Mark Twain? Oscar Wilde? Josh Billings? Spanish Proverb? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Everyone is guilty of some procrastination. Even the industrious humorist Mark Twain was credited with a quotation sympathetic to the indolent:
Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do the day after tomorrow.
Puzzlingly, this same quip has been ascribed to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Who said it first?
Quote Investigator: In July 1870 an article by Mark Twain was published in “The Galaxy” magazine. One section of the article expressed unhappiness with the aphorisms popularized by Benjamin Franklin. Twain stated the following desire: 1
… snub those pretentious maxims of his; which he worked up with a great show of originality out of truisms that had become wearisome platitudes as early as the dispersion from Babel …
Twain constructed a comical adage that he farcically attributed to Franklin:
Never put off till to-morrow what you can do day after to-morrow just as well.—B. F.
This is the earliest evidence QI has found for this type of quip from Twain or Wilde. The word “the” was omitted before the phrase “day after to-morrow”. A similar adage was credited to Oscar Wilde in a biography published in 1946, and the details are given further below. However, this evidence was weak because Wilde died decades earlier in 1900.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A statement that alters and upends the meaning of a common proverb is sometimes referred to as an anti-proverb. 2 Mark Twain’s statement was a modification of a piece of advice that was famously proffered in a didactic letter from the Earl of Chesterfield to his son in 1749. Chesterfield was not the first to present this guidance: 3
Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.
In 1809 a book titled “A View of Spain” was published that presented an anti-proverb that was labeled Spanish: 4
They have a proverb contrary to one of ours:—they say that one should never do to-day what may be put off till to-morrow. This slowness of the Spaniards appears incompatible with the vivacity of their imagination …
In 1868 an anti-proverb with a different flavor was published in a Boston, Massachusetts newspaper where it was credited to a popular humorist named Josh Billings. Stylistically, Billings relied on the deliberate misspelling of words to project a folksy wisdom, i.e., using “oph” for “off”: 5
Put not oph till to-morrow what can be enjoyed to-day.
In July 1870 Mark Twain published the comically modified maxim in “The Galaxy” as noted previously. Also in July Twain’s essay was printed in the “Morning Patriot” of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In this instance the initials of the spurious attribution, B. F., were expanded: 6
Never put off till to-morrow what you can do day after to-morrow just as well.—Benjamin Franklin.
In 1882 Twain’s adage was reprinted in “Tit-Bits” magazine, but it was slightly altered. The word “the” was inserted to yield the phrase “the day after to-morrow” which was easier to parse grammatically: 7
Never put off till to-morrow what you can do the day after to-morrow just as well.—B. F.
In 1899 a New York newspaper printed a variant maxim with a moral theme: 8
Always put off until tomorrow any evil you can do today.—Somerville Journal.
Turkey lives faithfully up to the adage “Always put off until tomorrow what you can avoid today.”
“Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day.” There is something a little obvious in that, and mischievous Europeanism induces me to retort, “Never do to-day what you can do to-morrow; you may never have to do it at all.”
In 1927 a slim limited-edition volume titled “More Maxims of Mark” was privately printed. Merle Johnson compiled this collection of sayings after the death of Mark Twain, but scholars believe that the ascriptions to Twain are reliable. The anti-proverb about procrastination was included using a variant phrasing: 12
DO NOT PUT OFF TILL TOMORROW WHAT CAN BE PUT OFF TILL DAY-AFTER-TOMORROW JUST AS WELL.
In 1946 the biography “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit” by Hesketh Pearson was released, and the author strongly asserted that Wilde was responsible for originating a version of the quip. However, QI has not yet located any supporting evidence for this claim that is dated earlier than the biography: 13
One saying of his went so well that he repeated it on several subsequent occasions, and Mark Twain either heard it or heard of it, appropriated it, and spoilt it. This is the original version: “I never put off till to-morrow what I can possibly do . . . the day after.”
In October 1946 the mass-circulation periodical Reader’s Digest printed an article about Oscar Wilde by Max Eastman that was based on the biography by Pearson. Eastman presented a streamlined version of the quip that he ascribed to Wilde: 14
Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after.
In 1948 the compendium “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger included a version of the adage that was identical to the instance given in “More Maxims of Mark” in 1927. 15
In 1949 the quotation collector Evan Esar published a modified version of the saying attributed to Josh Billings. The misspelling and awkward phrasing were removed: 16
BILLINGS, Josh, 1818-1885, pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw, American humorist.
Do not put off till tomorrow what can be enjoyed today.
In 1979 a variant labeled Preston’s Axiom was printed in a collection called “1,001 Logical Laws”: 17
Never put off till tomorrow what you can avoid all together.
In conclusion, the idea of twisting the well-known maxim against procrastination to yield a subverted meaning was not unique to Mark Twain. But he did construct a popular anti-proverb in 1870. The claim the Oscar Wilde said something similar before Twain does not have solid support at this time.
- 1870 July, The Galaxy, Memoranda by Mark Twain, Subsection: The Late Benjamin Franklin, Start Page 133, Quote Page 138, W. C. and F. P. Church, New York. (Reprint edition published in 1965 by AMS Press Inc., New York) (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1999, Twisted Wisdom: Modern Anti-Proverbs by Wolfgang Mieder and Anna Tóthné Litovkina, Page 151 and 152, University of Vermont, Burlington, Vermont. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1774, Letters Written By The Late Right Honourable Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, To His Son, Philip Stanhope, Esq., Volume 1, Fourth Edition, (Letter CLXXIX dated December 26, 1749 from the Earl of Chesterfield to his son), Start Page 529 , Quote Page 533, Printed for J. Dodsley, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1809, A View of Spain: Comprising a Descriptive Itinerary of each Province, Translated from the French by Alexander de Laborde, Volume 5 of 5, Quote Page 278, Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, London. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1868 October 17, Boston Herald, Section: Herald Supplement, The Josh Billings Papers, Page 4, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1870 July 4, Morning Patriot (Patriot), Benjamin Franklin: A Brief Discourse Upon a Deadly Enemy of the Boys by Mark Twain, Quote Page 1, Colum 6, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1882 February 11, Tit-Bits from All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Newspapers in the World, Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin, Quote Page 11, Column 1, Conducted and published by George Newnes, (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1899 March 6, The Johnstown Daily Republican, (Freestanding quotation), Quote Page 7, Johnstown, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1913 January 21, Lowell Sun, (Freestanding short item), Quote Page 6, Column 2, Lowell, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1921, Hail Columbia!: Random Impressions of a Conservative English Radical by W. L. George (Walter Lionel George), Quote Page 50, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1921 January, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Hail Columbia! by W. L. George (Walter Lionel George), Start Page 137, Quote Page 146, Column 1, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books full view) link ↩
- 1927, More Maxims of Mark by Mark Twain, Compiled by Merle Johnson, Quote Page 7, First edition privately printed November 1927; Number 14 of 50 copies. (Verified with page images from the Rubenstein Library at Duke University; Thanks to Mike at Duke) ↩
- 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Quote Page 173, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1946 October, Reader’s Digest, Volume 49, The World’s Wittiest Talker by Max Eastman, (Based on “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit” (1946) by Hesketh Pearson), Start Page 31, Quote Page 35, The Reader’s Digest Association. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Page 380, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Page 33, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) ↩
- 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Page 64, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