Quote Origin: I Never Was Ruined But Twice, Once When I Gained a Lawsuit, and Once When I Lost It

Voltaire? Mark Twain? Richard Brinsley Sheridan? John Bright? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator®
9 min readMay 23


Scales of justice illustration from Pixabay

Question for Quote Investigator: Legal conflicts are extraordinarily expensive and time-consuming for all the participants. Even the winner of a lawsuit can suffer financially. The ill-fated contender in two legal entanglements once said something like the following. Here are two versions. The word “gained” is a synonym for “won” in the second statement:

(1) I have been ruined only twice: once when I lost a lawsuit, and once when I won one.
(2) I never was ruined but twice; once when I gained a lawsuit, and once when I lost it.

This quip has been attributed to the famous wits Voltaire (pen name of François-Marie Arouet) and Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Clemens); however, I have never seen a solid citation, and I have become skeptical. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: There is no substantive support for the ascription to Mark Twain who died in 1910. The attribution to Twain appeared by 2014.

Researchers have been unable to find this saying in the writings or speeches of Voltaire. The valuable 2021 reference “The Quotable Voltaire” edited by Garry Apgar and Edward M. Langille contains a germane entry which states the following:¹

Attributed to Voltaire, almost certainly apocryphal

Voltaire died in 1778, and the earliest strong match located by QI appeared many years later in June 1826 within “The Sun” newspaper of London. A column titled “Fashionable — Intelligence” printed a miscellaneous collection of items including the following. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:²

BEAUTIES OF LAW. — “I never,” said Voltaire, “was ruined but twice, once, when I gained a law suit; and once, when I lost it.”

QI believes that the current evidence supporting the attribution to Voltaire is inadequate, and the originator of the quip remains anonymous.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The notion that winning a lawsuit can still be a calamitous event for the victor was mentioned in Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical work “Gulliver’s Travels” from 1726. A character described to a king his experiences in the Court of Chancery:³

Upon what I said in relation to our Courts of Justice, his Majesty desired to be satisfied in several Points: And, this I was the better able to do, having been formerly almost ruined by a long Suit in the Chancery, which was decreed for me with Costs.

In 1738 the politician William Yonge mentioned the negative financial consequences of court cases during a debate in the U.K. Parliament:⁴

It is very possible, Sir, for a people to be ruined by a war, though they are successful in every action; in the same manner as some men are ruined by gaining law-suits.

The linkage of the quotation under examination to Voltaire may have been facilitated by the widespread knowledge that Voltaire had suffered setbacks in court. Voltaire’s legal troubles were mentioned in a 1777 letter written by Frederic II, King of Prussia:⁵

Yet I cannot but perceive the despondency of Voltaire in his letters with pain. It should seem that he is molested in his establishments at Ferney. He informs me he has lost a law-suit, is a ruined man, and shall spend his old age in poverty.

In 1817 the book “The Sexagenarian: Or, The Recollections of a Literary Life” by English writer William Beloe included a short comical piece which parodied the legal system. The elaborate system required Writers, Talkers, Hearers, Deciders, and Interpreters. When two hogs quarreled the final result was unfortunate:⁶

Q. If a hog is decided to be in the right, what is the consequence?
A. He is almost ruined.
Q. If in the wrong, what?
A. He is quite ruined.

The 1821 biography “The Life of Voltaire” by Frank Hall Standish presented an anecdote in which a labourer asked Voltaire for help. The labourer had lost a lawsuit, and he considered the judgement unfair. Voltaire asked his steward to evaluate the case, and Voltaire was told that the labourer had a good cause. Voltaire gave some money to the labourer, but told him to discontinue actions in court. The anecdote illustrated Voltaire’s skepticism of the court system:⁷

“There,” said he to the unfortunate labourer, “is something to compensate you for the wrongs you have suffered in a court of justice; a fresh law-suit would be a source of new trouble to you; and, if you are wise, you will go to law no more.”

