The Apocryphal Twain: “Politicians are like diapers.”

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?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

Mark Twain did not hold politicians in high esteem. He was particularly spiteful towards the legislative branch in novels like The Gilded Age (1873) and short stories like “Cannibalism in the Cars” (1868). “There is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress,” he wrote in Puddn’head Wilson (1894). In “What is Man?” (1906) he speculated that “Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” Given the viciousness of his real attacks on elected officials, spanning across his whole career, it is probably no surprise that the corpus of Twain apocrypha includes many pot-shots at politicians.

On the eve of what is anticipated to be one of the highest-turnout midterm elections in US history, one such aphorism is proving particularly popular:

While he might have appreciated the sentiment, it is pretty easy to determine that this is not something Twain actually said. Not only does the quote fail to appear in his published works, nor in his many accessible private writings, I can’t even find an instance of Twain using the term diaper, except in a joke about the “Royal Diaperer” in The Prince & The Pauper (1891). That he would only invoke the term in a novel which is, in part, a send-up of British aristocracy, is telling. The word diaper was not part of the common parlance of America during most of Twain’s life. As the following Google ngram shows, diaper did not supplant the nappy (or napkin) in American vocabulary until late in the 19th century, and did not achieve anything rivaling its widespread contemporary usage until the second half of the 20th.

Rather than Twain, the man most responsible for the popularity the aphorism now enjoys in probably Robin Williams. In the film Man of the Year (2006), Williams’s character utters the lines, “Remember this ladies and gentleman: It’s an old phrase, basically anonymous, politicians are a lot like diapers, they should be changed frequently, and for the same reasons. Keep that in mind the next time you vote.”

This speech not only appears near the climax of the film, but also figured prominently in the publicity campaign surrounding the film’s release in the Fall of 2006. Predictably, the quote started appearing regularly on social media soon thereafter. However, I can find no instance of its being attributed to Twain until two years later, first in a series of tweets by Dr. Larisa Varenkova. It was retweeted several times, then bounced around social media in relative obscurity until, in September of that year, Mike Hanes, a motivational speaker with tens of thousands of followers, took it upon himself to start tweeting it multiple times every day from two separate accounts. This continued for several months, and probably marks the point after which the misattribution to Twain became widely accepted.

But who is actually responsible for this nugget of bawdy political wit?

It seems likely that Barry Levinson, the screenwriter for Man of the Year, got it from Paul Harvey. Williams’s character is populist political commentator with folksy charm, which is also an accurate description of Harvey, whose syndicated “The Rest of the Story” was a staple of ABC Radio for more than half a century. Obituaries for Harvey in the New York Times and Forbes following his death in 2009 give him credit for a very similar aphorism targeting “occupants of the White House” and it also appears in newspaper accounts of his public appearances from the 1990s.

But Harvey himself, in a syndicated editorial from June 1994, credits the exact quote – “Politicians, like diapers, should be changed often. And for the same reasons.” – to Tom Blair, a longtime columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Harvey likely got this attribution from a 1993 issue of Reader’s Digest in which the aphorism was excerpted with Blair’s byline.

But, when one tracks down the article which Reader’s Digest quoted from, one discovers that Blair himself was quoting a local candidate on the Libertarian ticket. John Wallner used the line repeatedly during his unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat in 1992, and thus it found its way into several major papers, including the Los Angeles Times, which dubbed it “the best line in a losing cause.”

One can’t help wondering whether Wallner would’ve still endorsed this catchphrase had he won.

Be kind to each other this Election Day…if not to your Congressmen.

The Apocryphal Twain: “I have never let schooling interfere with my education.”

As we near the end of fall term, the days get shorter, the mornings get colder, and students, teachers, and parents alike get increasingly agitated. Under such conditions, the problems of our schools, real and imagined, are magnified and exaggerated. November is a ripe season for anti-intellectualism and dozens of Tweeters turn every day to one of the most enduring apocryphal aphorisms of America’s leading iconoclast:

Twain recognized that educational attainment was neither an exclusive product of schools, nor guaranteed by them, but he is not the source of this tired maxim. As Garson O’Toole has shown, one of Twain’s contemporaries and fellow novelists, Grant Allen, inflicted this bit of self-satisfied wit upon his readers half a dozen times, starting more than a decade before it was ever attributed to Twain.

Allen, by the way, earned a degree from Oxford and started his career as a professor. How convenient it is for holders of post-graduate degrees to glorify the school of hard knocks.

