Florence Kerns? Ray Hallinan? Herb Caen? Pauline Tymon? Larry Pickard? David Crosby? Joe Bob Briggs? Al Franken? Stuart Smalley? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The Saturday Night Live television program once featured skits with a character named Stuart Smalley who was played by the comedian and former senator Al Franken. Smalley was enamored with self-help programs and often used the following catch phrase:
Denial is not a river in Egypt.
I have also heard a very similar phrase credited to Mark Twain:
Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.
Could you explore the origin of this quotation?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain used this expression. Al Franken, in the persona of Stuart Smalley, did use this saying, but his satirical character was introduced to the television audience in 1991. Franken was employing a phrase that was already in circulation in the domain of self-help and addiction counseling.
The underlying pun has a long history. The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the “Reading Times” of Reading, Pennsylvania in April 1931. Eighth grade student Florence Kerns won a contest by submitting the following wordplay joke which fit a question-answer template: 1
Question: Do you know how to use “denial” in a sentence?
Answer: Denial river runs through Egypt.
Thanks to ace researcher Bill Mullins who located the citation above and shared it with QI. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In January 1933 a version using dialectical speech appeared in a Bloomfield, New Jersey newspaper. The joke had been sent to the paper by a reader, and the word “river” was spelled “ribber”: 2
Submitted by Pauline Tymon.
Teacher—“Rufus, give me a sentence using the word ‘denial.’”
Rufus—“De Nile am a ribber in Egypt.”
Thanks to fine researcher Barry Popik who located the citation above and shared it with QI.
In December 1934 a newspaper in Yonkers, New York reported on a student competition to create puns and win movie tickets. The paper presented many examples including: harmony – how many; wholesome – hold some; denial – the Nile: 3
“Harmony” times must I tell you to sit down? By Margaret Walko, fourteen, of 226 Ashburton Avenue.
Will you “wholesome” of these books for me? By Helen Holodak, thirteen, of 210 Yonkers Avenue.
Yes, “denial” river is in Egypt. By Larry Pickard, twelve, of 86 Hamilton Avenue.
In 1936 the pun was mentioned by a syndicated newspaper columnist who was responding to a popular song: 4
There is a goofy song going the rounds. The radio seems full of it. It prompts this first paragraph. Excuse it, please. What is denial? De Nile, teacher, is a river in Egypt. That was a terrible boner. You ought to know better than that.
In 1943 a newspaper in Fairport, New York printed a collection of puns in a section dedicated to news from the local high school. These three were included: 5
Acquire—a group of church singers.
Denial—a river in Egypt.
Kidnapping—a child sleeping.
In 1960 another instance of the quip appeared in Boys’ Life magazine. The periodical used the term “Daffynishion” to refer to definitions incorporating word play: 6
Daffynishion: Denial—A river in Egypt.—Ray Hallinan, Seattle 66, Wash.
These early examples did not include the negation which is part of most modern versions. In 1986 a version of the joke was published by the popular columnist Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. The words appeared anonymously as a witty response: 7
Sighted by Ivan Cutler at Kent’s Deli at Ninth and Mish’: a sign on the cash register reading, “Tipping Is Not a City in China.” The sequel is a nearby graffito: “And Denial Is Not a River in Egypt.”
In 1988 an autobiography of the popular musician David Crosby was released, and it included details of his self-destructive addictive behaviors. Crosby used the saying under investigation when speaking to associates who he felt were denying their own problematic actions: 8
The level of self-delusion was high and it was a fundamental problem that had no solution. As David is fond of saying to friends who are the same shape now as he was then: “Denial is not a river in Egypt.”
In March 1989 the expression appeared in the title of a column by Joe Bob Briggs, the pen name of John Irving Bloom. The term “Betty-Ford” in the following is a reference to the Betty Ford Center, a facility that helps individuals recover from chemical dependencies: 9
Betty-Ford me!; Denial is not a river in Egypt
In May 1989 the phrase was used by Dr. James H. ‘Red’ Duke, a noted trauma surgeon and educator: 10
“I don’t know why this country chooses to ignore the epidemic of injury in this nation that runs rampant all the time, killing more people on the highways every year than we did in the entire Vietnam War,’ Dr. Duke said.
