George Carlin? Maya Angelou? Vicki Corona? Hilary Cooper? Kevin Bisch? Will Smith? Philip James Bailey?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following inspirational quotation has been attributed to a wide variety of people:
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
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I doubt that this was coined by George Carlin or Maya Angelou though I have seen those ascriptions. Who do you think should be credited?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in 1989 in a book for dancers titled “Tahitian Choreographies” by Vicki Corona: 1
Yes, there are so many grueling details and rehearsals to agonize over, but the dances and music of Tahiti add a happy, healthy dimension to our lives! Remember that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away! Dancing can do that for you!
The above citation was uncovered by the author Phil Bolsta who was writing a book which included a large number of quotations. Bolsta admirably performed extensive research attempting to pin down the sources for the quotations in his book. Bolsta stated on his blog that he contacted Vicki Corona directly to explore the origin of the saying in her book: 2
I was shocked to find this popular quote in a 1989 thirty-two-page booklet on Tahitian dance. I called Vicki Corona on April 17, 2012, and she said that, to the best of her knowledge, the quote was hers because she always wrote original material for the series of dance booklets she produced. However, she acknowledged in a follow-up e-mail: “While I doubt it, there is a possibility that I may have heard that verbiage before and simply went with it, or maybe it just came out from the labyrinths of my mind. Since you’re a writer, also, you know how that works when you’re in the ‘zone’.”
Hence, there is some uncertainty about the origin of this quotation in the mind of the person who employed it in 1989.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
The poet Philip James Bailey first released his magnum opus “Festus” in 1839. Later Bailey started to expand his poem. In 1853 a version was published in the United States that included the following passage which QI believes displays some points of conceptual similarity with the quotation under investigation: 3
We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;In feelings, not in figures on a dial.We should count time by heart-throbs. He most livesWho thinks most—feels the noblest—acts the best.
The words of Bailey were echoed in a remembrance written in 1904 about a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania: 4
It does seem to us that his life was all too short. But a life cannot be measured by its length. For “we live in deeds, not years, in thoughts, not breaths; in feelings, not in figures on a dial. We must count time by heart-throbs.”
A version of this poetic passage ascribed to Bailey appeared in the 1968 compendium “The Forbes Scrapbook of Thoughts on the Business of Life” 5 and the words continue to circulate, e.g., the modern reference work “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” included a memorable line: 6
We should count time by heart-throbs.Festus (1839) sc. 5
In 1989 “Tahitian Choreographies” by Vicki Corona was published, and it included the questioner’s quotation as noted previously. The recurrence of “take” and “breath(s)” marks this phrase as distinctive:
Remember that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away! Dancing can do that for you!
Over the years other names have been attached to the quotation. For example, a posting in the Usenet newsgroup nz.tech in 2004 assigned the saying to the comedian George Carlin: , Subject: Re: Panasonic ST-CH7 Amplifier Cooling Fan Resistor Help. (Google Groups Search; Accessed Decembers 17, 2013)" id="return-note-7850-7" href="#note-7850-7">7
Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. (George Carlin)
In 2005 the movie “Hitch” written Kevin Bisch and starring Will Smith was released. The title character was played by Smith, and he delivered the following line which was a very close variant of the saying: 8 9
After that you’re on your own, but always remember life is not the amount of breaths you take. It’s the moments that take your breath away.
In 2007 an advertisement for a dating service in the “Princeton Alumni Weekly” attributed the saying to Hilary Cooper: 10
“Life is Not Measured By The Number of Breaths We Take. But By The Moments That Take Our Breath Away. Hilary Cooper
By 2009 the saying had been reassigned to the notable author Maya Angelou. A newspaper in Manchester, Connecticut reported on a redecorated café that prominently displayed the quotation: 11
The interior of the cafe has been totally redone — new carpeting, a new paint scheme that has some walls buttercup yellow and others a bluish green, and framed inspirational sayings on the walls to get patrons thinking about what’s most important in life. Molina’s favorite is the one by poet Maya Angelou that reads, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”
Participants in discussion forums have offered different ideas about the origin of the expression. One commentator suggested it was from a greeting card company. QI has located no support for this suggestion at this time.
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In conclusion, this entry represents a snapshot of salient pieces of evidence QI has located. Currently, Vicki Corona is the leading contender for originator, but she laudably admitted to some uncertainty.
(Great thanks to Phil Bolsta for his pioneering efforts examining this quotation. Special thanks to EllAnon whose query gave additional impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)