In 1826 a close match for the saying appeared in “The Sun” as mentioned previously. The same year the item was reprinted in several other periodicals, e.g., the “Morning Advertiser” of London⁸ and “The Examiner” of London:⁹

“I never,” said Voltaire, “was ruined but twice; once, when I gained a law-suit; and once when I lost it.”

In 1828 “Wit and Wisdom; Or, the World’s Jest Book” included an entry with a different phrasing. The two possibilities were reversed which made the logic of the humor clearer:¹⁰

Voltaire, speaking of law, says — “I never was but twice in my life completely on the verge of ruin — first, when I lost a law suit; and, secondly, when I gained one.”

In 1831 “The Aurora Borealis, Or Flashes of Wit” contained the following entry:¹¹

“I never,” said Voltaire, “was ruined but twice; once when I gained a lawsuit, and once when I lost it.”

In 1851 British politician John Bright employed the saying during a speech. He credited the quip to an unnamed man instead of Voltaire:¹²

A man said he was never ruined but twice: once when he lost a Chancery suit, and once when he gained one (laughter and cheers.)

In 1857 British lawyer Stephen Gaselee credited an instance of the saying to Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. This instance used the word “won” instead of “gained”:¹³

They would, perhaps, some of them, remember the saying of Sheridan, that he never was ruined but twice in his life, one was when he won a law suit, and the other was, when he lost one, (laughter and cheers), for it was well known to all who had had anything to do with law, that whether they won or lost a suit, they were pretty sure to be mulcted in the costs. (Loud cheers.)

In 1864 “The Jest Book” attributed the joke to an anonymous wit:¹⁴

“I NEVER was ruined but twice,” said a wit; “once when I lost a lawsuit, and once when I gained one.”

In 1872 the “Manchester Evening News” printed the joke while acknowledging the humor periodical “Judy”. A fictional character Jones received credit:¹⁵

For the Gentlemen of the Long Robe. — Jones says that “he never was ruined but twice: once when he lost a lawsuit, and once when he gained one.”

In 1894 “Bombs: The Poetry and Philosophy of Anarchy” by William A. Whittick printed a different phrasing:¹⁶

Talking of lawyers reminds me of one of their victims, who said: “I have been ruined twice in my lifetime, once when I lost a lawsuit and again when I was successful.”

In 1989 “The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations” included the following entry without a citation:¹⁷

I was never ruined but twice: once when I lost a lawsuit, and once when I won one.
Voltaire (1694–1778)

In 2014 “Daily Journal”, a periodical for attorneys in California, published an article which quoted an individual who credited Mark Twain with a version of the saying:¹⁸

To start every mediation, Connor invokes Mark Twain: “I’ve only been wronged but twice in my life: once when I lost a lawsuit, and once when I won.”

In 2016 an article in a magazine for attorneys called “Advocate” attributed an instance to Mark Twain:¹⁹

A favorite insight comes from the genius of Mark Twain who wrote: “I have been ruined but twice in my life, once when I lost a lawsuit and once when I won.”

In conclusion, the earliest strong match located by QI appeared in 1826. This was many years after the death of Voltaire which occurred in 1778. Researchers have examined Voltaire’s writings and have not found this joke.

The joke was circulating several years before Mark Twain was born, and the earliest attribution to the humorist occurred many years after his death. Thus, the ascriptions to Voltaire and Twain are unsupported, and the originator remains unknown.

Image Notes: Illustration of scales of justice from jpornelasadv at Pixabay.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Jan Adler whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.

