I always thought this phrase was a Macaulay original, but Mark Liberman at Language Log traced it all the way back to 1783, in Hugh Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres:

I spoke formerly of a Climax in sound; a Climax in sense, when well carried on, is a figure which never fails to amplify strongly. The common example of this, is that noted passage in Cicero which every schoolboy knows: “Facinus est vincire civem Romanum; scelus verberare, prope parricidium, necare; quid dicam in crucem tollere.”

(The essential point about what “every schoolboy knows,” of course, is that it must be something known only to graybeard academics.) Mark found this by means of Literature Online, “the world’s largest cross-searchable database of literature and criticism”; I hope I can get access to it through either the NYPL or C/W MARS.


  1. The irony’s even better if you say “Tully” (since every schoolboy knows who you mean).

  2. How delightful!
    (And the promiscuity of linkery has reminded me that I’ve been wanting to read Robert K. Merton for a long time now).

  3. Robert K. Merton is one of my heroes. I guarantee you’ll enjoy On the Shoulders of Giants.

  4. But are these schoolboys so brilliant that they kno more than any fule?

  5. Good point! The noted passage in Tully goes: “It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge him is a wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide. What shall I say of crucifying him?” (Here‘s the direct link to the Perseus translation.)

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