It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So

Mark Twain? Josh Billings? Artemus Ward? Kin Hubbard? Will Rogers? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Oscar-winning 2015 film “The Big Short” begins with a display of the following statement:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

The brilliant humorist Mark Twain receives credit, but I have been unable to find a solid citation. This quip is very popular. Would you please investigate?

Quote Investigator: Scholars at the Center for Mark Twain Studies of Elmira College have found no substantive evidence supporting the ascription to Mark Twain. 1

The observation has been attributed to several other prominent humorists including: Josh Billings (pseudonym of Henry Wheeler Shaw), Artemus Ward (pseudonym of Charles Farrar Browne), Kin Hubbard (pen name of Frank McKinney Hubbard), and Will Rogers. Yet, it is unlikely then any of them said it. The creator remains anonymous based on current evidence.

The saying is difficult to trace because it falls within an evolving family of remarks concerning faulty knowledge and memory. Three processes operate on members of the family to generate new members and ascriptions incrementally:

  1. Statements are rephrased over time.
  2. Statements are hybridized together to produce new statements.
  3. Attributions are shifted from one prominent humorist to another.

The family contains some comments with genuine ascriptions. For example, in 1874 a compendium of wit and humor from Josh Billings was published. The work employed dialectical spelling which causes headaches for modern researchers who are attempting to find matches using standard spelling. The following pertinent item appeared in a section labeled “Affurisms”, i.e., “Aphorisms”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.

Here is the statement written with standard spelling:

I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain’t so.

This remark partially matched the saying under investigation, and it acted as a seed in the evolving family of remarks.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So

Notes:

  1. Website: Center for Mark Twain Studies, Article title: The Apocryphal Twain: “Things We Know That Just Ain’t So.”, Article author: Matt Seybold, Date on website: October 6, 2016, Website description: Center dedicated to fostering and supporting scholarship and pedagogy related to all aspects of Mark Twain based at Elmira College in Elmira, New York. (Accessed marktwainstudies.com on November 18, 2018) link
  2. 1874, Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, Section: Affurisms: Sollum Thoughts, Quote Page 286, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link

They Eked Out a Precarious Livelihood by Taking in Each Other’s Washing

Mark Twain? William Morris? Edward Dicey? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Skeptics have questioned the economic viability of small isolated or insular communities by derisively envisioning rudimentary economies based on simple tasks, e.g., individuals would wash clothes for one another. This notion has been credited to humorist Mark Twain and socialist activist William Morris. In modern times this scenario has been used to criticize measures of economic activity such as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the book “The Battle-Fields of 1866” within an essay by Edward Dicey about Heligoland, a small German archipelago in the North Sea near Germany and Denmark. Dicey compared the activities on Heligoland to those on the Isle of Man, an island in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Ireland. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

What the inhabitants do during the winter is a subject too awful for contemplation. Somebody once suggested that the dwellers in the Isle of Man earned a precarious livelihood by taking in each other’s washing. A similar occupation is the only one I can suggest for the Heligolanders. Robinson Crusoe upon his rock can hardly have been more cut off from the outer world.

The locution “somebody once suggested” indicates that the origin is anonymous. Dicey’s essay was dated September 8, 1866 and it was published contemporaneously in newspapers such as “The Sheffield Daily Telegraph” of Sheffield, England which acknowledged “The London Telegraph’s correspondent”. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading They Eked Out a Precarious Livelihood by Taking in Each Other’s Washing

Notes:

  1. 1866, The Battle-Fields of 1866 by Edward Dicey, The Island of Heligoland, Location: Heligoland, Date: September 8, 1866, Start Page 247, Quote Page 254, Tinsley Brothers, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1866 September 17, The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Heligoland, Quote Page 3, Column 4, Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)

This World Is the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe

Mark Twain? Thomas Jefferson? Voltaire? Edward Young? George Bernard Shaw? Laird MacKenzie? Elsie McCormick? Bertrand Russell? Kurt Vonnegut? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Several thinkers have offered an anguished explanation for the dangerously disordered state of the world. Here are four versions:

  • This world is the lunatic asylum for other planets.
  • Earth is a madhouse for the Universe
  • The other planets use Earth as an insane asylum.
  • Our world is bedlam for other worlds.