[1] 2021, The Quotable Voltaire, Edited by Garry Apgar and Edward M. Langille, Section: Quotations by Voltaire, Topic: Law — Lawyers, Quote Page 163, Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. (Verified with hardcopy)

[2] 1826 June 24, The Sun, FASHIONABLE — INTELLIGENCE, Quote Page 3, Column 4, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

[3] 1726, Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World by Captain Lemuel Gulliver, (Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift), Part 2: A Voyage To Brobdingnag, Chapter 6, Quote Page 114, Printed for Benjamin Motte in London. (Google Books Full View) link

[4] 1741, A Collection of the Parliamentary Debates in England from the Year M, DC, LXVIII to the Present Time, Volume 16, Year: 1738, Section: Sir William Yonge’s Speech, Start Page 52, Quote Page 53, Printed in the Year MDCCXLI (1741). (Google Books Full View) link

[5] 1789, Posthumous Works of Frederic II, King of Prussia, Volume 12, Correspondence: Letters Between Frederic II and Mess. D’Alembert, De Condorcet, Grimm and D’Arget, Translated from the French by Thomas Holcroft, Section: Letters between Frederic II and M. D’Alembert, Letter Number: CLIII (153), Letter From: Frederic II, Letter To: M. D’Alembert, Letter Date: January 25, 1777, Start Page 70, Quote Page 72, Printed for G. G. J. and J. Robinson, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[6] 1817, The Sexagenarian: Or, The Recollections of a Literary Life, (by William Beloe), Volume 1 of 2, Charades and Riddles, Quote Page 320, Printed for F. C. and J. Rivington, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[7] 1821, The Life of Voltaire: With Interesting Particulars Respecting His Death, and Anecdotes and Characters of His Contemporaries by Frank Hall Standish, Chapter 9, Section: A Labourer Resorts To Voltaire, Quote Page 356 and 357, Printed for John Andrews, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[8] 1826 June 26, Morning Advertiser, London on Monday, Quote Page 2, Column 3, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

[9] 1826 July 23, The Examiner, Newspaper Chat, Start Page 474, Quote Page 475, Printed and Published by John Hunt At The Examiner Office, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[10] 1828, Wit and Wisdom; Or, the World’s Jest Book, The Whole Arranged by an Eminent Wit-Cracker, Second Edition, Topic: Law, Quote Page 280, Printed for Joseph Smith, London. (Google Books Full View) link

[11] 1831, The Aurora Borealis, Or Flashes of Wit; Calculated To Drown Dull Care and Eradicate the Blue Devils, Topic: Voltaire, Quote Page 112, Published in Boston by the Editor of The Galaxy of Wit, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link

[12] 1851 April 12, The Bedford Mercury, Public Meeting in the Evening, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Bedfordshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

[13] 1857 April 4, Oxford Chronicle & Berks & Bucks Gazette, Oxford City Election, Start Page 2, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Oxfordshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

[14] 1864, The Jest Book: The Choicest Anecdotes and Sayings, Selected and Arranged by Mark Lemon, Entry: CCCLXII (362) Twice Ruined, Quote Page 72, Macmillan and Company, London and Cambridge, England. (Google Books Full View) link

[15] 1872 January 24, Manchester Evening News, Cream of the Comic Papers, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Lancashire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

[16] 1894, Bombs: The Poetry and Philosophy of Anarchy by William A. Whittick, The Mormon Monster, Start Page 133, Quote Page 143, Press of A. R. Saylor, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link

[17] 1989, The Concise Columbia Dictionary of Quotations by Robert Andrews, Topic: Litigation, Quote Page 155, Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified with scans)

[18] Website: ADR Services, Document description: PDF reprint from “Daily Journal: Verdicts and Settlements” (a periodical for Californian attorneys), Article title: Innovator loves position as neutral, Article author: Matt Hamilton (Daily Journal Staff Writer), Date on website: October 3, 2014, Website description: ADR Services provides alternative dispute resolution services in California. (Accessed adrservices.com on May 22, 2023) link

[19] Website: Advocate Magazine, Article title: Eight Rules For Winning At Mediation, Article author: Jacqueline Connor (Ret.), Date on website: August 2016, Website description: Advocate is the largest magazine in the United States for plaintiffs’ trial attorneys. Advocate is owned by the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA). (Accessed advocatemagazine.com on May 22, 2023) link



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