The Climate Is What You Expect; The Weather Is What You Get

Mark Twain? Robert Heinlein? A Schoolchild? Caroline B. Le Row? Andrew John Herbertson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am preparing a book about the weather and climate, and I would like to include the following quotation:

The climate is what you expect; the weather is what you get.

Several web sites attribute this remark to Mark Twain, but a source is never given. The only precise citation I could find was to a 1973 novel by the prominent science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Can you help me with this question?

Quote Investigator: Heinlein did include a version of this aphorism in his 1973 novel “Time Enough for Love” as you note.

 There is no substantive evidence that Twain wrote or said the remark. Yet, he did include a funny comment that contrasted weather and climate in an essay published in 1887 titled “English as She Is Taught”. Twain was reviewing a book that was about to be published under the same title as his essay. The publication of the book was facilitated by Twain, and the volume was inspired by an earlier Portuguese-English phrase book called “English as She Is Spoke” that was riddled with comical errors.

The book “English as She Is Taught” presented a large number of student answers to questions posed by classroom teachers. Caroline B. Le Row collected these answers from her students and from her fellow teachers [CBLR]. Twain’s piece was published in Century magazine, and it contained extensive excerpts together with his commentary. Here is a sample of the humorously inaccurate student responses [MTET]:

  • Gorilla warfare was where men rode on gorillas.
  • Julius Caesar is noted for his famous telegram dispatch I came I saw I conquered.
  • Ireland is called the Emigrant Isle because it is beautiful and green.
  • The imports of a country are the things that are paid for, the exports are the things that are not.
  • The two most famous volcanoes of Europe are Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • The Constitution of the United States is that part the book at the end which nobody reads.
  • Congress is divided into civilized half civilized and savage.

Twain also included the following student remark:

Climate lasts all the time and weather only a few days.

This statement is distinct from the one provided by the questioner, but it is closely connected thematically. Climate and weather are compared via contrasting durations. Since “climate lasts all the time” it is what one would “expect”. Since “weather” lasts “only a few days” one might say it is what one would “get”. The semantic overlap is sufficient that confusion is possible between the two statements. Strictly speaking the phrases in Twain’s essay were attributed to anonymous students.

It is tempting to think that Twain or a teacher concocted some of these amusing remarks. Yet, the full name of the volume was “English as She Is Taught: Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools”, and Twain supported this claim by saying “all the examples in it are genuine; none of them have been tampered with, or doctored in any way.”

The earliest evidence QI has located of an expression closely matching the questioner’s quotation was published in a textbook from 1901 called “Outlines of Physiography” by the geographer Andrew John Herbertson [OPAH]:

By climate we mean the average weather as ascertained by many years’ observations. Climate also takes into account the extreme weather experienced during that period. Climate is what on an average we may expect, weather is what we actually get.

In 1902 a book reviewer writing in “The Geographical Teacher” was impressed by the saying, and he further disseminated it by reprinting the statement in his discussion of the textbook. The modern saying is a streamlined version of this adage [EWGT]:

… smart and neat such dicta as “climate is what on an average we expect, weather is what we actually get”; …

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1870 the joke about the division of congress into three parts was published in “The Circular” a periodical of the Oneida Community. This joke was later depicted as a genuine student error in 1887 [OCTC]:

Classification,—”Who makes the laws of our government?” asked a committee-man of the class under review—a class of Lilliputians. “Congress.” “And how is Congress divided?” A dead silence. At last a dear little thing not more than so high, with a wonderful memory, threw up her hand, thereby signifying that she was ready to answer it. “Well,” said the teacher, “what say you, Sallie? How are they divided?” “Into civilized, half-civilized, and savage,” was the triumphant reply.

“English as She Is Taught” was released in 1887 and Twain’s essay was published in April 1887. The next month a teacher shared a reaction in “The Ohio Educational Monthly” [OEMT]:

Probably all of us have read and laughed over “English as She is Taught,” in the April Century. Probably, too, any of us who have kept a record could match many of the blunders given there, although, it must be confessed, the capacity for blundering therein exhibited amounts to positive genius.

The teacher repeated the saying about climate and praised its accuracy:

Some of the answers given show that the victim has a pretty good idea of what he wanted to define. … the child who says “climate lasts all the time, weather only a few days,” has hit it exactly for this latitude.

The schoolchild adage about climate was reprinted in multiple books and periodicals over the years. Also, generous excerpts of Twain’s essay have been republished multiple times. Variant phrasings of the saying have been printed. For example, in November 1887 a letter in “The Oxford Magazine” of Oxford University included this [OMLD]:

“Weather” we have lately been informed in print “lasts only a little while, whereas climate lasts all the time.”

In 1897 another version was printed in “Self Culture: A Magazine of Knowledge”. Special thanks to top-notch researcher Victor Steinbok who located this citation and others in this article [SCMK]:

Practically, for point and brevity it is difficult to improve on the schoolboy’s definition that “Weather is what we have to-day and climate is what we have all the time.”

