The Climate Is What You Expect; The Weather Is What You Get

Mark Twain? Robert Heinlein? A Schoolchild? Caroline B. Le Row? Andrew John Herbertson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am preparing a book about the weather and climate, and I would like to include the following quotation:

The climate is what you expect; the weather is what you get.

Several web sites attribute this remark to Mark Twain, but a source is never given. The only precise citation I could find was to a 1973 novel by the prominent science fiction writer Robert Heinlein. Can you help me with this question?

Quote Investigator: Heinlein did include a version of this aphorism in his 1973 novel “Time Enough for Love” as you note.

There is no substantive evidence that Twain wrote or said the remark. Yet, he did include a funny comment that contrasted weather and climate in an essay published in 1887 titled “English as She Is Taught”. Twain was reviewing a book that was about to be published under the same title as his essay. The publication of the book was facilitated by Twain, and the volume was inspired by an earlier Portuguese-English phrase book called “English as She Is Spoke” that was riddled with comical errors.

The book “English as She Is Taught” presented a large number of student answers to questions posed by classroom teachers. Caroline B. Le Row collected these answers from her students and from her fellow teachers [CBLR]. Twain’s piece was published in Century magazine, and it contained extensive excerpts together with his commentary. Here is a sample of the humorously inaccurate student responses [MTET]:

  • Gorilla warfare was where men rode on gorillas.
  • Julius Caesar is noted for his famous telegram dispatch I came I saw I conquered.
  • Ireland is called the Emigrant Isle because it is beautiful and green.
  • The imports of a country are the things that are paid for, the exports are the things that are not.
  • The two most famous volcanoes of Europe are Sodom and Gomorrah.
  • The Constitution of the United States is that part the book at the end which nobody reads.
  • Congress is divided into civilized half civilized and savage.

Twain also included the following student remark:

Climate lasts all the time and weather only a few days.

This statement is distinct from the one provided by the questioner, but it is closely connected thematically. Climate and weather are compared via contrasting durations. Since “climate lasts all the time” it is what one would “expect”. Since “weather” lasts “only a few days” one might say it is what one would “get”. The semantic overlap is sufficient that confusion is possible between the two statements. Strictly speaking the phrases in Twain’s essay were attributed to anonymous students.

It is tempting to think that Twain or a teacher concocted some of these amusing remarks. Yet, the full name of the volume was “English as She Is Taught: Genuine Answers to Examination Questions in Our Public Schools”, and Twain supported this claim by saying “all the examples in it are genuine; none of them have been tampered with, or doctored in any way.”

The earliest evidence QI has located of an expression closely matching the questioner’s quotation was published in a textbook from 1901 called “Outlines of Physiography” by the geographer Andrew John Herbertson [OPAH]:

By climate we mean the average weather as ascertained by many years’ observations. Climate also takes into account the extreme weather experienced during that period. Climate is what on an average we may expect, weather is what we actually get.

In 1902 a book reviewer writing in “The Geographical Teacher” was impressed by the saying, and he further disseminated it by reprinting the statement in his discussion of the textbook. The modern saying is a streamlined version of this adage [EWGT]:

… smart and neat such dicta as “climate is what on an average we expect, weather is what we actually get”; …

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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