Quotes Uncovered: Twain or Not Twain

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I’m back to inviting readers to submit quotations whose origins they want me to try to trace, using my book, The Yale Book of Quotations, and my more recent researches.

Richard asked:

Mark Twain is probably the most quoted (and misqouted) person in history.  I have heard two variations of a similar statement attributed to him: ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.’ OR ‘I have been through some terrible things in my life, some which actually happened.’  I am curious if that is truly Twain.

Of course, this is not really Twain. The Yale Book of Quotations has the following entry:

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
Attributed to Mark Twain in Reader’s Digest, Apr. 1934.  A similar remark, attributed to an anonymous octogenarian, appears in the Washington Post, Sept. 11, 1910.

The YBQ also has a cross-reference to the following quotation:

“There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy & hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, & despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen.  To these I say How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!”
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, Apr. 8, 1816

Maybe Garson O’Toole or one of our other crack researchers can find more pre-1910 versions of the saying attributed to Twain.

Do any readers have any other quotations whose origins they would like me to attempt to trace?


"gravy train"

Barry Ritholtz

I keep hearing variations of the following as Twain: :"History may not repeat but it rhymes."

But I have never been able to track that back to Twain anywhere.


I wouldn't be surprised to find that you could discover similar thoughts in for instance Marcus Aurelius. Which raises two questions: how do you prove that a particular author, especially one like Twain with an extensive career as a public speaker, didn't say something? And if you do track down a particular quote to one of the author's published works, who's to say that it was original? After all (to return a quote), "That's the way with writers; they'll steal anything, file off the serial numbers, and claim it for their own." - R.A. Heinlein, 'Glory Road'

Joshua Northey

I have frequently made the exact same point in this thread.

While the information is frequently interesting; I find overall practice of trying to "attribute" sayings, and the occasional tone of "factualness" very odd.

Clearly if we know anything about "sayings" and "quotes" we know that almost all of them are stolen, and that their first published instances are not their first actual instances. It is a a Sisyphean task.

Kate Styrsky

We're interested in pinning down who first made the comment: "A gentleman is one who knows how to play the bagpipe, but refrains." (My own attempts to find the source bogged down when I found numerous statements that substituted "banjo" or "accordion.")

To which I could only respond: "A lady is one who knows how to make a SOCK MONKEY-- but refrains."

Ken Hirsch

A good story was told of an old man who had endured many of the ills of life in his long journey. His friends upon one occasion, more trying than usual, condoled with him, saying that he really had more troubles than other men. "Yes, my friends, that is too true. I have been surrounded by troubles all my life long, but there is a curious thing about them—nine-tenths of them never happened."

Andrew Carnegie, "An American Four-in-Hand in Britain", 1883, pp. 312-313


Our deepest fear isn't that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.

Garson O'Toole

Congratulations to Ken Hirsch for his great cite. The quotation about illusory troubles is intriguing, and I hope to explore it at some point. Recently, I've been on the road with just a notebook computer, and it has been awkward to search and perform other tasks. Now I'm behind schedule.

Here are some cites that fit the generalized template of the saying mentioned by Kate Styrsky:

Cite: 1933 March 3, College Topics [Cavalier Daily], Communication by Dewitt Eldridge, Page 2, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia. (Google News archive)

Keeping in mind Dr. Hoxton's definition of gentleman as - "a man who can play the cornet and doesn't" we advise the depths of Poe's Ragged Mountains as an excellent spot for all those who have not outgrown the instrument to practise it ...

Cite: 1939 April 15, The Age, The Perfect Gentleman, Page 24, Column 2, Melbourne, Australia. (Google News archive)

A London journal of high standing recently invited single-sentence descriptions of a gentleman, and among others was: "A gentleman is one who "can play the saxophone—and doesn't."

Here is a citation critical of bagpipes.

Cite: 1965 September 02, Oregonian, Today's Chuckle [Front page upper-left corner], Page 1, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)

Today's Chuckle: A true gentleman is one who can play the bagpipes - and doesn't.

The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations (1980) has a 1976 cite for the bagpipe variant quote. The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous Quotations (1986) also has the bagpipe variant but gives no date.



"Only boring people get bored."
Attributed to Ruth Burke, (Mother of Princess Diana)


“I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.”


Should it matter ?


Alright, I found myself exlaiming "Oh, poop on a stick" the other day and wondered why, and what it meant. I then found my wife says it all the time (where I learned it from) but we couldn't figure out where she learned it from. I've seen it on South Park episodes (after googling, I don't watch South Park). Where did this saying come from?


Adding further to this conversation (I can't help myself), I saw this quote today attributed to Winston Churchill (same birthday as Mr. Clemens): “When I look back on all these worries, I remember the story of the old man who said on his deathbed that he had had a lot of trouble in his life, most of which had never happened.” So was it Churchill or an anonymous 80-year-old--or are all these renditions simply redacted versions of Jefferson's opine?

Will Messenger

"I have feared many things in this life. Most of which have not happened" This is attributed to Rudyard Kipling; beautiful calligraphy and framing; on the wall in the GP Surgery in Moreton-in-Marsh, England

Stephen Josephs

My father-in-law used to attribute this quote to William James. I've never been able to find the reference.

"A generalization is useful only insofar as one's knowledge of the particulars may take him."

I love the quote. Who said it, besides my father-in-law?


"The problem with internet is that you can't never be sure if a quote is certain"
Abraham Lincoln

Rex Stratton

Who said, "it had the same effect as removing skippers from cheese with artillery?