Ray Hallinan? Herb Caen? David Crosby? Joe Bob Briggs? Al Franken? Stuart Smalley? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The Saturday Night Live television program once featured skits with a character named Stuart Smalley who was played by the comedian and now senator Al Franken. Smalley was enamored with self-help programs and often used the following catch phrase:
Denial is not a river in Egypt.
I have also heard a very similar phrase credited to Mark Twain:
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Could you explore the origin of this quotation?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain used this expression. In 1936 a version of this pun-based joke was described by a syndicated newspaper columnist who was responding to a popular song. This citation was located by the extraordinary etymologist Barry Popik [ORSG]:
There is a goofy song going the rounds. The radio seems full of it. It prompts this first paragraph. Excuse it, please. What is denial? De Nile, teacher, is a river in Egypt. That was a terrible boner. You ought to know better than that.
In 1960 another instance of the quip appeared in Boys’ Life magazine. The periodical used the term “Daffynishion” to refer to definitions incorporating word play [BLRH]:
Daffynishion: Denial—A river in Egypt.—Ray Hallinan, Seattle 66, Wash.
These early examples did not include the negation which is part of most modern versions. In 1986 a version of the joke was published by the popular columnist Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. The words appeared anonymously as a witty response [SFHC]:
Sighted by Ivan Cutler at Kent’s Deli at Ninth and Mish’: a sign on the cash register reading, “Tipping Is Not a City in China.” The sequel is a nearby graffito: “And Denial Is Not a River in Egypt.”
Al Franken, in the persona of Stuart Smalley, did use this saying, but his satirical character was introduced to the television audience in 1991. Franken was employing a phrase that was already in circulation in the domain of self-help and addiction counseling.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1988 an autobiography of the popular musician David Crosby was released, and it included details of his self-destructive addictive behaviors. Crosby used the saying under investigation when speaking to associates who he felt were denying their own problematic actions [LGDC]:
The level of self-delusion was high and it was a fundamental problem that had no solution. As David is fond of saying to friends who are the same shape now as he was then: “Denial is not a river in Egypt.”
In March 1989 the expression appeared in the title of a column by Joe Bob Briggs, the pen name of John Irving Bloom. The term “Betty-Ford” in the following is a reference to the Betty Ford Center, a facility that helps individuals recover from chemical dependencies [TTJB]:
Betty-Ford me!; Denial is not a river in Egypt
In May 1989 the phrase was used by Dr. James H. ‘Red’ Duke, a noted trauma surgeon and educator [JHRD]:
“I don’t know why this country chooses to ignore the epidemic of injury in this nation that runs rampant all the time, killing more people on the highways every year than we did in the entire Vietnam War,’ Dr. Duke said.
“Why we choose to ignore that, I don’t know,’ he said. “But one of my favorite sayings about that is: Denial ain’t a river in Egypt .’”
In June 1990 the saying was used as the title of a play performed before an elementary school audience. The playwrights were Jennifer Middlesworth and Richard Greene [OCJM]:
Somewhere amid the laughing, clapping and general good time Concordia Elementary School students had while watching their classmates perform “Denial Is Not A River In Egypt ,” they received an important message: Alcohol and drugs can send a life down the drain.
In March 1991 former Vice President Al Gore penned an opinion piece that was printed in multiple newspapers. Gore cited the astronomer Carl Sagan and the rock band Dire Straits when he used the expression [AGFW]:
Global warming may be hard to think about, but it is rapidly being recognized as one of the most serious problems humans face.
The administration’s effort to pretend it does not exist reminds me of the point made by scientist Carl Sagan, when he quotes a song by Dire Straits: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
The Wikipedia entry for the character Stuart Smalley claims that he first appeared in the February 9, 1991 episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Kevin Bacon. QI has not independently verified this information.
In October 1992 a Pennsylvania newspaper published an interview with Al Franken. One topic of conversation was Franken’s recently released book with a rather lengthy title: “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!: Daily Affirmations By Stuart Smalley” [AFMV]:
“I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It has a lot of (12-step) program wisdom, like ‘Denial is not just a river in Egypt.’”
In conclusion, the primary word play of this comical phrase involves: “denial” and “de Nile” or “the Nile”. This basic joke was in circulation by 1936. The version of the quip using negation and suggesting a subtext of psychological analysis appeared by the 1980s. The phrase “And Denial Is Not a River in Egypt” was spotted as an anonymous graffito in 1986.
Update history: On May 11, 2012 a citation dated 1936 found by Barry Popik was was added.
(Many thanks to Robert MacLeay whose comment at the Freakonomics blog inspired this question and answer.)
[ORSG] 1936 November 3, Oregonian, New Bid Called Sut-Over-Suit by Sam Gordon: The Kibitzer, Page 8, Column 5, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
[BLRH] 1960 February, Boys’ Life, Think and Grin, Page 90, Column 2, Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books full view) link
[SFHC] 1986 June 19, San Francisco Chronicle, Once Upon a Deadline by Herb Caen, Page: 45, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
[LGDC] 1988, Long Time Gone: The Autobiography of David Crosby by David Crosby and Carl Gottlieb, Page 352, Doubleday, New York. (Verified on paper)
[TTJB] 1989 March 5, Trenton Evening Times, “Betty-Ford me!; Denial is not a river in Egypt” by Joe Bob Briggs, Page CC2, [GNB Page 155], Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
[JHRD] 1989 May 26, Dallas Morning News, “Houston colleagues want ‘Red’ Duke to replace Koop – Folksy TV doctor says he’d take surgeon general’s job if he had offer” by Jeff Awalt, [Associated Press], Page: 24A, Dallas, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)
[OCJM] 1990 June 14, The Orange County Register, “Making a play against drugs – San Clemente students perform ‘Denial’ to educate peers” by Lauren Cooper, Page: 01, Orange County, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
[AGFW] 1991 March 10, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Where is Bush’s resolve on energy crisis?” by Al Gore, Page: 7, Fort Worth, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)
[AFMV] 1992 October 28, Monessen Valley Independent, Smalley gives himself OK to be Al Franken, Page 5B, Monessen, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive)