Tag Archives: Mark Twain

It Is Wiser To Find Out Than To Suppose

Mark Twain? Merle Johnson? Apocryphal?

twain07Dear Quote Investigator: I would like to use the following adage during a presentation to a large group:

It is wiser to find out than to suppose.

I plan to credit Mark Twain, but I know that if I am wrong it will be very embarrassing because the entire point of the remark will be undermined. Would you please help me to replace a supposition with a fact? Can you find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a small compilation titled “More Maxims of Mark” containing quotations ascribed to Twain that was privately printed as a limited edition in November 1927 by Merle Johnson who was a rare book collector. Johnson published the first careful bibliography of Twain’s works in 1910 shortly after the writer’s death. Twain scholars believe that the sayings compiled by Johnson in this book are genuine.

A friend of QI’s accessed volume number 14 of 50 in the Rubenstein Rare Book Library at Duke University and verified that the adage was printed on page number 8. Below is the saying together with the two succeeding entries. All the maxims in the work were presented in uppercase. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

IT IS WISER TO FIND OUT THAN TO SUPPOSE.
IN LITERATURE IMITATIONS DO NOT IMITATE.
IT IS BEST TO READ THE WEATHER FORECAST BEFORE WE PRAY FOR RAIN.

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Notes:

  1. 1927, More Maxims of Mark by Mark Twain, Compiled by Merle Johnson, Quote Page 8, First edition privately printed November 1927; Number 14 of 50 copies. (Verified on paper; thanks to the Rubenstein Library at Duke University; special thanks to Mike)

Sacred Cows Make the Best Hamburger

Mark Twain? Abbie Hoffman? Roy F. Nichols? George McKinnon? Aardvark Magazine? Graffito?

cow07Dear Quote Investigator: The following has often been ascribed to the famous humorist Mark Twain and the 1960s-era political activist Abbie Hoffman:

Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburger.

Apologies for offensiveness. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote this statement. It does not appear on the important Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2

The words were ascribed to Abbie Hoffman by a speaker at his funeral in 1989. The detailed citation is given further below.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in October 1965 in “The Daily Collegian”, a student newspaper at Pennsylvania State University. An article discussed the revivification of a student publication called “Bottom of the Birdcage” which took inspiration from another periodical. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3

Birdcage’s newly-adopted theme, borrowed from Aardvark magazine, is “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.” Each issue will have something to offend each member of the family.

“Aardvark” magazine was a Chicago humor journal that started out at Roosevelt University. Based on the excerpt above, the saying probably appeared in that magazine before October 1965; however, QI has not examined issues of “Aardvark”. Also, it was conceivable that more than one humor magazine using the name “Aardvark” existed in the time period.

QI believes that the expression evolved over time, and interesting precursors appeared many years earlier.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched December 3, 2016) link
  2. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1965 October 19, The Daily Collegian (Pennsylvania State University student paper), Ad Hoc Resurrects ‘Bottom of Birdcage’, Page 4, Column 6, University Park, Pennsylvania. (Google News Archive, ActivePaper Archive Full View)

If You Don’t Read the Newspaper You Are Uninformed, If You Do Read the Newspaper You Are Misinformed

Mark Twain? Thomas Jefferson? Thomas Fuller? Orville Hubbard? Ezra Taft Benson? Apocryphal?

twain11Dear Quote Investigator: A cynical attitude toward the media is widespread today, but this is not a new development. Supposedly, Mark Twain made the following remark:

If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.

Are these really the words of the famous humorist?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said this. It is not listed on the important Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt. 1 In addition, QI has been unable find an instance in key compilations like “Mark Twain Speaking” edited by Paul Fatout 2 and “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 3

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a message posted in 2000 to an international discussion system named Usenet within a newsgroup called israel.francophones. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 4

As Mark Twain once said, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched December 3, 2016) link
  2. 1976, Mark Twain Speaking, Edited by Paul Fatout, Published by University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. November 2, 2000, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: israel.francophones, From: tsip…@my-deja.com, Subject: Reagir/Presse. (Google Groups Search; Accessed November 28, 2016)

Wagner’s Music Is Really Much Better Than It Sounds

Mark Twain? Bill Nye? Ambrose Bierce? Punch Magazine?

orchestra09Dear Quote Investigator: Richard Wagner was prominent German composer who created the landmark four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). A comically incongruous remark about his efforts has been attributed to two famous American humorists Mark Twain and Bill Nye:

Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.

