Well, the answer to the question, “What does ‘Barnum was right’ mean” is one of my favorites from the Book About A Thousand Things. It’s a self-fulfilling monument to popular myths that we’ve all forgotten – a harbinger of the kind of trivia that engrosses us today, only to be erased in 200 years from collective memory. Even as Stimpson is writing about Barnum and trying to put him into context, his use of popular language is outdated itself. (Although maybe we could stage a comeback of humbugging as a verb.)
Barnum himself faded into the past as a cultural reference, and is only remembered for something he didn’t say:
“The common saying, ‘there is a sucker born every minute’ is popularly attributed to Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891), the famous American showman. ‘Barnum was right’ is often resorted to when a person wishes to allude to the saying without quoting it.
There is no evidence that Barnum actually said ‘there is a sucker born every minute,’ and its origin in all probability is lost beyond recovery. It does, however, succinctly express the great showman’s philosophy of the credulity of the public, and it has become a sort of American proverb.
He once declared that ‘the American people like to be humbugged,’ and his outlandish hoaxes are proverbial. In England he delivered a lecture entitled The Science of Money Making, and the Philosophy of Humbug.”
Horace Greeley expressed a somewhat similar idea in more stately language when he asserted that ‘the public is one immense ass.’ Sucker as a slang term for greenhorn, simpleton, fool, victim of sharpers or one easily duped or imposed upon was in general use in 1857 and probably earlier. At one time, jay was a common slang word for chump, fool, or gullible person, and an old song that was very popular contained the line, ‘There’s a new jay born every day.'”
Ah, Mr Stimpson, if only you knew how little had changed. From banking scandals to Britney Spears, 60 million people can be wrong.
But from molehills to mountains, and Stimpson’s next question:
Why are the Balkans so called?