Notes on the self-explanatory phrases to play billiards well is a sign of a misspent youth, to play billiards well is a sign of an ill-spent youth and their many variants:
The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the unsigned column The Man about Town, in The County Gentleman, Sporting Gazette, Agricultural Journal (London, England) of Saturday 7th June 1884—the author attributes the phrase to an old friend of his:
Probably no game requires more constant practice, and takes up more time in the acquisition of even moderate proficiency, than billiards, and the extraordinary excellence of professional players has, no doubt, discouraged amateurs, who now prefer tennis and whist to a pastime in which they cannot be sure of becoming shining lights. An old friend of mine once told me that he thought good billiard playing was a sign of a mis-spent youth. Perhaps so. I fancy, nowadays, youth mis-spends itself in other ways.
The phrase is alluded to in the following from ’Varsity Notes, published in The Tatler (London, England) of Wednesday 19th March 1913:
Cambridge won the billiards. E. C. Pretty gave Oxford a good start by easily accounting for R. Guthrie. The second string’s event having gone to Cambridge the deciding match looked like a safe thing for Oxford—at any rate to those who knew the prowess of Womersley at the game, success in which is not, in spite of rumour, the sign of a misspent youth.
One of the many variants of the phrase occurs in Tayside Echoes, published in the Perthshire Advertiser (Perth, Perthshire, Scotland) of Saturday 12th January 1924:
An Errol Threat.
The young men of Errol have been presented with a billiards trophy from the U.S.A.
Perhaps the donor from that desirable country, where virtue is triumphant, forgets the old saying, “that dexterity in billiards is a sign of a misspent youth.”
The phrase has often been attributed to the English philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). For example, the following is from the column This and That, in the Journal of Education (Boston, Massachusetts: New England Publishing Company) of Thursday 18th January 1894:
Mr. Herbert Spencer recently put very neatly the distinction between sport as an amusement and as an occupation. Dropping in at his club, he met a young friend, who invited him to play a game of billiards. The philosopher led off and left the balls in a good position for his opponent, who dexterously ran out, not allowing his companions another shot. Then the young expert naturally looked at the philosopher for the customary compliment, but the loser of the game said, very seriously, after depositing his cue in the rack: “Sir, a certain proficiency in such sport as this is a sign of a good education of the eye, the nerve, the hand; but the mastership of billiards which you have exhibited could have been acquired only by an ill-spent youth.”
Here is another example, from The Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois) of Sunday 7th February 1909:
Herbert Spencer, the eminent philosopher and educator, once told one of his students that too great ability at pool or billiards in a young man was the sign of a misspent youth.
In Notes on Pastimes, published in the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Sheffield, Yorkshire, England) of Tuesday 27th October 1908, ‘Looker-On’ mentioned but dismissed the phrase usually attributed to Herbert Spencer:
I don’t mind confessing that I have never been able to understand why some players are apparently ashamed of their prowess with the cue. We have long ago laughed out of memory the saying that excellence in billiards is a sign of an ill-spent youth whether Herbert Spencer ever said it or not.
In The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer (London: Methuen & Co., 1908), by Spencer’s assistant David Duncan (1839-1923), the philosopher is quoted as explaining that he only repeated an assertion made by a friend of his, Charles Roupell. The following passage consists of:
– an introductory sentence by David Duncan;
– a letter that Herbert Spencer wrote to Beatrice Potter; 1
– a paragraph by David Duncan;
– two paragraphs that Herbert Spencer dictated to his secretary;
– a footnote by David Duncan:
The credibility of testimony was […] touched upon […] on one of the numerous occasions when the “billiard story” was going the rounds.
To Miss Beatrice Potter.
20 November, 1890.
When you meet with a newspaper statement about me extract the square root and that will give you about the ratio of the fact to the fiction in it. I have not been in the Senior United Service Club for five years, and I never played any such game as that described, nor ever made any such remark à propos of one. The sole basis of truth in it is that I have occasionally repeated as the saying of a friend of mine, that to play billiards well is a sign of an ill-spent youth. All the rest is dressing.
The billiard story which year after year went the round of the press, with slight variations to suit the tastes of different classes of readers, is a striking example of the wonderful perversions these gossiping stories undergo. Some six or seven months before Spencer’s death it appeared in T. P.’s Weekly (13 May, 1903), the scene being laid this time not in the United Service Club, but in the Athenæum. At the request of the present writer Spencer dictated to his secretary the following:
One afternoon some ten years ago, when seated in the billiard room of the Athenæum Club, it was remarked to me by the late Mr. Charles Roupell (an Official Referee of the High Court of Justice) that to play billiards well was a sign of an ill-spent youth. Whether there was or was not any game going on at the time I cannot remember, but I am sure he would not have a made a remark in any way offensive to any one in the room.
In the course of that autumn or a subsequent autumn, when we had our interchange of visits with the United Service Club opposite, I repeated this saying of Roupell’s—repeated, I say, not giving any implication that it was an idea of my own, and most positively not making it in reference either to any game I was playing or had played, or in reference to games played by any one else: it was absolutely dissociated from anybody, and was simply uttered by me as an abstract proposition. This abstract proposition presently made its appearance in, I presume, one or other evening paper. In the first version, I think a young Major was the other party to the story. Then from time to time it went the round of the papers, and having dropped for a while, re-appeared in other papers (provincial included), always with variations and additions: the result being a cock-and-bull story, having no basis whatever further than the fact that I once repeated this saying of Roupell’s, apropos of nobody. *
* One of the most absurd editions of the story appeared in The Golden Penny of 29 April, 1899. The game had gone against him. “Mr. Spencer’s brow clouded. ‘Sir,’ he said, as the marker hastily scrambled under the table to allow uninterrupted discussion, ‘moderate proficiency is a sign of a good education of the eye, the nerve, the hand: but your mastership of the game could have been acquired only by an ill-spent youth.’ The philosopher was quite calm and collected, and not at all angry; he merely broke his cue to see whether it was made of elm or oak, and found, as he had expected, that it was neither.” Truly, a wonderful growth of a myth!
1 Beatrice Webb (née Potter – 1858-1943) was an English sociologist, economist, socialist, labour historian and social reformer.
Dinah Birch, editor of the seventh edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford University Press, 2009), ought to read The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, for the following is an extract from her book, about the Savile Club, London:
It was in the Savile billiards room that Stevenson 2 is alleged to have said to Herbert Spencer ‘that to play billiards well was the sign of an ill-spent youth’, though other clubs also claim this honour.
2 Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer.
The expressions sign of a misspent youth and sign of an ill-spent youth have occasionally been applied to other phenomena. For example, this is a passage from Good Manners for Young People, by Theodore Temple, published in The Chautauquan: A Monthly Magazine (Meadville, Pennsylvania: The T. L. Flood Publishing House) of December 1891:
Of course, illiteracy is a sad misfortune, and in these days and in this country it is usually a sign of a misspent youth, if it is found among those reared here.
And here is another example, from Concerning Cranks, published in The Walsall Advertiser (Walsall, Staffordshire, England) of Saturday 9th January 1909—Eblis is the chief evil jinni in Islamic mythology:
It is well to remember that a crank is not necessarily a lunatic. He is just a person whose sense of proportion is bit lopsided and out of shape. He has got an idea—often of quite small importance—into his head; and this idea is to him the one great article of faith. […] He may be a clothing crank, who firmly believes that corset irons (or whatever is their technical name) are forged in the Pit of Eblis; that starched-shirt fronts are a relic of barbarism (I agree with him there): that tall hats are outward and visible signs of a misspent youth.