Don’t Believe the World Owes You a Living. The World Owes You Nothing. It Was Here First

Mark Twain? Robert J. Burdette? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

earth07Dear Quote Investigator: During this graduation season many who are finishing school are scrambling to try and find a job. The following acerbic words are usually attributed to Mark Twain:

Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living; the world owes you nothing, it was here first.

But I have been unable to find this in Twain’s oeuvre. Did he really originate this statement?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote this remark. It doesn’t appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips”. 1 Unsupported ascriptions to Twain have been circulating in magazines and newspapers for more than fifty years, but Twain died more than one hundred years ago. Detailed citations are given further below.

The earliest close match for this comment located by QI was published in a New York newspaper in 1883. The paper printed excerpts from a recent speech given by Robert J. Burdette who was a popular humorist in this time period. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

If you men do anything else in the world, get married. If you say you can’t afford it now, it is because you are too selfish and too mean. Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.

For several decades this jape was properly ascribed to Burdette, and he sometimes receives credit today.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Don’t Believe the World Owes You a Living. The World Owes You Nothing. It Was Here First

Notes:

  1. 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips, Edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Searched digitally)
  2. 1883 February 1, Evening Observer, Advice to Young Men (Report on a lecture given by Robert J. Burdette), Quote Page 3, Column 2 and 3, (Quote is in column 3), Dunkirk, New York. (NewspaperArchive)