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Where Did That Come From? - Sell them for what they think they're worth
Stan St. Clair

Today’s expression is “I’d like to buy him/ her for what he/ she is worth and sell him/ her for what he/ she thinks he/ she is worth.”

Yes, I know this is a long expression, but one most of my mature readers have likely heard a few times. I am using it because one of my Smithville Review readers named Dale asked me about it recently.

There are variations of this popular thought, often called an old saying, but its origin is elusive. The earliest citation I have been able to find is found in The Notre Dame Scholastic, the student newspaper of that famed college in 1898 in a poem:

“He’s only a boy whose name rimes with reed,                                                                                                       

Whose brain might be placed in a caraway seed.                                                                                                         

Whose only excuse for being on earth                                                                                                                      

Is the fact that of quacks there is a dearth.                                                                                                              

If someone could buy him for what he is worth                                                                                                             

sell him for what he thinks he is worth,                                                                                                           

What a profit there’d be. He might lounge in his chair                                                                                             

And live ever after a millionaire.”                                                                                              


Then Halcyon, the 1902 yearbook of Swathmore College in Swathmore, Pennsylvania printed this on page 162 in a note from members of the Class of 1904.

“If von could buy him for what he is worth and sell him for what he thinks he is worth you would make a fortune.”

This humorous story appeared in “Raising Hogs for Profit” by Martin Luther Bowersox, published in 1911, on page 62:

“I fear there are too many of us inclined to think too highly of ourselves, and think we know it and do not want to take advice. I have learned quite a bit in my time, and I still have a lot to learn. We should be careful in this matter. A farmer remarked to another farmer, ‘What are we worth?’ ‘Well,’ was the reply, ‘that depends on what we are — a horse, a mule, a cow, a steer, a boar or a jackass. There’s a fellow over yonder if I could buy him for what he is worth, and sell him for what he thinks he’s worth, I could rake in a pile of money.’ We should be careful and not think too highly of ourselves in the wrong light, which is against us. The fellow that generally thinks he knows it all and is past taking advice has not much business among common people.” 

A very similar story was printed in March that year in The Farm Journal.

Who started it is anybody’s guess!


If you would like to know the origin of a favorite expression, text the author at 931-212-3303 or email him at stan@stclair.net.