Twain, who would receive honorary degrees from Oxford and Yale despite having no formal education beyond primary school, was characteristically self-effacing and cynical about “the self-taught man” who “seldom knows anything accurately” and “does not know a tenth of as much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers.” He cautioned that the man who bragged of his lack of formal education was merely “fooling other thoughtless people into going and doing the same as he himself has done.” These words we can confidently attribute to Twain, as they were part of the posthumously published essay “Taming the Bicycle,” written in 1884.

While there is little to add to Dr. O’Toole’s attribution, I do think it is interesting to note that this aphorism seems to have fallen almost entirely out of circulation during the first half of the 20th century. I found only two, very obscure, invocations of it between 1907 and 1957. Then, in April of ’57 it was part of a profile of Dr. Charles Crampton of Delphi, Indiana. Crampton must have been something of a local celebrity, as the Journal & Courier profile by Joan Burke, who attributed the quote to the good doctor himself, was syndicated to half a dozen other newspapers in the northern half of the state. Soon thereafter, the quote began popping up with greater frequency, always attributed to Twain, most notably finding its way into a dispatch from the nationally syndicated columnist, L. M. Boyd, in 1972.

Given its anti-intellectual undertones it is probably no surprise that the maxim was embraced early and often by social media influencers, making its first appearance on Twitter in August of 2007 and tens of thousands of times since. Over the course of the last decade it has been correctly attributed to Grant Allen 11 times.

The Apocryphal Twain: “Kindness is language the deaf can hear.”

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?” Whenever possible, we track down the original source, as well as attempt to trace how their words came to be imagined in Twain’s mouth.

“Kindness is language the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – The Apocryphal Twain

The Occam’s Razor of Twain attribution is: If the aphorism in question indicates a sentimental, nostalgic, or otherwise optimistic attitude towards humanity, it probably didn’t come from Twain. As Louis Budd put it, Twain indulged a “lifelong suspicion that the mass of mankind is venal, doltish, feckless, and tyrannical, that the damn fools make up a majority anywhere.” Thus, it struck me as unlikely that Twain had such pithy things to say about kindness when this quote began circulating in 2009.

It would appear the popularity of this quotation, which is tweeted dozens of times everyday, as well as the widespread acceptance of its attribution, can be traced to a single individual. “Brad D.” introduced the aphorism to Twitter in January 2008 and has tweeted it 124 times since.

A year into this barrage, he hooked his first influencer: Allison Holker, a veteran dancer from High School Musical who was then appearing as an “All-Star” on  So You Think You Can Dance and would join the Dancing with the Stars cast a few years later. 

Embraced thereafter by the usual community of quote bots, life coaches, and motivational speakers, many of whom have tens or even hundreds of thousands of followers, the aphorism was now in daily circulation. Roughly two weeks later it would be tweeted from the accounts of The Trevor Project, The NOH8 Campaign and its founder, celebrity photography Adam Bouska. These LGBT outreach organizations have a combined following in the millions, including many public figures.

In the ensuing years, the quote has remained a staple of social media inspiration and activism. However, its misattribution pre-dates its digital perpetuation. It was credited to Twain in a series of self-help books from the 1990s, the first of which, A Compendium of Caring Thought, was produced by The Caring Institute, a non-profit founded by a prominent philanthropist of the elderly and disabled, Val J. Halamandaris.

Only one of these books, Meladee McCarty’s Daily Journal of Kindness (1996), actually got the attribution right. The aphorism originates from Christian Nestell Bovee. In his Thoughts, Feelings, & Fancies (1857), Bovee wrote “Kindness is a language the dumb can speak and the deaf can hear and understand.” With phrasing slightly altered it appeared again in the revised and expanded Intuitions & Summaries of Thought (1862):

Bovee was a minor Transcendentalist who operated at the fringes of American literary culture for most of the 19th century, dying in 1904 at the age of 84, an incredible endurance for the time. He published his earliest aphorisms in the American Review during the same years Edgar Allen Poe was placing several of his most famous works with the magazine. He was an occasional participant in the Saturday Club which included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He contributed to William Dean Howell’s Atlantic Monthly and later, as a publisher of his own magazine, supported several journalists, like Brander Matthews, who went on to become notable muckrakers and naturalists.

Like Twain, his views were generally progressive for his time, with little patience for religion – “Altogether too much thought is give to the next world. One world at a time ought to be sufficient for us.” – and less for politics – “The great number of offices, and the facilities for acquiring them, in a democratic state, induce at intervals an indecent scramble for offices, from which the men of superior worth, after a season, are apt to retire in disgust, leaving the field to be occupied by the less worthy and the more importunate.” But, unlike Twain, Bovee believed “only the optimist looks wisely on life.” “A genial optimist who praises much scatters flowers in our way,” he wrote, “A pleasant illusion is better than a harsh reality.”