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