Don’t Believe the World Owes You a Living. The World Owes You Nothing. It Was Here First

Mark Twain? Robert J. Burdette? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

earth07Dear Quote Investigator: During this graduation season many who are finishing school are scrambling to try and find a job. The following acerbic words are usually attributed to Mark Twain:

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing, it was here first.

But I have been unable to find this in Twain’s oeuvre. Did he really originate this statement?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote this remark. It doesn’t appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”. 1 Unsupported ascriptions to Twain have been circulating in magazines and newspapers for more than fifty years, but Twain died more than one hundred years ago. Detailed citations are given further below.

The earliest close match for this comment located by QI was published in a New York newspaper in 1883. The paper printed excerpts from a recent speech given by Robert J. Burdette who was a popular humorist in this time period. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

If you men do anything else in the world, get married. If you say you can’t afford it now, it is because you are too selfish and too mean. Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.

For several decades this jape was properly ascribed to Burdette, and he sometimes receives credit today.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

This quip builds on the simpler saying: The world owes me a living. Top researcher Barry Popik has examined this adage and located citations starting in 1829. 3

In 1880, a few years before the lecture cited above, an essay by Burdette titled “Advice to a Young Man” was published in an Iowa newspaper, and he repeatedly touched on the theme of the quotation; however, Burdette did not write a strongly matching expression. QI conjectures that the joke was constructed when the material in the essay was transformed into a lecture format: 4

No, my son, the world does not owe you a living. The world does not need you, just yet; you need the world…

But don’t fall into the common error of supposing that the world owes you a living. It doesn’t owe you anything of the kind. The world isn’t responsible for your being. It didn’t send for you; it never asked you to come here, and in no sense is it obliged to support you now that you are here…

When you hear a man say that the world owes him a living, and he is going to have it, make up your mind that he is just making himself a good excuse for stealing a living. The world doesn’t owe any men anything son. It will give you anything you earn…

In 1883 the “Evening Observer” of Dunkirk, New York printed parts of a lecture delivered by Robert J. Burdette. As mentioned previously, an instance of the joke was included. 5

In 1884 the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio printed the comical remark as a short filler item with an ascription to Burdette: 6

Burdette: Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing; it was here first.

In 1886 a collection of sermons from a Philadelphia pastor were published, and the address titled “The Tramp” contained an instance of the saying without ascription: 7

Let our churches and schools go to the root of the matter. Let men be taught that the world does not owe them a living. It was here first; it don’t owe them anything. But every man owes the world work. We are born debtors to humanity. Idleness is a disgrace.

In 1900 a periodical called “Our Paper” published by a reformatory in Concord, Massachusetts printed an instance of the saying without ascription in a column titled “Gems of Thought”: 8

You are mistaken when you think that the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing; it was here first.

The connection of the joke to Burdette was retained in 1905 and 1918 editions of the book “Wit and Humor of Well-Known Quotations” edited by Marshall Brown. A section with a group of thematically linked expressions included an instance: 9 10

The world owes us a living.

The man who thinks so will probably find it in the almshouse. — Waterloo Observer.

The man who claimed the world owes him a living is slowly collecting the debt. He is a tramp. — The Judge.

If a man thinks that the world owes him a living he had better roll up his shirt-sleeves and take it out of her hide.

Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing; it was here first. — Burdette.

In 1957 an instance of the jest matching the common modern version attributed to Twain was printed in a Livonia, New York newspaper. However, the words were presented as a short item with no ascription: 11

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing: It was here first.

In March 1963 “The Reader’s Digest” included the quotation in a section called “Quotable Quotes”, and the words were assigned to Mark Twain. The magazine issue was distributed in advance of the cover date, so it would have been available by the end of February. The same quotation and ascription appeared in some newspapers in March as part of a feature called “So They Say”: 12 13

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.—Mark Twain.

Also in March 1963 the popular syndicated newspaper columnist Walter Winchell printed the expression with a linkage to Twain. Winchell used his own special vocabulary: “Reader’s Dije” was a reference to “Reader’s Digest”; and “swelegant” was a portmanteau for “swell” and “elegant”: 14

Reader’s Dije reminds you of Mark Twain’s swelegant squelch: “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. It owes you nothing. It was here first.”

In 1990 a compilation titled “Friendly Advice” edited by Jon Winokur placed the saying into a section of advice attributed to Mark Twain. The phrasing matched that given in 1963. 15

In conclusion, QI believes that this joke should be credited to Robert J. Burdette with the wording presented in 1883. A version of the remark was linked to Mark Twain in 1963, but Twain had died decades earlier in 1910, so this evidence was not substantive.

Image Notes: Mark Twain by Mathew Brady in 1871 via Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Earth taken during the Apollo 11 mission (NASA photo ID AS11-36-5355) from nasa.gov. R. J. Burdette from Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) via Wikimedia Commons.

(Many thanks to Barry Popik for his research on “The world owes me a living”.)

Update History: On June 14, 2014 “The Reader’s Digest” citation in 1963 was added.

Notes:

  1. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips, Edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Searched digitally)
  2. 1883 February 1, Evening Observer, Advice to Young Men (Report on a lecture given by Robert J. Burdette), Quote Page 3, Column 2 and 3, (Quote is in column 3), Dunkirk, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “The world owes me a living”, Date on website: May 04, 2010, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik com on June 6, 2014)
  4. 1880 May 6, Sioux County Herald, Advice to a Young Man by Bob Burdette, Quote Page 6, Column 5, Orange City, Iowa. (NewspaperArchive)
  5. 1883 February 1, Evening Observer, Advice to Young Men (Report on a lecture given by Robert J. Burdette), Quote Page 3, Column 2 and 3, (Quote is in column 3), Dunkirk, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1884 October 17, Cleveland Plain Dealer, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  7. 1886, Empty Pews & Selections from Other Sermons on Timely Topics by Madison C. Peters, Chapter VIII: The Tramp, Start Page 39, Quote Page 40, A. T. Zeising & Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust) link link
  8. 1900 September 15, Our Paper, Volume 16, Gems of Thought, Quote Page 591, Published by Massachusetts Reformatory, Concord, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1905, Wit and Humor of Well-Known Quotations, Edited by Marshall Brown, Quote Page 280, Published by Small, Maynard & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (First edition published in November 1904)(Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1918, Sayings That Never Grow Old: Wit and Humor of Well-Known Quotations, Edited by Marshall Brown, Quote Page 280, Published by Small, Maynard & Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1957 June 27, The Livonia Gazette, (Short freestanding item), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Livonia, New York. (Old Fulton)
  12. 1963 March, Reader’s Digest, Volume 82, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 67, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  13. 1963 March 3, Sunday World-Herald (Omaha World Herald), So They Said, Quote Page 8F, Column 2, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)
  14. 1963 March 21, Humboldt Standard, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Eureka, California. (NewspaperArchive)
  15. 1990, Friendly Advice, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Section: Mark Twain’s Friendly Advice, Quote Page 242, Dutton, New York. (Verified with scans)