To this day, Mark Twain (1835–1910) remains the most frequently quoted American author. But there’s a caveat: many of the clever sayings commonly attributed to him were actually someone else’s.
In his lifetime, which began 184 years ago this past November, Twain had indeed voiced many opinions that reflected his sharp wit, intelligence, and an often quirky way of seeing the world. He was able to capture the American spirit of the era, and his wisdom was derived from his many varied activities, ranging from piloting a steamboat and prospecting for gold out West to traveling the world on a cruise liner (which led to his widely popular book, The Innocents Abroad). All these experiences inspired the sometimes biting, often funny, and always pertinent sayings—even the ones that he never claimed as his own.
This is an opportune moment to separate fact from fiction, which Twain, a one-time journalist, would have surely appreciated.
Here are just a few of the more famous quotations mistakenly ascribed to Twain:
- “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” (In fact, Twain’s contemporary, British politician Leonard H. Courtney, said this.)
- “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” It’s a great quote but, unfortunately, not Twain’s. It appears that American novelist Harry Leon Wilson said it in 1904.
- “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer day I spent in San Francisco.” There’s some debate about who this quote should be attributed to, but Twain never voiced this.
- “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Though Twain liked to use this quote, he credited it to a journalist and fellow humorist, Edgar Wilson Nye.
These are just a few of many quotations that have, over the years, been misidentified as Twain’s. But the fact remains that the author of such literary classics as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, really did have a fine sense of humor and delivered plenty of his own witty lines.
- For instance, he DID say: “You can’t depend on your eyes if your imagination is out of focus.”
- “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it—if you live.”
- “All dentists talk while they work. They have inherited this from their professional ancestors, the barbers.”
- And—perhaps the most pertinent one to this subject—It is my belief that nearly any invented quotation, played with confidence, stands a good chance to deceive.”
Twain really did have a clever way with words, even if—to paraphrase another American icon, baseball great Yogi Berra—he never actually said most of the things he allegedly did.
We can only imagine that this confusion over the quote attribution might have prompted Twain to voice an appropriately amusing remark, which we could, in good consciousness, attribute to him.