This notion has been credited to Mark Twain, Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, George Bernard Shaw and others. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: This is a complex topic; hence, QI will split the response into three articles; an article centered on Voltaire’s quotation is available here; an article centered on George Bernard Shaw’s quotation is available here; an overview article is presented below.

A thematic match occurred in a lengthy work by the English poet Edward Young. The poem was called “The Complaint, Or, Night-thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality”, and it was split into a sequence of numbered “Nights”. The expression appeared in “Night Nine” which was serialized in “The Scots Magazine” in 1747. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But what are we? You never heard of Man,
Or Earth; the Bedlam of the universe!
Where Reason, undiseas’d with you, runs mad,
And nurses Folly’s children as her own;

Voltaire wrote a story “Memnon ou La Sagesse Humaine” (“Memnon or Human Wisdom”) in the late 1740s and published it by 1749. The main character Memnon mentions Earth’s place in the universe. Here is an English translation from 1807: 2

“I am afraid,” said Memnon, “that our little terraqueous globe here is the mad-house of those hundred thousand millions of worlds, of which your Lordship does me the honour to speak.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading This World Is the Lunatic Asylum of the Universe

Notes:

  1. 1747 May, The Scots Magazine, Volume 9, Section: Poetical Essays, The Complaint, Night 9 and Last: The Consolation, (by Edward Young), Continuation of Complaint, Night 9, Start Page 221, Quote Page 225, Printed by W. Sands, A. Murray, and J. Cochran, Edinburgh, Scotland. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1807, Classic Tales: Serious and Lively, Volume 2, Voltaire, Story: Memnon the Philosopher; or Human Wisdom, Start Page 181, Quote Page 188 and 189, Printed and Published by and for John Hunt & Carew Reynell, London. (Google Books Full View) link

To My Embarrassment I Was Born in Bed with a Lady

Mark Twain? Groucho Marx? Wilson Mizner? Sydney J. Harris? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A funny man once said that he was embarrassed to discover that his behavior had always been scandalous; he had been born in bed with a lady. This line has been connected to Mark Twain, Groucho Marx, and Wilson Mizner. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI occurred in the 1930 book “Beds” by Groucho Marx. One section contained letters sent by Groucho in response to questions. The ellipsis in the following appeared in the original text: 1

It is Wilson Mizner, and not I, who recalls his embarrassment when he first came into the world, and found a woman in bed with him. . . . I wasn’t embarrassed.

Thus, Groucho credited the playwright, rogue, and wit Wilson Mizner. This citation is listed in the valuable reference “The Yale Book of Quotations” edited by Fred R. Shapiro. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading To My Embarrassment I Was Born in Bed with a Lady

Notes:

  1. 1976 (Copyright 1930 on original edition), Beds by Groucho Marx, Quote Page 70 and 71, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Wilson Mizner, Quote Page 526, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)

Politicians Are Like Diapers. They Should Be Changed Regularly

Mark Twain? Betty Carpenter? Bumper Sticker? Jake Ford? Bill Quraishi? John Wallner? Robin Williams? Barry Levinson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The number of sayings spuriously ascribed to Mark Twain seems to grow every year. Here are two versions of a remark credited to the famous son of Hannibal, Missouri:

  • Politicians and diapers should be changed often.
  • Politicians are like diapers. They need to be changed regularly and for the same reason.

The Wikiquote webpage for Twain contends that the statement is misattributed. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain who died in 1910 said or wrote this joke. It does not appear on the important Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2

Several researchers have explored this topic, and the earliest pertinent citations previously known occurred in 1992. QI has made incremental progress by uncovering a match in October 1987. “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio printed a collection of short pieces about electoral candidates such as Betty Carpenter who was running for a position on the Fort Thomas Council. Carpenter made the following comment containing the core of the joke. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 3

This has been a quiet campaign as far as issues go, but I think politicians, like diapers, should be changed regularly. New faces bring fresh new ideas and perspectives to the government.

