The Apocryphal Twain: “Things we know that just ain’t so.”


Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning film The Big Short opens with the above epigraph.

Seems appropriate enough, for a cautionary tale about financial bubbles inflated by mass delusion. The film, like the Michael Lewis book upon which it is based, focuses with sometimes queasy admiration on the handful of financiers who bet against the conventional wisdom of the Greenspan era: that U.S. housing prices would rise in perpetuity. The epigraph describes what, in The Alchemy of Finance, George Soros calls a “fertile fallacy,” a principle of investment regarded as scientifically irrefutable because over a short term it has proven conveniently enriching.

Twain is a natural mouthpiece for such a sentiment, considering his deep familiarity with financial crises, his own capacity for what John Kenneth Galbraith calls “speculative euphoria,” and his tendency to admire, and aspire to, contrarian truth. McKay, who has evolved from workmanlike director of Will Ferrell’s slapstick bromances into incisive satirist of the 2008 subprime crisis, no doubt feels a certain kinship with the penny paper fabulist who became America’s Shakespeare. The pregnant pause before Twain’s name appears beneath the quotation suggests a director who fully appreciates the gravitas the author brings to the proceedings.

There’s only one problem with the epigraph. Twain never said it.

There is perhaps no greater testament to Twain’s lasting reputation than the habitual misattribution of miscellaneous wit and wisdom to his name. The circulation of such apocryphal aphorisms was common enough in the 20th century. It has only increased with the popularization of digital media. The most common question addressed to the Center for Mark Twain Studies is some variety of “Did he really say that?” Cataloguing our attempts to dutifully answer, The Apocryphal Twain will be a regular feature on MarkTwainStudies.org. In this space, I will, whenever possible, track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

In his Quote Verifier, Ralph Keynes notes that some variation of the “just ain’t so” quip has been attributed not only to Twain, but also Yogi Berra, Eubie Blake, Frank “Kin” Hubbard, Charles Kettering, Will Rogers, and Artemus Ward. Keynes speculates that several of them may have borrowed the punchline from another 19th-century American humorist, Josh Billings. Among the “affurisms” listed in the 1886 edition of Billings’s complete work is the one-liner, “I honestly beleave it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.”

Keynes also notes that Vice President Al Gore frequently attributed the quote to Twain, most famously in the Oscar-winning documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. Gore started using the line in public appearances at least as early as 1994. It seems likely he is disproportionately responsible for perpetuating the myth of Twain’s authorship. My search yielded only one occasion prior to 1994 when the line was attributed to Twain, in an obscure government report on medical liability. It is not inconceivable that the legendarily wonkish Gore, who was a senator when the report was commissioned, actually read it and extracted this little tidbit he could stump on.

Gore was not the first politician to recognize the aphorism’s sloganeering potential. Former Vice President Walter Mondale used it repeatedly during his 1984 presidential campaign. One of the highlights of the first debate was when Mondale responded to President Ronald Reagan’s denial that his administration was dismantling welfare by saying, “Well, I guess I’m reminded a little bit of what Will Rogers once said about Herbert Hoover. He said, ‘It’s not what he doesn’t know that bothers me, it’s what he knows for sure that just ain’t so.”

New York Times fact-checkers could not confirm the Rogers/Hoover anecdote. They speculated the quote actually came from Billings, Hubbard, or Ward. It seems likely that variations on this punchline were passed around the American humor circuit during the late 19th and early 20th century. Twain obviously belonged to this community, but there is no substantive evidence he created this wisecrack, or stole it.

The spike in attributions to Twain in the late 1990s was also aided by Joe Schwarcz, the Canadian public intellectual who often used the quote in his efforts to debunk medical myths and promote science education.

From 1994 to 2006, it was increasingly common for Twain, never associated with the quip prior to 1991, to be cited as its source, but Rogers and Yogi Berra were still mentioned with some regularity. After An Inconvenient Truth became one of the most successful documentaries in cinema history, grossing $50 Million worldwide and enflaming the climate change debate, Gore’s promotion of Twain’s illegitimate claim became widely accepted. In the last decade more than fifty newspapers, including several outside the U.S., have attributed the quote to Twain without qualification, as have a dozen law reviews, a handful of academic journals, and, of course, hundreds of websites.

This apocryphal aphorism has proven itself a convenient untruth.

Have any Questions or Comments? 

4 comments on “The Apocryphal Twain: “Things we know that just ain’t so.”

Kelly Madden

“Twain never said it.”

That statement is incorrect. In that it’s impossible to substantiate.

What you should say, and what you later imply, is that, even after diligent searching, you have found NO EVIDENCE that Twain said it. Since not everything Twain said was recorded, we can’t know for sure.

Irony upon irony.

Tim Niklaus

So, we should feel free to attribute anything to anybody, so long as they’re too dead to protest? Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I get that. But neither is it license to make up whatever we might wish Twain (or Lincoln or Kennedy or Reagan or whomever) might have said. Seems pretty apparent, based on the evidence provided, Twain is not a reliable source for this quotation. Are you quibbling with the author’s semantics?

Kelly Madden

@Tim Niklaus “Are you quibbling with the author’s semantics?”

Yes. I am.

But with a smile. (“Humor is the good natured side of a truth.”)

On a serious note: thank you, Matt Seybold, for your hard work here. This is a valuable bit of scholarship, and we all benefit from it.

Matt Seybold

Thanks for reading!

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