It Is Better to Know Nothing than to Know What Ain’t So

Josh Billings? Artemus Ward? Will Rogers? Abraham Lincoln? Mark Twain? Anonymous?

billings11Dear Quote Investigator: Here are two versions of an expression I am trying to trace:

1) It’s better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.
2) It is better not to know so much, than to know so many things that ain’t so.

Should these words be credited to Mark Twain, Josh Billings, Artemus Ward, Will Rogers, or someone else?

Quote Investigator: In 1874 the following compendium was released: “Everybody’s Friend or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor”. The apostrophe in the name Billings was misplaced in the title. The work employed dialectical spelling which causes headaches for modern researchers who are attempting to find matches using standard spelling. One section was labeled “Affurisms” because it contained “Aphorisms”. The book included two thematically relevant statements: 1

A) I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.
B) Wisdum don’t konsist in knowing more that iz new, but in knowing less that iz false.

Here are the two sentences written with standard spelling:

A) I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.
B) Wisdom don’t consist in knowing more that is new, but in knowing less that is false

QI believes that Josh Billings can be credited with the sayings above. There exists a large family of semantically overlapping expressions that form an inclusive superset, and QI will eventually examine some of the other members of this extended group.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1747 a history book asserted that the data about Persia in previous books was inaccurate; however, the author was now able to supply superior information. A thematic precursor of the adage was presented. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Thirdly, The proper names, titles of honour, wars and conquest of the Persians, are so disfigured by the mistakes of the authors, from whom we were obliged to take our accounts, that if we had published them alone, they must have tended rather to the propagating of error than of knowlege; since it is better to know nothing, than to apprehend we know what we know not. All these deficiences, misrepresentations, and mistakes, will be supplied and corrected in the following history . . .

In 1872 “Appletons’ Journal” printed an instance of the saying credited to Billings. This provided evidence that Billings employed the saying during one of his popular lectures before it was recorded in his large 1874 compendium. Alternatively, he may have written it in a pamphlet: 3

Josh Billings says, very truly: “You’d better not know so much, than to know so many things that ain’t so.”

In 1872 a humor book set in a future version of Saratoga, New York was published. The work included an instance of the adage ascribed to Billings: 4

Then I thought with Mr. Billings, that you’d better not know so much, than to know so many things that a’n’t so.

In 1873 “Folio” magazine of Boston, Massachusetts printed an instance ascribed to Billings: 5

Josh Billings says it is better not to know so much, than to know so many things that aint so.

In 1874 “Everybody’s Friend or Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor” printed the following two sayings as mentioned previously in this article:

A) I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.
B) Wisdum don’t konsist in knowing more that iz new, but in knowing less that iz false.

By 1897 the adage had been reassigned to the popular humorist Artemus Ward in the pages of “The North-Western Journal of Education”. The name “Artemus” was incorrectly spelled as “Artemas”: 6

In reference to the first part of this communication, the saying of Artemas Ward comes to mind: “It is better not to know so much than to know so many things that ain’t so.”

By 1899 a religious orator recorded in the pages of “The Pacific Unitarian” had reassigned the saying to the luminary Mark Twain: 7

Perhaps, as Mark Twain observed, it is better not to know so much than to know so many things that are n’t so.

In 1900 an instance was assigned to Abraham Lincoln in the pages of “The Land of Sunshine: The Magazine of California and the West”: 8

For, as Lincoln remarked, “It’s better not to know quite so many things than to know so many things that ain’t so.” And so many more things that aren’t worth a rap, even if they are so.

A variant has sometimes been linked to the humorist Will Rogers. For example, “New York Magazine” printed the following in 1978: 9

The trouble with most people, as Will Rogers observed, is not that they don’t know much but that they know so much that isn’t true.

In conclusion, Josh Billings popularized this saying, and he included it in his 1874 collection “Everybody’s Friend”. Numerous divergent instances have been circulating for many decades. QI recommends the 1874 version because it was published under the imprimatur of Billings.

Image Notes: Drawings of Josh Billings from the 1874 collection “Everybody’s Friend”. The illustrations were credited to “Thomas Nast and other artists”.

Update History: On September 22, 2015 the 1900 citation for Lincoln was added.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro who discussed this topic with QI which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Shapiro included the 1874 citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, Section: Affurisms: Sollum Thoughts, Quote Page 286 and 430, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link link
  2. 1747, An Universal History, from the Earliest Account of Time, Volume 11, Book 2: The Asiatic History, Section: C.XIII: The History of the Persians, Quote Page 141, Column 2, Printed for T. Osborne, A. Millar, and J. Osborn, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1872 September 28, Appletons’ Journal, Varieties, Page 364, Column 2, D. Appleton and Co., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. Date: 1872, Title: Saratoga, in 1901, by Eli Perkins, Author: Melville de Lancey Landon, Article: “The Perkins’s Family, Congress Hall, Aug. 26th.” Start Page 182, Quote Page 185, Publisher: Sheldon & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1873 January, Folio, Volume 8, Number 1, (Short item), Quote Page 12, Column 1, Published by White, Smith, and Perry, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1897 February, The North-Western Journal of Education, Volume 7, Number 7, A Talk About Number by E. F. Tucker, Start Page 224, Quote Page 225, Column 1, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1899 February, The Pacific Unitarian, Volume 7, Number 4, Address of Rev. Charles R. Brown, Start Page 118, Quote Page 119, Column 2, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1900, September-October, The Land of Sunshine: The Magazine of California and the West, Edited by Chas. F. Lummis, Volume 13, Number 4, In the Lion’s Den by Chas. F. Lummis, Start Page 291, Quote Page 292, The Land of Sunshine Publishing Co., Los Angeles, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1978 July 10, New York Magazine, Volume 11, Number 28, True or False by Randy Cohen, Start Page 29, Quote Page 30, Published by New York Media, LLC. (Google Books Full View) link