Carpenter may have crafted this saying, but QI hypothesizes that it was already in circulation before 1987. Yet, it is difficult to trace because the phrasing of the quip is highly variable.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Politicians Are Like Diapers. They Should Be Changed Regularly

Notes:

  1. Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched October 17, 2018) link
  2. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search)
  3. 1987 October 25, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Section: Special Report: Election Guide 1987, Fort Thomas Council: Betty Carpenter, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)

Eat Whatever You Like and Let Them Fight It Out Inside

Mark Twain? Lyman Beecher Stowe? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following eccentric dietary advice has been attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain:

Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

I question whether Twain said this because no one provides a solid citation. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Mark Twain died in 1910, and the earliest match known to QI occurred in an anecdote told by Lyman Beecher Stowe in 1932 to members of the Mark Twain Library and Memorial Commission. Stowe knew Twain because his grandparents lived next door to the luminary in Hartford, Connecticut. “The Hartford Courant” newspaper reported the following. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI. 1

Of the many typical stories from the rich store of Mark Twain’s life, one of the most delightful told by Mr. Stowe was the following advice from Mark Twain, asked on his seventieth birthday to disclose a set of rules for longevity: “Never smoke more than one cigar at a time. Never, never smoke while sleeping. Eat whatever you want and let ’em fight it out among themselves inside. Sit up as late as you can get anybody to stay with you, and stay in bed as long as anybody will let you.”

There is strong evidence that Twain did employ the jokes about smoking in 1905. However, QI has not yet found any evidence linking Twain to the comical remark about eating during his lifetime. Therefore, the accuracy of the ascription to Twain depends on the reliability of Lyman Beecher Stowe’s memory.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Eat Whatever You Like and Let Them Fight It Out Inside

Notes:

  1. 1932 December 2, The Hartford Courant, Mark Twain Recalled On Anniversary: Lyman Beecher Stowe Relates Anecdotes of Writer and His Friends at Memorial, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)

I Have Made It a Rule Never To Smoke More Than One Cigar at a Time

Mark Twain? Elbert Hubbard? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain followed two thoughtful guidelines regarding smoking:

  • Never smoke more than one cigar at a time.
  • Never smoke while sleeping.

Would you please determine when he enunciated these rules?

Quote Investigator: In 1905 Mark Twain celebrated his seventieth birthday at the popular New York restaurant Delmonico’s. The participants delivered numerous speeches and poems lauding Twain as reported in the “New York Tribune”. The famous humorist addressed the subject of his longevity: 1

I have achieved my seventy years in the usual way: by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else. I will offer here, as a sound maxim, this: that we can’t reach old age by another man’s road.

I will now teach, offering my way of life to whomsoever desires to commit suicide by the scheme which has enabled me to beat the doctor and the hangman for seventy years.

Twain outlined his dietary regimen and then discussed smoking. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

I have made it a rule never to smoke more than one cigar at a time. I do not know just when I began to smoke, I only know that it was in my father’s lifetime, and that I was discreet. He passed from this life early in 1847, when I was a shade past eleven; ever since then I have smoked publicly. As an example to others, and not that I care for moderation myself, it has always been my rule never to smoke when asleep, and never to refrain when awake.

