Famous Sayings: #74 — ‘When Life Gives You Lemons…’

August 11, 2017

When life gives you lemons, make some lemonade.

when life gives you lemons, make some lemonade, optimist, Elbert Hubbard, Dale Carnegie, Marshall Pinckney Wilder, famous sayings

Believe it or not, I first heard this phrase in the form of a song. And that song was part of a parody on an old comedy show on Fox. If you’ve ever heard of The Edge, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

The skit in question involved Julie Brown (not “Downtown” Julie Brown, but another former MTV personality of Just Say Julie fame), Jill Talley, and Jennifer Aniston. They were playing the ladies in the trio Wilson-Phillips and making fun of the song heard in the video below.

In the parody, Aniston played Chynna Philips, Talley played Wendy Wilson, and Brown played Carnie Wilson.

Anyway, I have been familiar with this phrase ever since, but I have never used it myself. It has come up every now and then and I decide to use it today because it has a dual purpose: Not only does the message pertain to recent events but lemonade is kind of synonymous with summer.


Who First Said ‘When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Some Lemonade’?

This origin for this phrase wasn’t easy for me to find at first, so I gave it time. Then I decided to look at Wikipedia, at least for referencing purposes. This time, I wasn’t disappointed. My next visit was to an old thread on the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange, which confirmed what I already found.

The Person Often Credited with the Phrase

The idiom is often attributed to Dale Carnegie, who himself attributed the proverb to Julius Rosenwald. Carnegie’s version of the phrase turns up in his 1948 book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living.

If you have a lemon, make a lemonade.

When I looked at the Stack Exchange thread: On April 25, 2011, a user named Uticensis asked about the etymology of the phrase “when life gives you lemons …” There were a total of three answers, but the first two referenced Dale Carnegie.

Chapter 17 in How to Stop Worrying and Start Living

From Page 138:

While writing this book, I dropped in one day at the University of Chicago and asked the Chancellor, Robert Maynard Hutchins, how he kept from worrying. He replied, “I have always tried to follow a bit of advice given to me by the late Julius Rosenwald, President of Sears, Roebuck and Company: ‘When you have a lemon, make a lemonade.’”

That is what a great educator does. But the fool does the exact opposite. If he finds that life has handed him a lemon, he gives up and says, “I’m beaten. It is fate. I haven’t got a chance.” Then he proceeds to rail against the world and indulge in an orgy of self-pity. But when the wise man is handed a lemon, he says: “What lesson can I learn from this misfortune? How can I improve my situation? How can I turn this lemon into a lemonade?

After spending a lifetime studying people and their hidden reserves of power, the great psychologist, Alfred Adler, declared that one of the wonder-filled characteristics of human beings is “their power to turn a minus into a plus.”

From page 141:

If I had the power to do so, I would have these words of William Bolitho carved in eternal bronze and hung in every schoolhouse in the land:

The most important thing in life is not to capitalize on your gains. Any fool can do that. The really important thing is to profit from your losses. That requires intelligence; and it makes the difference between a man of sense and a fool.

So, to cultivate a mental attitude that will bring us peace and happiness, let’s do something about Rule 6:

When fate hands us a lemon, let’s try to make a lemonade.

The Real Source

The origin of the phrase was likely Elbert Hubbard, a Christian anarchist who penned the obituary for actor Marshall Pinckney Wilder.

In the obituary (entitled The King of Jesters), Hubbard talked about how Wilder, who was a dwarf, made a career for himself despite his immediate disadvantages.

He was a walking refutation of that dogmatic statement, Mens sana in corpore sano.* His was a sound mind in an unsound body. He proved the eternal paradox of things. He cashed in on his disabilities. He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand.

Note: Mens sana in corpore sano is a Latin phrase which means “a sound mind in a sound body.”

The Full Quotes from Hubbard

I decided to look at direct sources to pull the quote from Elbert Hubbard.

On August 14, 2012, a Stack Exchange user named schulwitz pointed to Hubbard and linked to two sources. One was from Google Books and the other was an archive from the October 1927 edition of Reader’s Digest.

Here is the quote at the bottom of page 343 in the October 1927 edition of Reader’s Digest:

A genius is a man who takes the lemons that Fate hands him and starts a lemonade stand with them.—Elbert Hubbard.

I also followed the link to Google Books, where there was a compilation of Hubbard quotes.  Here’s a selected passage from the book on page 237:

Marshall P. Wilder lived all his life in the shadow of the wing of Death

He was a walking refutation of that dogmatic statement, Mens sana in corpore sano. His was a sound mind in an unsound body. He proved the eternal paradox of things. He cashed in on his disabilities. He picked up the lemons that Fate had sent him and started a lemonade-stand.

