Mark Twain? Nicolas Chamfort? Émile Zola? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is a best-selling self-help book called “Eat That Frog!” that presents strategies to stop procrastination. The author discusses the meaning of the curious title in his introduction: 1
Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.
Your “frog” is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment.
The author emphasizes the desirability of focusing on and accomplishing this salient task. While reading this slim volume I started to wonder about the quotation attributed to Twain. I could not find it on the twainquotes.com website. Did Twain really say this?
Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain spoke or wrote the expression about eating a live frog each morning.
QI believes that the statement evolved from a quotation written by a famously witty French writer named Nicolas Chamfort who socialized with the aristocracy but supported the French Revolution. Chamfort’s collected works were published in French in the 1790s, and a memorably caustic remark about high-society was included. The words were actually credited to a person named Mr. de Lassay who functioned as a mouthpiece for Chamfort. Here is the French version: 2
M. de Lassay, homme très-doux, mais qui avait une grande connaissance de la société, disait qu’il faudrait avaler un crapaud tous les matins, pour ne trouver plus rien de dégoûtant le reste de la journée, quand on devait la passer dans le monde.
In 1851 the expression moved into the English language when a group of essays called “Causeries Du Lundi” or “Monday Chats” were translated. One essay profiled Chamfort and included the quotation: 3
M. de Lassay, a very indulgent man, but with a great knowledge of society, said that we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.
Metaphorically, the consumption provided protection, inoculation, or habituation. The original root saying used the French word for toad, but the sayings in English that grew from the root used either toad or frog.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1872 the Evening Post newspaper of New York printed an article about a prominent French political figure and presented another translation of the saying: 4
M. Gambetta, in one of his recent speeches, having declared that the people should wait tranquilly for their rights, and must, if necessary, “swallow a toad every morning,” several of the Paris journals have hazarded guesses as to the meaning of the expression. Its origin goes back to Chamfort, the author, who relates the following: “M. de Lassay, of a most gentle nature, but who possessed a great knowledge of the world, was accustomed to say that a man should swallow a toad every morning so that he might meet with nothing more disgusting during the rest of the day, if he had to pass it in society.” Evidently the phrase in question was known to the ex-Dictator.
In 1877 the author William Mathews published an essay in which Nicolas Chamfort was designated “A Forgotten Wit”. The essay contained several aphorisms and quotes from Chamfort including the saying under investigation: 5
M. de Lassay, a very pleasant man, but who had a great knowledge of society, said that it would be necessary to swallow a toad every morning, in order not to find anything disgusting the rest of the day, when one has to spend it in the world.
Also, in 1877 an author named John Morley examined the saying and found it abhorrent. The name of Mr. de Lassay was excised from the quotation, and the words were directly credited to Chamfort in this translation: 6
All literatures might be ransacked in vain for a more repulsive saying than this, that “A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be quite sure of finding nothing more disgusting still for the rest of the day.”
We cannot be surprised to hear of the lady who said that a conversation with Chamfort in the morning made her melancholy until bedtime. Yet Chamfort is the author of the not unwholesome saying that, “The most wasted of all days is that on which one has not laughed.”
In 1896 the famous writer and activist Émile Zola wrote a trenchant piece called “Le Crapaud” in the newspaper “Le Figaro” which boldly extended the metaphor of Chamfort. The English periodical “The Speaker” published an analysis of this work together with translated segments: 7
M. Zola has lately written in one of the Paris journals an article called “Le Crapaud.” It is not a dissertation on the habits of the frog, or on its prestige as a delicacy of the table. It is a protest against literary criticism, which M. Zola apparently regards as mad, malicious, or ignorantly foolish He uses the frog to point a moral to the beginner in letters.
“Young man,” he says, in effect, to the candidate for laurels who seeks his advice, “one thing above all is essential to a literary career. It is not that you should learn your business, or that you should profit by the counsel of those who point out your shortcomings, or that you should cultivate the modesty of true genius, even if genius be lacking. It is that you should learn to swallow a live frog every morning before sitting down to your daily task. Take my experience.