In 1901 a textbook called “Outlines of Physiography” was published and it contained a maxim very similar to the one mentioned by the questioner as noted earlier [OPAH]:

Climate is what on an average we may expect weather is what we actually get.

In 1904 the humor magazine Puck compared climate and weather through the important lens of real estate [PKLR]:

Little Rodney. — Papa, what is the difference between climate and weather?
Mr. Wayout (of Dismalhurst-on-the-Blink) — Climate, my son, is what a locality has when you are buying a home there, and weather is what it has afterwards.

In 1905 a statement was printed in a Seattle newspaper that matched the second half of the questioner’s adage [STWA]:

An expert says that the difference between weather and climate is this: “Climate is the showing we fix up for public inspection; weather is what we get.”

In 1907 a story in Scribner’s Magazine suggested another way to contrast weather and climate [SMLG]:

As a small child once remarked, philosophizing, “Weather is what happens, and climate is what goes on all the time.” It would be hard to name any country where both are objects of such contempt as they are in England.

In 1973 Robert Heinlein released the novel “Time Enough for Love” which included two intermission sections designated “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”.  Heinlein using the persona of Lazarus Long wrote many phrases and aphorisms, and some were Twain-like. One adage closely matched the questioner’s [RHTL]:

Climate is what we expect, weather is what we get.

In 1979 the collection “1,001 Logical Laws” printed the saying and referred to “Long”, i.e., Lazarus Long [LLJP]:

Long’s Notes: Climate is what you expect. Weather is what you get.

In 2000 the saying was invoked by a scientific researcher [UDJW]:

“Climate is what we expect. Weather is what we get,” said John Wallace, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington.

In conclusion, based on current evidence the adage should be credited to Andrew John Herbertson, a British geographer and Professor at Oxford. The most common modern versions are slightly simplified, and the science fiction author Robert Heinlein was an important nexus of popularization..

Mark Twain helped to spread another aphorism contrasting climate and weather in 1887. Twain attributed the remark to an anonymous student. This distinct statement preceded Herbertson’s and may have influenced it.

(Thanks to Shaun Lovejoy whose inquiry led to the construction of this question by QI and the initiation of this trace.)

[CBLR] 1887, English as She Is Taught: Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools, Collected by Caroline B. Le Row, Quote Page 29, Cassell & Company, Limited, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[MTET] 1887 April, The Century Magazine, Volume 33, Number 6, “English as She is Taught” by Mark Twain, Start Page 932, Quote Page 934, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[OPAH] Undated, Outlines of Physiography: An Introduction to the Study of the Earth by A.J. Herbertson, [Third Edition Revised], Chapter 12, Page 118, Edward Arnold, London. (Internet Archive full view) (This citation is for the Third Edition and not the First Edition; QI has not located a first edition, but the next cite shows that a book review of the First Edition referred to the quotation) link  link

[EWGT] 1902 February, The Geographical Teacher, Volume 1, Number 2, Recent School Text Books and Readers by E. R. Wethey, [Book review of: Outlines of Physiography by Dr. A. J. Herbertson of Oxford. (Arnold 1901)], Quote Page 95, (Google Books full view) link

[OCTC] 1870 January 31, The Circular [Oneida Circular], [Freestanding comical anecdote], Page 367, Column 3, Published Weekly by the Oneida and Wallingford Communities. (Google Books full view) link

[OEMT] 1887 May, The Ohio Educational Monthly, Section: Notes and Queries, [Comment on "English as She is Taught" by H. R.], Quote Page 231, Samuel Findley, Publisher, Akron, Ohio. (Google Books full view) link

[OMLD] 1887 November 16, The Oxford Magazine, [Letter to the Editor from Louis Dyer, Magdalen College, November 5, 1887], Quote Page 90, Oxford: Published for the Proprietors by Horace Hart, Printer to the University. (Google Books full view) link

[SCMK] 1897 October, Self Culture: A Magazine of Knowledge [Modern Culture], Volume 6, Number 1, Inquiries Answered, Start Page 71, Quote Page 72, The Werner Company Publishers, Akron, Ohio. (Google Books full view) (Thanks to Victor Steinbok) link

[PKLR] 1904 July 20, Puck, Number 1429, [Anecdote title: The Difference], Unnumbered Page, Keppler & Schwarzmann, New York. (Google Books full view) (Thanks to Victor Steinbok) link

[STWA] 1905 January 21, Seattle Daily Times, [One quote in a sequence of unrelated quotes], Page 6, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (GenealogyBank)

[SMLG] 1907 November, Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 42, Number 5, English Weather by Louise Imogen Guiney, Start Page 630, Quote Page 630, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Google Books full view) (Thanks to Victor Steinbok) link

[RHTL] 1988 [Reprint of 1973 novel], Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein, Quote Page 352, Ace Books: Berkley Publishing Group: Division of Penguin Putnam, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)

[LLJP] 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Page 59, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)

[UDJW] 2000 February 1, The Union Democrat, Weather Not Same As Climate, [Associated Press], Page 4B, Column 6, Sonora, California. (Google News Archive)