“A Collision at Sea…” the Most Famous Thing Thucydides Never Said

Thucydides is often said to have first written, “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day, ”  in his epic history, The Peloponnesian War. While the statement is unquestionably true, Thucydides never wrote it.   Today the New York Times’ Fred Shapiro attempts to  trackdown the origin of the mis-quote: Quotes Uncovered: When Ships Collide.

Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about this on Feb. 14, 1971. He said:

THAT ALLEGED quote of Thucydides — “A collision at sea can ruin your entire day” — popped up all over the place in the wake of the Standard Oil spill, sometimes with the last word cleverly changed to “Bay” — and now it turns out that the great Greek historian (c.460-c.400 B.C.) never said it. It’s funny: Navy Capt. W. B. “Bill” Hayler of the Calif. Maritime Academy in Vallejo confesses he made it up while a student at the Naval War College in 1960. “We had a history prof who was absolutely hooked on Thucydides,” he says. “Quoted him all day long. So I concocted that one and told everybody it was from Volume IX of the Peloponnesian War. Of course, Thucydides only wrote eight volumes. When I took command of the USS Buck in ‘60, I had it posted on the bridge — and then things began to get out of hand. Readers Digest picked it up in ‘62 and paid me five bucks. And when the Navy published ‘Farwell’s Rules of the Road,’ they used the quote in all their ads. The editor was horrified when I told him it was a phony, but I think they’re still using it.”

Can any of our database jockeys shed any light on the veracity of the Hayler account or the earliest findable usage of this quotation? And I would welcome any input on whether this is a famous enough line that it should be included in the next edition of The Yale Book of Quotations.

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3 Responses to “A Collision at Sea…” the Most Famous Thing Thucydides Never Said

  1. Plagarius says:

    good to know that a phony quote will not ruin your publishing career.

  2. Steven Toby says:

    Thucydides is well known for writing the longest sentences in Western literature. Some of them last for more than a page. I wondered about that quote being so short and pithy it just didn’t sound like him. Let’s hope the new author and date get into snopes.com.

  3. Dwight Hughes says:

    One thing Thucydides did say or more precisely, he said that Pericles said, and which get to the same point: “Seamanship is an art like any other; it is not something which can be picked up in one’s spare time, indeed, it leaves no leisure for anything else.” (History of the Peloponnesian War I, 142) One of my favorite sea quotes.