Not a day passes but I find in the journals which lie on my table a heap of insults. Someone misunderstands me in good faith but pure ignorance, or assails me with all the craft of malice, or rages at me like a madman. Moreover, a kind friend supplies me regularly with bundles of extracts from foreign journals, written by fools, maniacs, or uneducated simpletons.
I read them all simply to fortify my mind for the day’s work. I swallow the live frog, and nourish the creature with this diet of injustice, malevolence, and stupidity. Go you and do likewise. Believe me, it is the only method by which you can sustain your spirit against an unregenerate world, and achieve the fame that is your due.”
Zola suggested eating a live frog (or toad) so that the animal could fancifully help the writer by consuming the injustice and malevolence to which he or she was normally exposed. Some of the common modern versions of the saying are also based on ingesting live creatures.
Moving forward to 1976, a concise version of the saying appeared as a sign on a wall in Seattle, Washington: 8
One thing I saw above a desk in the Hawks ticket office I’ll pass along in hopes that it will be a motto by which you might live. It read: “Eat a live toad the first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
By 1988 a linkage to Mark Twain was established as reflected in an Ohio newspaper article: 9
I think it was Mark Twain who said, and if he didn’t he should have, that if you swallowed a toad every morning you could be pretty sure that nothing worse would happen to you for the rest of the day. That’s why I jog.
In 1990 a book in the popular series presenting installments of the “637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” recalled the words of Chamfort in a streamlined form: 10
Swallow a toad in the morning if you want to encounter nothing more disgusting the rest of the day.
Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794)
In conclusion, QI hypothesizes that this family of sayings originated with the words of Nicolas Chamfort published circa 1795. The family entered the English language via multiple translations and popular instances were simplified over time. Émile Zola created a new twist on the old saying by emphasizing the vitality of the animal and this ultimately influenced English language expressions. The spurious linkage to Twain apparently occurred in recent decades long after the death of the great humorist.
- 2007, Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy, Second Edition, Section: Introduction, Quote Page 2, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, California. (Amazon Look Inside) ↩
- Date: L’an 3 de la République (Third year of the Republic overlapped 1794 and 1795), Oeuvres de Chamfort (Works of Chamfort), Recueillies et publiées par un de ses Amis (Collected and published by one of his friends), Tome IV (Volume 4), Quote Page 335, A PARIS Chez le Directeur de l’Imprimerie des Sciences et Arts, rue Thérèse (Published in Paris). (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1851, Causeries Du Lundi (Monday Chats) by C. A. Sainte-Beuve (Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve), Volume 7, (July 1851 to September 1851), Translated by E. J. Trechmann, Chamfort (Article dated September 22, 1851), Start Page 180, Quote Page 192, George Routledge & Sons, London, E. P. Dutton & Co., New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1872 October 15, Evening Post, Personal, Quote Page 2, Column 3, New York, New York. (The original newspaper text incorrectly stated “Lallay”. QI has replaced it with “Lassay” to reduce confusion) (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1877, Hours with Men and Books by William Mathews, Chapter 16: A Forgotten Wit, Quote Page 295, S. C. Griggs and Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1877, Aphorisms: An Address Delivered Before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution on November 11, 1887 by John Morley, Quote Page 47, Macmillan and Co., London and New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1896 March 7, The Speaker, Volume 13, (Issue starts on page 250), M. Zola’s Frog, (Commentary on an essay by Émile Zola), Quote Page 262, Mather & Crowther, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1976 December 17, Seattle Times, Swank occasion in sweaty location by Walt Evans, Quote Page A10, Column 1, Seattle, Washington. (The text “motto you by” was changed to “motto by” because the additional “you” was probably a misprint), (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1988 May 6, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Magazine Section: Friday!, Thrills of the long-distance runner by Michael Heaton, Quote Page 2 (GNB Page 93), Column 2, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1990, “The Fourth — And By Far the Most Recent — 637 Best Things Anybody Ever Said” by Robert Byrne, Quote Number 38, Atheneum, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