Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar

Sigmund Freud? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was famous for interpreting symbols with special emphasis on the imagery in dreams. In photos he was often shown smoking a cigar, and that is why I always found the following quotation attributed to him very amusing:

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Did Freud really say this, or was it made up by a prankster?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this saying that QI has located appeared in a footnote in the medical journal “Psychiatry” in 1950. In an article titled “The Place of Action in Personality Change” the author Allen Wheelis discussed the importance of considering both the conscious and the unconscious aims of an action. He stated that sometimes the conscious aims were largely a cover for the unconscious aims, but he cautioned in a footnote that the analyst should not always assume that is true [SFAW]:

This is still an occupational hazard of psychoanalysis—thirty years after Freud’s famous remark that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.”

Based on the “thirty years” time span indicated by Wheelis the comment by Freud would have been made in 1920. Yet, no evidence for an earlier statement has been uncovered to date. Freud lived from 1856 to 1939. This lack of documentation is particularly odd because of the assertion that the saying was “famous” in 1950. The word order differs slightly from the most popular modern version.

In 2001 Alan C. Elms, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, published an article about three well-known sayings attributed to the renowned psychoanalyst: “Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous ‘Quotations’ and Their Actual Sources.” Elms reported on an extensive investigation of the cigar quip, and he argued that it was almost certainly apocryphal [SFAE]:

In this case, however, not only do we lack any written record of Freud as the direct source, but also there are many reasons to conclude that Freud never said it or anything like it.

Elms also asked a German colleague, Eva Schepeler, if she had seen a German version of the saying:

But despite her wide reading of psychoanalytic and popular literature in her native language, she does not recall ever having seen the quotation printed in a German publication.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1922 “The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis” published an article about the symbolism of cigarettes, cigars, and pipes by Eric Hiller. The article made clear that the phallic symbolism of smoking was established by the 1920s. The cover page of the journal proudly displayed its connection to the founder of psychoanalysis with the statement “Directed by Sigmund Freud” [IJPA]:

Cigarettes and cigars can symbolise the penis. They are cylindrical and tubular. They have a hot, red end. They emit smoke that is fragant ( = flatus = semen). …

I refer to the reason, or at least one of the reasons, why people start smoking (and, of course, why they go on), that is the phallic significance of the cigarette, cigar and pipe. It is thus a substitute for the penis (mother’s breast) of which they have been deprived (castrated, weaned).

In 1947 a biography titled “Freud: His Life and His Mind” by Helen Walker Puner remarked on the prevalence of smoking within Freud’s social circle [SFHP]:

He was so addicted to smoking that he grew annoyed with men who did not smoke. Because of this, nearly all his apostles became cigar-smokers.

In 1950 a footnote in the medical journal “Psychiatry” contained a version of the quotation under investigation attributed to Freud. The details were discussed at the beginning of this post [SFAW].

In 1954 the saying appeared in the journal “Law and Contemporary Problems” in an article about antitrust law. The main subject of the piece was unrelated to psychoanalytic theory, but the authors invoked the perspicacity of Freud in a footnote [SFLP]:

This search for significant meanings where none are to be found recalls the reply made by Sigmund Freud to overzealous disciples who felt that there must be a significant meaning behind his cigar smoking. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” the Father of Psychoanalysis reminded them.

The above reference was located by top quotation expert Fred R. Shapiro who is the editor of the “Yale Book of Quotations.” (YBQ). He mentioned the citation in an entertaining article about a collection of sayings connected to cigars that was published in “Cigar Aficionado” magazine [FSCA].

For several years the earliest known instance of a close variant of the saying was in a 1961 paper by the historian Peter Gay who was also a biographer of Freud. This citation is mentioned in Alan C. Elms essay [SFAE] and in important references such as the Quote Verifier [SFQV] and YBQ [SFYQ]:

Peter Gay wrote in the American Historical Review in 1961 (66: 664–676): “After all, as Sigmund Freud once said, there are times when a man craves a cigar simply because he wants a good smoke.”

In 1966 the New York Times printed a review by the writer and translator Max Knight of a collection of poems by the prominent German author Gunter Grass. Knight used the saying and attributed it to Freud [SFMK]:

Freud once said that sometimes even a cigar is just a cigar; are, then, Grass’s cherries, midges, blackbirds really just cherries, midges, blackbirds?

In 1969 a book review in the Los Angeles Times contained a version of the saying [SFRH]:

A story about Dr. Sigmund Freud used to concern his ever-present cigar. Contemplating it he murmured, “Gentlemen, there are times when a cigar is only a cigar!”

The number of occurrences of the statement continued to grow and the variants continued to ramify in the 1970s and later. Yet these cites should provide the reader with a compact sampling. The words are almost always credited to Freud, and he has no substantive rival for attribution.

In conclusion, although this expression and its ascription are popular the currently available evidence is unsatisfactory. The first citation in English is dated in 1950 and this is more than a decade after Freud’s death in 1939. Alan C. Elms has called the remark “Freud’s ultimate anti-Freudian joke” and has argued that the quip is not consistent with Freud’s other pronouncements. Unless additional documentation is located QI believes it is reasonable to assert that Freud probably did not make this statement. Thanks for your question.

[SFAW] 1950 May, Psychiatry, “The Place of Action in Personality Change” by Allen Wheelis, Start Page 135, Quote Page 139, Footnote 9, Volume 13, Number 2, William Alanson White Psychiatric Foundation, Washington, D.C. (Verified on paper; special thanks to a kind person at the University of Georgia in Athens for verifying this citation on paper) link

[SFAE] 2001, Sigmund Freud and His Impact on the Modern World: The Annual of Psychoanalysis, Edited by Jerome A. Winer and James William Anderson, “Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous ‘Quotations’ and Their Actual Sources,” by Alan C. Elms, Pages 83-104, Volume 29, [Analytic Press, Hillsdale, New Jersey], International Universities Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

[IJPA] 1922 December, The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, Communications: Some Remarks On Tobacco by Eric Hiller Start Page 475, Quote Page 477 and 480, Volume 3, Part 4, The International Psycho-Analytical Press, London and Vienna. (Google Books full view) link

[SFHP] 1947, Freud: His Life and His Mind by Helen Walker Puner, Page 219, Howell, Soskin Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)

[SFLP] 1954 Autumn, Law and Contemporary Problems, “Price Controls, Antitrust Laws, and Minimum Price Laws – The Relation between Emergency and Normal Economic Controls” by Robert V. Faragher and Fritz F. Heimann, Start Page 648, [Footnote 20], Quote Page 656, Volume 19, Number 4, Duke University School of Law. (JSTOR) link

[FSCA] 2007 December 1, Cigar Aficionado, The Cigar Quote Primer by Fred R. Shapiro, M. Shanken Communications, Inc. (Accessed on 2011 August 12) link

[SFQV] 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Page 29-30 and 278, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)

[SFYQ] 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Sigmund Freud, Page 292, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

[SFMK] 1966 August 14, New York Times, Romp Through the Brambles by Max Knight, [Review of Gunter Grass: Selected Poems] Page 311, New York. (ProQuest)

[SFRH] 1969 January 12, Los Angeles Times, Books: Dispassionate Appraisal of Communism’s Past by Richard G. Hubler, Page Q34, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

One reply on “Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar”

  1. This was also said by the author Harlan Ellison in the 2006 documentary about his life “Dreams With Sharp Teeth.” He was decrying the fact that people were always looking for heavy symbolism in his works, and he said “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!”

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