“Why we choose to ignore that, I don’t know,’ he said. “But one of my favorite sayings about that is: Denial ain’t a river in Egypt .'”
In June 1990 the saying was used as the title of a play performed before an elementary school audience. The playwrights were Jennifer Middlesworth and Richard Greene: 11
Somewhere amid the laughing, clapping and general good time Concordia Elementary School students had while watching their classmates perform “Denial Is Not A River In Egypt ,” they received an important message: Alcohol and drugs can send a life down the drain.
In March 1991 former Vice President Al Gore penned an opinion piece that was printed in multiple newspapers. Gore cited the astronomer Carl Sagan and the rock band Dire Straits when he used the expression: 12
Global warming may be hard to think about, but it is rapidly being recognized as one of the most serious problems humans face.
The administration’s effort to pretend it does not exist reminds me of the point made by scientist Carl Sagan, when he quotes a song by Dire Straits: “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”
The Wikipedia entry for the character Stuart Smalley claims that he first appeared in the February 9, 1991 episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Kevin Bacon. QI has not independently verified this information.
In October 1992 a Pennsylvania newspaper published an interview with Al Franken. One topic of conversation was Franken’s recently released book with a rather lengthy title: “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!: Daily Affirmations By Stuart Smalley”: 13
“I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said. “It has a lot of (12-step) program wisdom, like ‘Denial is not just a river in Egypt.'”
In conclusion, the primary word play of this comical phrase involves: “denial” and “de Nile” or “the Nile”. This basic joke was in circulation by 1931 when student Florence Kerns received credit. The version of the quip using negation and suggesting a subtext of psychological analysis appeared by the 1980s. The phrase “And Denial Is Not a River in Egypt” was spotted as an anonymous graffito in 1986.
Update history: On May 11, 2012 a citation dated 1936 was added. On April 2, 2016 the citations in 1933, 1934, and 1943 were added. A numbering system was employed for the bibliographic notes. On June 17, 2019 the 1931 citation was added.
(Many thanks to Robert MacLeay whose comment at the Freakonomics blog inspired this question and answer. Special thanks to Barry Popik who located the 1933 and 1936 citations. Many thanks to Bill Mullins who located the 1931 citation.)
- 1931 April 11, Reading Times, Section: Junior Times, Florence Takes Prize for Joke, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Reading, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1933 January 27, The Independent Press, Section 2, The Junior Club Page, Jokes, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Bloomfield, New Jersey. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1934 December 29, The Herald Statesman, Evelyn Offers Amusing Joker, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Yonkers New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1936 November 3, Oregonian, New Bid Called Sut-Over-Suit by Sam Gordon: The Kibitzer, Page 8, Column 5, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1943 December 23, The Herald-Mail, Section: Fairport High School Chatter: Exchange Chatter, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Fairport, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1960 February, Boys’ Life, Think and Grin, Page 90, Column 2, Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1986 June 19, San Francisco Chronicle, Once Upon a Deadline by Herb Caen, Page: 45, San Francisco, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1988, Long Time Gone: The Autobiography of David Crosby by David Crosby and Carl Gottlieb, Page 352, Doubleday, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1989 March 5, Trenton Evening Times, “Betty-Ford me!; Denial is not a river in Egypt” by Joe Bob Briggs, Page CC2, [GNB Page 155], Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1989 May 26, Dallas Morning News, “Houston colleagues want ‘Red’ Duke to replace Koop – Folksy TV doctor says he’d take surgeon general’s job if he had offer” by Jeff Awalt, [Associated Press], Page: 24A, Dallas, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1990 June 14, The Orange County Register, “Making a play against drugs – San Clemente students perform ‘Denial’ to educate peers” by Lauren Cooper, Page: 01, Orange County, California. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1991 March 10, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, “Where is Bush’s resolve on energy crisis?” by Al Gore, Page: 7, Fort Worth, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News) ↩
- 1992 October 28, Monessen Valley Independent, Smalley gives himself OK to be Al Franken, Page 5B, Monessen, Pennsylvania. (NewspaperArchive) ↩