Mark Twain? Biblical Proverb? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Conflict on social media is endemic. Even early online discussion participants witnessed acrimonious exchanges known as “flame wars”. Famed humorist Mark Twain has received credit for a germane cautionary remark:
Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.
Unfortunately, no one has presented a good citation for Twain. Would you please examine this saying?
Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find substantive evidence crediting this remark to Mark Twain. It does not appear on the Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2
The Bible contains a thematically related passage in Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5: 3
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.
Statements that were closer to the modern template emerged in the 1800s. Here is a sampling with dates which shows the variation in phrasing and the evolution over time. All of the earliest citations were anonymous.
1878: Don’t argue with a fool, or the listener will say there is a pair of you.
1878: Don’t argue with a fool or listeners will think there are two of you.
1896: Arguing with a fool shows that there are two.
1930: When you argue with a fool, he’s doing the same thing.
1930: When you argue with a fool be sure he isn’t similarly occupied.
1937 Never argue with a fool. But if you must, the safest way is to carry on the debate with yourself.
1939: Never argue with a fool in public lest the public not know which is which.
1943: When you argue with a fool, be sure he isn’t similarly engaged.
1951: It isn’t smart to argue with a fool; listeners can’t tell which is which.
1954: Never argue with a fool. Bystanders can’t tell which is which.
1961: Never argue with a fool because people won’t be able to tell the difference.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched February 19, 2019) link ↩
- 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search) ↩
- Website: BibleHub, Proverbs 26:4 and 26:5, Translation: New American Standard Bible. (Accessed BibleHub.com on February 18, 2019) link ↩