Do you know who crafted this jibe?

Quote Investigator: The earliest partial match known to QI appeared in August 1887. Several newspapers such as “The Wichita Daily Beacon” 1 of Wichita, Kansas and “The Jackson Citizen Patriot” 2 of Jackson, Michigan printed a column called “Bill Nye’s Information Bureau”. The Wichita paper acknowledged “The New York World” as the initial source. The column began with a letter from “Truth Seeker” who posed several questions for Nye including the following:

What is the peculiarity of classical music, and how can one distinguish it?

Nye responded with a version of the quip that targeted a class of music instead of an individual composer. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

The peculiar characteristic of classical music is that it is really so much better than it sounds.

In November 1889 “The Indianapolis News” of Indianapolis, Indiana pointed to an unnamed Philadelphia paper while crediting Nye with a version of the joke targeting Wagner: 3

Says a Philadelphia newspaper: “Bill Nye on his recent visit to this city to lecture called upon a well-known music lover, and while there was asked to write in an autograph album. He did so, and among other things wrote the following: ‘Wagner’s music, I have been informed, is really much better than it sounds.'”

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Notes:

  1. 1887 August 4, The Wichita Daily Beacon, His Information Bureau: Bill Nye Takes a Man into His Confidence and Educates Him (From the New York World), Quote Page 2, Column 2, Wichita, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1887 August 11, The Jackson Citizen Patriot, Bill Nye’s Bureau: He Takes a Stranger in and Educates Him, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Jackson, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1889 November 22, The Indianapolis News, “SCRAPS”, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

Conspiracy: The Pursuance of Policies Which They Dare Not Admit in Public

Mark Twain? Ossip Gabrilowitsch? Clara Clemens? Apocryphal?

clemens11Dear Quote Investigator: I’m conducting a research check on a television script containing a definition for the term “conspiracy” credited to Mark Twain. The definition notes that the conspiring participants “dare not admit in public” the secret agreement. Are you familiar with this quotation? Is the attribution to Twain accurate?

Quote Investigator: The ascription of this conspiracy quotation to Mark Twain is incorrect. Instead, Twain’s son-in-law, a prominent musician named Ossip Gabrilowitsch, probably crafted the quotation.

In 1909 Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens married Gabrilowitsch, a concert pianist who became the director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He died in 1936, and she published a biographical work titled “My Husband, Gabrilowitsch” in 1938. Clara Clemens included an excerpt from a letter written by Gabrilowitsch who believed that local musicians in Detroit were not being evaluated and hired in an equitable manner by the Symphony Society. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Do you mean to infer that a man from New York or Boston, all things being equal, should have the preference over the Detroit man and should even receive a larger fee? Neither you nor the Board of Directors would be willing to own up to such a policy. Why, it would amount practically to a conspiracy (for a conspiracy is nothing but a secret agreement of a number of men for the pursuance of policies which they dare not admit in public).

Since the passage above was presented as text from a Gabrilowitsch letter he was the most likely author of the quotation in boldface; however, it remains conceivable that Clara Clemens added the parenthetical elaboration; thus, she was the creator of the statement. Whichever possibility was true, one may still conclude that Mark Twain was not the coiner.

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Notes:

  1. 1938, My Husband, Gabrilowitsch by Clara Clemens, Quote Page 147, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans; great thanks to Barbara Schmidt )

There Is Always a Well-Known Solution to Every Human Problem—Neat, Plausible, and Wrong

Mark Twain? H. L. Mencken? Peter Drucker? Anonymous?

wrong09Dear Quote Investigator: A popular saying presents a vivid warning about apparent solutions which are too good to be true. Here are four versions:

  1. There is a solution to every problem: simple, quick, and wrong.
  2. For every problem there is a solution that is simple, neat—and wrong.
  3. Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible—and wrong.
  4. There’s always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.

