Denial Is Not a River in Egypt

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 now 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 was a joke using dialectical speech that was sent by a reader to a Bloomfield, New Jersey newspaper in January 1933. The word “river” was spelled “ribber”: 1

Submitted by Pauline Tymon.
Teacher—”Rufus, give me a sentence using the word ‘denial.'”
Rufus—”De Nile am a ribber in Egypt.”

Thanks to top 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: 2

“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: 3

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: 4

Acquire—a group of church singers.
Denial—a river in Egypt.
Kidnapping—a child sleeping.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Denial Is Not a River in Egypt


  1. 1933 January 27, The Independent Press, Section 2, The Junior Club Page, Jokes, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Bloomfield, New Jersey. (Old Fulton)
  2. 1934 December 29, The Herald Statesman, Evelyn Offers Amusing Joker, Quote Page 14, Column 6, Yonkers New York. (Old Fulton)
  3. 1936 November 3, Oregonian, New Bid Called Sut-Over-Suit by Sam Gordon: The Kibitzer, Page 8, Column 5, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)
  4. 1943 December 23, The Herald-Mail, Section: Fairport High School Chatter: Exchange Chatter, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Fairport, New York. (Old Fulton)

The Fable of the Lion and the Gazelle

Thomas Friedman? Dan Montano? Arthur M. Blank? Sue Tabor? Herb Caen? Christopher McDougall? Roger Bannister? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator:  Last year I saw a motivational poster with a portrait of a lion. The text was a fable about lions and gazelles, and the title was something like the “The Key to Survival.” Paraphrasing: To survive the lion must catch the gazelle and the gazelle must outrun the lion. Do you recognize this saying, and do you know who created it?

Quote Investigator: Thomas Friedman helped to popularize the proverb about the lion and the gazelle by including it in his 2005 bestseller “The World is Flat” 1. He said that a sign written in Mandarin on the factory floor of an auto parts manufacturer in China recounted the tale. Friedman labeled the passage an “African proverb” and did not attempt to determine its origin. The quotation was disseminated via multiple avenues including his book and a motivational poster with the title “The Essence of Survival” that reprinted the text.

The earliest instance located by QI appeared in the Economist magazine in 1985 in an article titled “Lions or gazelles?” where the words were credited to a securities analyst named Dan Montano: 2

Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle: when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.

Stockbrokers and bankers at a recent London conference on financial technology* laughed appreciatively at this sally from Mr. Dan Montano of Montano Securities, an American equities dealer. They chuckled, perhaps, a touch indulgently at predictable American excess.

* The Stock Exchange: Deregulation and New Technology: Oyez International Business Communications. London June 5th and 6th.

Montano may have constructed this proverb himself, or he may have relayed words that he heard or read elsewhere. The Economist gave no other ascription. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Fable of the Lion and the Gazelle


  1. 2005, The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas L. Friedman, Page 114, [1st edition], Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)
  2. 1985 July 6, Economist, Special added section: “The other dimension: Technology and the City of London: A survey”, “Lions or gazelles?”, Page 37, Economist Newspaper Ltd., London. (Verified on microfilm)