And he never asked for pity. In fact, he scorned it, and if any one ever got his ill-will, it was because the party was too profuse in endeavors to help him.

About Marshal P. Wilder

Marshall Pinckney Wilder was born in Geneva, New York on September 19, 1859. He made a name for himself as a writer and actor. Some of the works he was known for included “The Five Senses” (1912), “Professor Optimo” (1912), and “The Widow’s Might” (1913).

In 1903, he married his wife, Mrs. Marshall P. Wilder. The two had two children. Mrs. Wilder died in 1913.

Mr. Wilder died in St. Paul Minnesota on January 10, 1915 from a heart attack (IMDb).

Other Sources

To further refute the claim that Carnegie was behind the phrase, the Wikipedia article pointed to more sources. As it turns out, versions the phrase “when life gives you lemons …” had appeared in some more publications between Hubbard’s coinage and Carnegie’s version.

It first appeared in the September 1916 edition of the Auburn Seminary Record after being coined:

[Hugh K Walker] described a pessimist as one who fletcherizes his bitter pill, the optimist as the man who made lemonade of the lemon handed him.

In a 1940 edition of The Rotarian, a version of the phrase turned up in the poem entitled “The Optimist.”

Life handed him a lemon,
As Life sometimes will do.
His friends looked on in pity,
Assuming he was through.
They came upon him later,
Reclining in the shade
In calm contentment, drinking
A glass of lemonade.

Homer E. Capehart became known for saying the following during his first run for the Senate in 1944:

I have never been afraid of trouble. I have always had this slogan: If somebody hands you a lemon, make lemonade of it.


What Does the Phrase ‘When Life Give You Lemons …’ Mean?

The phrase is used to promote optimism and encourage people to work through their disadvantages or setbacks. Since lemons are sour, they represent the hardships. Lemonade is sweet and it is made by squeezing the juice out of lemons and mixing in some water in sugar. In a metaphorical sense, it represents someone overcoming their hardships and even using their weaknesses as strengths.


Does This Phrase Always Apply in Times of Adversity?

Here’s a twist on the old adage:

In a blog post, Sarah Rudell Beach decided to “pick on” the adage “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” because she said it bugged her. Rudell Beach plays with the metaphor a bit to stress how it’s sometimes important for people to “sit with the lemons” if they need to. One of her favorite “mommy mantras” is “sit with the suck,” but she distinguishes between doing that and wallowing in one’s misery.

At times, people need to sit with their feelings for a while until they can figure out what they need to do next. Life is hard and the adage makes it seem like things are easy. Sometimes all we need is time to gather our thoughts and move on.

I think this is good advice.


Works Cited

Carnegie, Dale. “Chapter 17: If You Have a Lemon, Make a Lemonade.” How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. Simon & Schuster. 1948. Print. Pages 138, 141. Retrieved 8 Aug 2017. Web. <https://books.google.com/books?id=zHBEKfn52l4C&pg=PA138>.

“Marshall P. Wilder – Biography.” Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. Retrieved 9 Aug 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0928605/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm>.

“Remarkable Remarks.” Readers Digest No. 66. Oct 1927. Print. Page 343. <https://archive.org/stream/ReadersDigestno.66October1927/Readers_Digest_No.66_October_1927#page/n23/mode/2up/search/lemons>.

The Roycrofters. “Marshall P. Wilder.” Selected Writings of Elbert Hubbard, His intage of Wisdom, coined from a Life of Love, Laughter, and Work, lovingly gathered by Elbert Hubbard II and made into Goodly Volumes by The Roycrofters at their Shops, which are at East Aurora, New York, and issued as an Anniversary Edition. Volume 5. 1922. Print. Page 237. Retrieved 8 Aug 2017.

Rudell Beach, Sarah. “When Life Gives You Lemons…” Left Brain Buddha. Web. Retrieved 8 Aug 2017. <http://leftbrainbuddha.com/life-gives-lemons/>.

Various. “What is the origin of the phrase ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade’?” English Language & Usage Stack Exchange. 25 Aug 2011. Web. Retrieve 8 Aug 2017. <http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/22588/what-is-the-origin-of-the-phrase-when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade>.

Various. “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Wikipedia. Last Updated 9 Feb 2017. Web. Retrieved 6 Mar 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_life_gives_you_lemons,_make_lemonade>.

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3 thoughts on “Famous Sayings: #74 — ‘When Life Gives You Lemons…’

    1. I love lemonade. Sometimes a nice, cool drink can make pondering all the better.

      I liked Rudell’s take on the idiom because sometimes people need to be left alone with their anger. People need some space in order to figure out what they’re thinking and how to get past their anger. Other times, it’s nice to have someone listen to us in order to vent.

      Liked by 1 person

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