you couldn't have underestimated their intelligence. You estimated it to be low, and you were correct. You didn't underestimate it.

    What's confusing, I think, is that people say "underestimate" when they mean "estimate to be low."

    Barnum, we imagine, succeeded because Americans were as stupid as he imagined they were, and maybe even stupider. He either correctly estimated their intelligence or overestimated it. If he had underestimated their intelligence – i.e., if Americans were smarter than he believed – he would more likely have gone broke.

  5. Fiona Hanington said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    @Steve Kass — Interesting! And I'll bet very few people use the expression with all the care that you've just used in describing it.
    Makes me even more inclined to avoid using it myself.

    "No one ever went broke underestimating the ability of people to use this expression correctly."

    Or do I mean overestimating….

    :-)

  6. Arake L. said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

    "Nobody's ever gone broke underestimating x" means "The value of x is lower than is usually estimated, therefore even estimates which seem lower than usual turn out not to be *too* low." (and "overestimating" means x has a high value)

    Since x usually takes the form "the y of z", a low value for x means that z is not very y (e.g. the public is not very intelligent, the intelligence of the public is not very great, and a low estimate thereof is not likely to be an underestimation) and a high value of x means z *is* very y.

  7. Hening Makholm said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

    @Steve Kass: I don't think the original quote makes a claim about the actual intelligence of (American?) plain people.

    What it says is that if you plan your business using an assumption that plain people are more stupid than they really are, you will still make money (implicitly because then few people will spurn your service because they can't figure out how to use it, and even smart people want stupid entertainment now and then).

    Conversely, it implies that if you plan your business using an assumption that plain people are smarter than they really are, you risk losing money (because the average person is not smart enough to know they need your product, and/or smart enough to enjoy it at all).

    Both of these can be true even (and especially) if the actual intelligence of the plain people is such that it is logically possible to underestimate it as well as to overestimate it.

  8. Sven said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 5:07 pm

    @Steve Kass – There is also an implication that the public's intelligence may be so low that it is not possible to underestimate it. The "unpacked" message is: "Some people went broke because they overestimated the intelligence of the public. But did it ever happen to anyone for the opposite reason? No!" (And that can be either because underestimating the public's intelligence is not dangerous for business, or because it is so low that it can't be underestimated.)

  9. Evan Harper said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

    Aha, Liberman! Your notorious political bias is laid bare! (In other words, "the spine of congressional democrats" should probably be in the positive category.)

    [(myl) Oops. Carelessness, not bias. Fixed now.]

  10. Cameron said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

    Today I noticed a strange locution in an interview published just this past Monday that reflects a confusion similar to the mis-negations and over-negations that are so often discussed here.

    The topic is the ostensibly illegal activity (in American football) of deflating the ball to make it more comfortable for a quarterback to hold. As the interviewer puts it: "In theory, a softer ball is easier to hold onto and can prevent less fumbling".

    The source is here: http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/not-for-attribution/longtime-college-football-equipment-manager-everyone-cheats-deflates-184104713.html

  11. Steve Kass said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 6:13 pm

    For what it's worth, here's what appears to be the original quote in context, with an image of the beginning and end paragraphs of the Chicago Tribune article in which it appeared.

    http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/09/no-one-ever-went-broke-underestimating.html

    It seems to me (but I am probably overestimating my own intelligence right now) that Mencken's thesis is "If you assume people are intelligent, you'll go broke, because people are not as smart as you think. If you assume that people are not so intelligent, you'll do well." His use of "underestimate" seems to be "estimate as lower than you think," and not necessarily "estimate lower than the reality," but certainly he's saying that to overestimate (to imagine Americans to be more intelligent than they are) will make you broke.

    Also, I desperately want to work in the word misunderestimate, so there you have it.

    [(myl) Thanks! And here's the whole thing.]

  12. David Morris said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 6:54 pm

    The Bureau of Meteorology has estimated that today's top temperature in my suburb of Sydney, Australia will be 45 degrees. Centigrade. I hope they have overestimated, but if they have it will be cold comfort.

  13. David Morris said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

    They have since revised the estimated top to 39 degrees, so it looks like they overestimated.

  14. D.O. said,

    January 11, 2013 @ 11:35 pm

    It's interesting that the witticism does not work in the other direction (well, there are several possible "other directions", of course)

    Nobody ever made money by overestimating intelligence of ordinary people.

    deserves just a shrug. Though it might also be a mild put down of the "ordinary people". They never rose to the occasion to raise their intelligence.

  15. Dan Hemmens said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

    Assuming the insulting interpretation of the construction (as in "nobody every went broke by underestimating the X of Y" means Ys are not very X), I think it sort of follows if you parse it as "nobody ever went broke *as a result* of underestimating…" or perhaps another way to put it might be "nobody who ever went broke discovered that it was because they had underestimated…". This would imply that no matter how low your estimate, it will never be an *underestimate* because of how un-X the Ys are.

    The alternative interpretation assumes that the underestimate is a deliberate strategy, and the original quote does seem to be implying that to underestimate the intelligence of the public is to err on the side of caution, without necessarily carrying the implication that the public are a bunch of braindead schlubs (although the original source seems to carry that implication anyway).

    On a slightly meta level, it's interesting how the way you interpret a quote depends on who you attribute it to. A quote attributed to P.T. Barnum is very different to one attributed to H.L. Mencken.

  16. Chandra said,

    January 17, 2013 @ 3:20 pm

    Nobody ever went broke underestimating the human brain's ability to figure out multiple negations.

    Also, I agree with Hening Makholm's interpretation.

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