Sometimes a Cigar Is Just a Cigar

Sigmund Freud? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, was famous for interpreting symbols with special emphasis on the imagery in dreams. In photos he was often shown smoking a cigar, and that is why I always found the following quotation attributed to him very amusing:

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Did Freud really say this, or was it made up by a prankster?

Quote Investigator: The earliest instance of this saying that QI has located appeared in a footnote in the medical journal “Psychiatry” in 1950. In an article titled “The Place of Action in Personality Change” the author Allen Wheelis discussed the importance of considering both the conscious and the unconscious aims of an action. He stated that sometimes the conscious aims were largely a cover for the unconscious aims, but he cautioned in a footnote that the analyst should not always assume that is true [SFAW]:

This is still an occupational hazard of psychoanalysis—thirty years after Freud’s famous remark that “a cigar is sometimes just a cigar.”

Based on the “thirty years” time span indicated by Wheelis the comment by Freud would have been made in 1920. Yet, no evidence for an earlier statement has been uncovered to date. Freud lived from 1856 to 1939. This lack of documentation is particularly odd because of the assertion that the saying was “famous” in 1950. The word order differs slightly from the most popular modern version.

In 2001 Alan C. Elms, a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, published an article about three well-known sayings attributed to the renowned psychoanalyst: “Apocryphal Freud: Sigmund Freud’s Most Famous ‘Quotations’ and Their Actual Sources.” Elms reported on an extensive investigation of the cigar quip, and he argued that it was almost certainly apocryphal [SFAE]:

In this case, however, not only do we lack any written record of Freud as the direct source, but also there are many reasons to conclude that Freud never said it or anything like it.

Elms also asked a German colleague, Eva Schepeler, if she had seen a German version of the saying:

But despite her wide reading of psychoanalytic and popular literature in her native language, she does not recall ever having seen the quotation printed in a German publication.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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