Twain employed these two jokes and helped to popularize them, but instances occurred before 1905.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Have Made It a Rule Never To Smoke More Than One Cigar at a Time

Notes:

  1. 1905 December 6, New-York Tribune, Dinner for Mark Twain: To Mark 70th Birthday, Quote Page 7, Column 3, New York. (Newspapers_com)

I Have a Higher and Grander Standard of Principle. Washington Could Not Lie. I Can Lie, But I Won’t

Creator: Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), famous humorist

Context: Understanding the humor in the following passage requires familiarity with the cherry tree legend. A young Washington received a hatchet as a gift and impetuously chopped down a cherry tree owned by his father. When the future president was confronted he said “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” In December 1871 Twain delivered a speech that was transcribed and printed in “The Chicago Tribune”. Twain discussed lying and compared himself to Washington: 1

A reporter has to lie a little, of course, or they would discharge him. That is the only drawback to the profession. That is why I left it. [Laughter] I am different from Washington; I have a higher and grander standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won’t. [Prolonged laughter.] Reporting is fascinating, but then it is distressing to have to lie so. Lying is bad—lying is very bad. Every individual in this house knows that by experience. I think that for a man to tell a lie when he can’t make anything by it, is wrong. [Laughter.]

Image Notes: Picture of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze, circa 1851. Portrait of Mark Twain from “Appleton’s Journal” on July 4, 1874. Both images accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes:

  1. 1871 December 20, The Chicago Tribune, “Mark Twain”: Sketch of the Great American Humorist’s Lecture, Delivered in the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, Quote Page 4, Column 5, Chicago, Illinois. (“fascinating” is misspelled “facinating” in the original) (Newspapers_com)

I Never Argue with a Man Who Buys Ink by the Barrel

Roger Branigin? Mark Twain? Charles Brownson? Irving Leibowitz? William I. Greener Jr.? H. L. Mencken? Benjamin Franklin?

Dear Quote Investigator: If a newspaper editor or publisher dislikes a viewpoint you are advocating then you may have to endure a long series of negative articles. The following three statements express this notion:

  • Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel
  • I never quarrel with a man who buys ink by the barrel.
  • Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.

Many famous wordsmiths have been credited with this saying, e.g., Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and H. L. Mencken. I become very suspicious when so many luminaries receive credit. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest citation located by QI appeared in “The Indianapolis News” of Indiana in 1962. Attorney Roger Branigin delivered a speech to more than 600 listeners at a conference. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Branigin, active for years in Democratic politics and an aspirant for the nomination for governor in 1955, said in referring to newspaper publishers, “I never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”

Branigin’s policy of avoiding arguments with news people may have helped him. He became the governor of Indiana a few years later in 1965, and he served for one four-year term. Currently, Branigin is the leading candidate for creator of this saying although there is evidence that others used it in roughly the same timeframe.

Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, and H. L. Mencken had all died before 1962; there is no substantive evidence that they employed the saying.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Never Argue with a Man Who Buys Ink by the Barrel

Notes:

  1. 1962 January 15, The Indianapolis News, Economy, Precision Urged on Pressmen, Quote Page 17, Column 7 and 8, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

The Secret of Getting Ahead Is Getting Started

Mark Twain? Agatha Christie? Sally Berger? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: To overcome procrastination one must initiate a task. Although this is straightforward advice it is an arcane approach according to the following adage:

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

The famed humorist Mark Twain and the popular mystery writer Agatha Christie have both received credit for his formula. Yet, I have not found any solid citations. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1923 a partial match occurred within a newspaper advertisement for a bank in Coshocton, Ohio which was encouraging readers to open an account and start saving money. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Half the game of getting ahead is getting started. Join today, and have a lump sum, plus a pleased feeling, early next December.

The next week the same passage appeared in an advertisement for a bank in Massillon, Ohio. 2

In 1968 an exact match appeared in the compilation “20,000 Quips and Quotes” edited by Evan Esar. No attribution was specified: 3

The secret of getting ahead is getting started.

QI believes that the statement evolved over time and the earliest instances were anonymous. The attributions to Mark Twain and Agatha Christie occurred late and were not substantive.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Secret of Getting Ahead Is Getting Started

Notes:

  1. 1923 December 9, The Coshocton Tribune, (Advertisement for Commercial National Bank of Coshocton, Ohio), Quote Page 3, Column 6, Coshocton, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1923 December 15, The Evening Independent, (Advertisement for The First Savings & Loan Company in Massillon, Ohio), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Massillon, Ohio. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Topic: Beginning, Quote Page 71, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)