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What is the origin of the expression "you argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel"? I heard it on the news and I would like to know who coined the expression.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 12 down vote accepted

It basically means don't pick a fight with the press or media.

It sometimes called "Greener's Law" and attributed to William Greener, but according to this page, it was Congressman Charles Brownson who coined it in 1964.

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Charles Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder & Fred Shapiro, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (Yale University Press, 2012) has this entry:

Never argue (quarrel) with a man who buys ink by the barrel (gallon).

1931 John F. Steward, The Reaper, (New York: Greenberg) 239: "The manufacture of self-raking reapers was then at its height, and the makers of those machines were ... led to believe that the Marsh harvester might become a competitor. So, with printer's ink, by the barrel, the new comer was cried down." 1964 Irving Leibowitz, My Indiana (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall) 76: "Pulliam's power lies in the relentless, scorching heat of his newspapers. ... Former Congressman Charles Bornson ... used to say, I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.'" 1965 William L. Rivers, The Opinionmakers (Boston: Beacon) 177: "One Indiana Congressman said resignedly of [newspaper owner Eugene] Pulliam, 'I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.'" [Remaining citations omitted.]

Roaring Fish is correct in identifying "Bornson" as Representative Charles Brownson (Republican—Indiana), It is unclear, however, whether Brownson used to make his quip about high-volume ink buyers while he was in Congress or only afterward. The Wikipedia article for Brownson notes that he served in Congress from January 3, 1951, to January 3, 1959, and thereafter worked as a congressional liaison (until 1964) and as a public relations professional (until his retirement in 1985). It seems more accurate to say that he made the statement by 1964 (when he was quoted to that effect in Leibowitz's book) than that he made the statement in 1964.

"Greener's Law" is cited in Fred Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations (2006), as follows:

William J. Greener, Jr.

U.S. publicist, 1925–

["Greener's Law":] Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.

Quoted in Wall Street Journal, 28 Sept. 1978

The 1931 quotation from Steward in Yale's Dictionary of Modern Proverbs is interesting as an early expression of the idea of the power of one who buys ink in bulk. An even earlier expression of this idea appears in a bit of doggerel in Educational Review (1927) [combined snippets]:

Safety First

William H. Allen

Slings ink by the gallon

And mixes Tobasco with withering wit;

Whomever he likes

He unerringly strikes.

I haven't as yet by Sir William been hit.

No sizling drop toward me has flown

That's one of the blessings of being unknown.

"Come out into the open"

Is William's favorite cry.

When I hear this challenge spoken

It's like "come have a black eye."

The William H. Allen mentioned in the first line appears to have been William Harvey Allen, director of the Institute for Public Service, and a big wheel in New York in the 1910s and 1920s.

Also from 1927 is this excerpt from a book review of The Public Life of Thomas Cooper, 1783–1839, in North Carolina Historical Review [combined snippets]:

He [Thomas Cooper] followed no men but Adam Smith and Joseph Priestly, and endorsed few save Thomas Jefferson. Battling ever in temporarily losing causes, he shed ink by the gallon and kept the printers busy with the pressure of his pamphlets. As a rule he identified authority with tyranny, and moderation with cowardice or duplicity. The privileged orders and the Jacobins combining to disgust him with the Old World, he sought elysium in Pennsylvania only to find American tyrants in John Adams and the Federalists who clapped him into jail under the sedition act.

So it appears that the propensity to use "ink by the gallon" was already viewed in 1927 as making a political figure formidable. But in the absence of more-specific information, the crown for formulating the proverb as we know it today goes to Charles Bownson, who had done so by 1964.

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protected by tchrist Jan 7 at 0:54

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