Chasing A Meme: The Twain Quote That Isn’t [Updated]

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

It was the meme of the moment on Twitter, in the wake of the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by an American military team. Heck, even NPR tumbled it!

But it’s not Twain.

To be more precise, there is no record of its being Twain.

When I first saw the quote Sunday night, I almost tried to track it down. It was too perfect, too seductive, the perfect way to express joy in another’s death.

And it set my crap detector (thank you, Howard Rheingold) abuzz.

But I was too busy reading commentary and then working on a @Storify tale of the relationship between the news and Twitter to give it much thought.

The quote continued to punctuate my Twitter timeline tonight. The itch demanded scratching.

A straight search from Google was not helpful. Given the search engine’s desire to serve up real-time info, that’s what I got: a bunch of tweets and Facebook status updates. So I went straight to WikiQuote. No joy. Next, TwainQuotes. No joy. Finally, BrainyQuote and ThinkExist. No joy here, either.

I changed my search. I broke the phrase into two parts.


“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” – Clarence Darrow

Note the first clause has morphed.

The two were contemporaries: Darrow, 1857-1938; Twain, 1835-1910. Both were known for their wit, although one was a lawyer while the other was a writer/humorist.

Perhaps the catchy phrase was first posted by Mary Alice Stephenson (@MaryAliceStyle) since as of this writing she has more than 700 retweets. Or Laureen McCubbin, with 200+ retweets.

Alas, I’m not the first to point out that this wasn’t Twain. On Sunday, @ffish tried to, without success. Ditto, @BadAstronomer.

But it’s still not Twain.


It turns out Twain expressed a similar sentiment, according to online sources of quotations (and Scott, in the comments):

I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a letter saying I approved of it. – via BrainyQuoteThinkExist

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

8 replies on “Chasing A Meme: The Twain Quote That Isn’t [Updated]”

It’s worth noting that the full quote of Clarence Darrow’s wasn’t quite as snarky as it seems:

“Every instinct that is found in any man is in all men. The strength of the emotion may not be so overpowering, the barriers against possession not so insurmountable, the urge to accomplish the desire less keen. With some, inhibitions and urges may be neutralized by other tendencies. But with every being the primal emotions are there. All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.”

It’s funny, because what he was saying is almost the opposite of the Mark Twain quote. Clarence Darrow is asserting that it’s completely natural to wish someone dead. But as a prominent lawyer for the ACLU, he obviously was not pro-killing or anything.

“I never said most of the things I said.” –Yogi Berra (or someone)

“Never attribute to malice that which can be more easily explained by incompetence.” (or something like that) –Martin Golding

Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) noticed first, I think. I tried to get the message out there too, but my readership is limited…

If you do a study of quotations, you’ll find this is a very common phenomenon. Quotations tend to migrate from lesser known mouths into better known ones. Twain, to paraphrase the also oft mis-attributed Yogi Berra, never said half the things he said.

(For instance, his famous “lies, damn lies, and statistics” quote was actually uttered originally by British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.)

Many great quips eventually migrate even further afield, into the mouth of the most prolific pundit of all history, Mr. A. Nonymous.

Social media simply accelerates this tendency of attribution migration to a velocity that far outpaces the speed of thought.

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