These expressions have been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain, the witty curmudgeon H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), and the insightful management guru Peter Drucker. Which version is correct and who should receive credit?

Quote Investigator: The third version above was a close match to a remark written by H. L. Mencken in a 1920 collection of essays called “Prejudices: Second Series”. The third chapter titled “The Divine Afflatus” discussed the mysterious spark of inspiration and creativity in the arts and letters. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong. The ancients, in the case at bar, laid the blame upon the gods: sometimes they were remote and surly, and sometimes they were kind. In the Middle Ages lesser powers took a hand in the matter, and so one reads of works of art inspired by Our Lady, by the Blessed Saints, by the souls of the departed, and even by the devil.

Mencken’s original statement used the phrase “well-known solution”, but modern instances sometimes substitute “easy solution”. Latter-day expressions have been constructed with a variable set of adjectives including: “simple”, “direct”, “clear”, “obvious”, “neat”, “quick”, “plausible”, and “straight-forward”. The stinging final word “wrong” has usually been preserved.

Mencken published an earlier version of the essay “The Divine Afflatus” in “The New York Evening Mail” on November 16, 1917, but quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro of “The Yale Book of Quotations” stated that the quotation was absent from this initial work. 2

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Notes:

  1. 1920, Prejudices: Second Series by H. L. Mencken (Henry Louis Mencken), Chapter 4: The Divine Afflatus, Start Page 155, Borzoi: Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section H. L. Mencken, Quote Page 511, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

Two Most Important Days in Your Life: The Day You Were Born and the Day You Discover Why

Mark Twain? Ernest T. Campbell? Anita Canfield? William Barclay? William McCartney? Tim Elmore? David Wood? Dave Martin? Helen Burns? Anonymous?

birth09Dear Quote Investigator: The number of fake Mark Twain quotations grows significantly every year. I fear that a civilization of the distant future will credit Twain with authorship of every extant text. Here are two versions of a saying that has improbably been attributed to the man from Hannibal, Missouri:

1) The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.

2) There are two great days in a person’s life—the day we are born and the day we discover why.

Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive support linking Mark Twain to the statement.
The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in a 1970 pamphlet published by “The Riverside Church” of New York City. Minister Ernest T. Campbell delivered a sermon on January 25, 1970 that was recorded in the pamphlet. Campbell prefaced the saying with the locution “it has been said”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Our times call not for diction but for action. It has been said that the two most important days of a man’s life are the day on which he was born and the day on which he discovers why he was born. This is why we were born: To love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.

Based on current evidence the provenance is anonymous. This article presents a snapshot of what QI has found, and subsequent researchers may discover more information.

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Notes:

  1. Pamphlet, Sermons from Riverside, Date of Sermon: January 25, 1970, Title of Sermon: “Give Ye Them to Eat”: Luke 9:10-17, Author of Sermon: Dr. Ernest T. Campbell, Quote Page 8, The Publications Office, The Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, New York, N.Y., Call number: Ernest T. Campbell Manuscript Collection Box 2, No. 3, Book contributor: Princeton Theological Seminary Library. (Internet Archive at archive.org)

Make It a Point To Do Something Every Day That You Don’t Want To Do

Mark Twain? Eleanor Roosevelt? Mary Schmich? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Apocryphal?

twaindo09Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain said something about doing at least one thing each day that you should do despite the fact that it makes you feel uncomfortable. I do not remember precisely how the expression was phrased. Here are two pertinent statements:

Do something every day that you don’t want to do.
Do one thing every day that scares you.

Would you please determine what Twain said?

Quote Investigator: In 1897 Mark Twain released a travel book titled “Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World”, and the fifty-eighth chapter presented the following epigraph. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Make it a point to do something every day that you don’t want to do. This is the golden rule for acquiring the habit of doing your duty without pain.
—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

Pudd’nhead Wilson was the name of a fictional character in a novel Twain published a few years before the travel book. So, Twain was the actual creator of the advice given above.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1897, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), (Chapter 58 Epigraph), Quote Page 549, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut; Also Doubleday & McClure Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link

Why Not Go Out On a Limb? Isn’t That Where the Fruit Is?

Mark Twain? Will Rogers? Frank Scully? Arthur F. Lenehan? H. Jackson Brown? Mother of H. Jackson Brown? Shirley MacLaine?

apple09Dear Quote Investigator: To succeed one must be willing to take risks and to enter the precarious realm of punishments and accolades. Here are four versions of an expression that appears in many self-help books:

1) Why not go out on a limb? That’s where the fruit is.
2) Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?
3) Go out on a limb, that’s where the fruit is.
4) Don’t be afraid to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.

This notion has confusingly been attributed to two famous humorists: Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Would you please examine its provenance?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence supporting the linkage to either Mark Twain or Will Rogers.

The earliest instance located by QI was printed in the show business periodical “Variety” in September 1950. The journalist Frank Scully coined the memorable phrase and included it in his column “Scully’s Scrapbook”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

To people who urge you not to go out on a limb I have a new twist. I gave it to Ken Murray and before he can use it I’m giving it to my public. It’s this: Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?

Within a week the powerful and widely-syndicated commentator Walter Winchell reprinted the saying in a section of his column called “Quotation Marksmanship”, and Winchell credited Scully: 2 3

Frank Scully: Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1950 September 20, Variety, Scully’s Scrapbook by Frank Scully, (Dateline: Dare’s Wharf, California, September 15), Quote Page 61, Column 4, Published by Variety Inc., New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1950 September 25, The High Point Enterprise, In New York: Winchell, Winchell, Plus Winchellisms by Walter Winchell (Syndicated), Quote Page 4, Column 7, High Point, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1950 September 25, Lincoln Evening Journal, Walter Winchell Your New York Correspondent (Syndicated), Quote Page 11, Column 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)

Life Is Just One Damn Thing After Another

Mark Twain? Lilian Bell? Elbert Hubbard? Frank Ward O’Malley? Bruce Calvert? H. L. Mencken? Charles Dickens? Edna St. Vincent Millay? Anonymous?

twisty10Dear Quote Investigator: The following statement of exasperation and resignation has been attributed to the luminary Mark Twain, the aphorist Elbert Hubbard, and the journalist Frank Ward O’Malley:

Life is just one damn thing after another.

This situation is confusing. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong evidence appeared in 1909 when several instances were published in periodicals. In addition, a book titled “The Concentrations of Bee” by Lilian Bell included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

“Bob has a motto on his wall which says ‘Life is just one damned thing after another!'” said Jimmie. But I refused to smile. I was too distinctly annoyed.

The lead time for publishing a book has traditionally been lengthy; hence, Lilian Bell may have written her novel before 1909. Bell stated within the text that the adage was already being posted on walls.

On March 5, 1909 “The Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader” of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania printed the small filler item shown below. 2 This was the earliest instance known to QI with a complete date; it was located by top researcher Bill Mullins, and it was included in the important reference “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”: 3

life350During the following weeks, months, and years the popular saying was widely disseminated. In December 1909 Elbert Hubbard printed the expression without attribution in a journal he was editing called “The Philistine”. In March 1910 a man named Bruce Calvert was credited with the saying. In 1919 the prominent cultural commentator H. L. Mencken ascribed the phrase to Mark Twain. After the death of Frank Ward O’Malley in 1932 some obituary notices credited him with the saying. In 1942 Mencken reconsidered his judgement and linked the saying to both O’Malley and Hubbard. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1909, The Concentrations of Bee by Lilian Bell, Quote Page 241, Grosset & Dunlap, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1909 March 5, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Quote Page 144, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)