Tuesday, July 1, 2008

It Ain't What You Don't Know"

I have this signature line that is appended to my posts on a writer's forum that I frequent, and it goes like this: "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so." That just about sums up my most important philosophy. Now, when you quote somebody it's just polite to give the author some credit. So here is the credit line that I use for that quote: "lots of people."

This afternoon a helpful member of that forum dropped me a line to point out that Mark Twain was the actual author of the aphorism I have been using in place of my own wit. But I'm not too sure my correspondent is correct.

My research has shown conclusively that Mark Twain said just about everything that has ever been said. He must have said so much that his acquaintances frequently had to ask him to "just shut up, Mark; just shut the f*** up!" I surmise that he was very boring at parties, always yammering on with some kind of folksy wisdom or other and never giving a fig for what anybody else had to say. (I am very sorry if you are a big Mark Twain fan or something, but the truth is the truth -- as Mark Twain said.)

You can be pretty sure that Samuel Clemens once said, "Pass the gravy." But that doesn't mean he was the original author of that phrase, either, under his own name or his assumed one. That's why I don't give him credit in my signature: that he deserves that credit is something (one of many things) I don't know for sure.

You will read that Twain said, "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." But you won't find those words or any like them in anything he ever wrote. A friend of his, Charles Dudley Warner, an editorial writer for the Hartford, Connecticut Courant newspaper, wrote that "A well known American writer once said..." the remark. But he did not name the well-known writer so we have no idea who he was talking about and everybody just ASSUMED that Mark Twain MUST have been the guy because he was, well, a well-known author and he was known to be clever and it sure sounded like something that the guy who wrote about celebrated jumping frogs might say. And there's no proof either that Twain remarked that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer day here in My City of San Francisco.

You will also find references to Twain writing that, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." He did write that, but he was quoting the British statesman Benjamin Disraeli and took no credit for the witticism (or is it "criticism?").

Now, most folks will swear that Mark Twain is indeed the author of the line about what you know that ain't so, but I suspect none of them have taken the words to heart in the very matter of who said the thing or who deserves the credit for the saying of it.

See, Mark Twain was a writer (and a very good and very prolific one). But if you have a look at all 20,400 citations that Google will dish up for you, not a single one of them tells you WHERE or WHEN Twain uttered, wrote, or thought up this little tidbit. And that's the sort of thing that makes me just a bit suspicious about his authorship. You'd think if Twain wrote it down -- or if somebody heard him say it and reported it somewhere -- somebody would have by now gone to the trouble to find out just when and where and by what motivation he made the remark.

I am the proud owner of an entire fleet of respected scholarly books of quotations, from which I borrow ideas often and without shame. I have looked through every one of those books and, not very much to my amazement, the "what you don't know" quote appears nowhere in any of them. I must assume that the reason the editors of these weighty tomes have ignored one of the best-known witticisms of America's most renowned humorists is that they're not too sure themselves that he actually said it. They are completely mum on the matter, not even printing the saying with the note: "apocryphal."

Perhaps Twain did say or write the words, or something like them. Closest I can find is in Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar: "Faith is believing what you know ain't so." But that's not quite the same thing, is it?

In any event the sentiment of the aphorism we are talking about is certainly not original to Mark Twain. A few other people have been credited with the observation that there is more danger in our holding beliefs that aren't true than there is in outright ignorance. Better to be dumb than wrong.

No less a philosopher than Satchel Paige is said to have observed: It's not what you don't know that gets you into trouble, it's what you know that just ain't so that gets you into trouble." Too many "troubles" in that version to make for a good aphorism, so Satchel Paige strikes-out once again.

And speaking of baseball, Yogi Berra has also been credited with the remark. He's one of those people that it's easy to pin weird sayings on; you can credit him with some dumb remark and folks will go, "Yeah, that sounds like ol' Yogi, alright."

As far as INTENTIONALLY funny people (that is, not Yogi Berra), the "cowboy philosopher" Will Rogers is another reputed speaker of the line that got this started but, once again, nobody's been able to find the saying in any of his works.

A lesser-known humorist and semi-contemporary of Twain named Josh Billings (whose real name was Henry Wheeler Shaw, (what is it about humorists that makes 'em want to write under assumed names?)), is credited with saying "It's not ignorance does so much damage; it's knowin' so derned much that ain't so." Now EXACTLY those words have not been found in any of Billing's/Shaw's writings but similar ideas are in his 1874 book Everybody's Friend, or Josh Billling's Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, to whit: "I honestly believe it is better to know nothing than to know what ain't so." So... did one of them-Twain or Billings-borrow the idea from the other? Did they come up with it independently? Did each of 'em overhear it somewhere separately? Did they use the same joke book? I suppose we'll never know. And that's my point.

Maybe we'd be better off following the wisdom of Confucious: "To know is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge." Or, before him, of Socrates: "True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing." What kind of world is this when even famous dead philosophers crib stuff from one another?

Somebody once said, "Good lines become great ones when presented as the utterances of those whom we already hold in high esteem for their wit." That somebody was Barbara Mikkelson, writing recently for Snopes.com. That I know. But I don't know where she got it.

UPDATE: Please see this more recent post.


  1. Well,now, Bob... I do agree with you =)

  2. Just came across your post while trying to find the source of said quote, which I first heard in a Christopher Hitchens interview.

    Nice piece, Bob.

  3. I could not figure it out.. the differnce between lying, beeing lied to, exposing a lie for what it is, beeing unaware of something important, perpetuating a lie unknowlingly?

  4. Well, now, Anonymous, the aphorism advises us to be aware that our most firmly held beliefs may not be true--and sticking stubbornly to those that aren't can be a recipe for disaster.

    It's a good idea to be a little less certain about what we think we know, to maintain an open mind.

    Lies, I think, are intentional--although people might perpetuate them innocently. And even think they're doing others a favor.

    What we don't know, we can learn. It's harder to unlearn--and the first step is to admit we might be misinformed.

  5. but have you checked Mark Twain's twitter feed? all his quotes are there.

    i am kidding by the way... i really like that quote, and it's good to know that no one else knows where it came from. i thought this was a clever post and could probably apply to a lot more famous writers who are often misquoted.

  6. BOB

    I stumbled over Well, now, Bob . . . in a search for the supposed ‘actual’ Twain-ism and here you are! I have always used it thusly: “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble—it's what you know that just ain't so.”

    It was handed down to me when I was knee-high to a whippersnapper (LBJ was president, Paul McCartney was still alive, Elvis wasn’t, a minimum wage job was not necessarily a demeaning thing, and any greasy spoon sold a better hamburger for 25¢ than any restaurant you or I can afford these days) by my Grampa, who told it to me once when he was sober and I was paying attention. But, what do I know . . . .

    Thanks and keep up the good workings,


  7. OK, Bob, you're caught... It took nearly 5 years but I got you: the quotations attributed to Confucius and Socrates cannot be found in any of their writings... Well, as for Socrates, I checked Plato and Xenophon, not Aristotle or Plutarch, so there may be still a hope... But I rather think you played us a little trick of socratic irony, am I wrong?

  8. I’ll pick a small nit with you, Logopathe: there are no Socrates “writings.” As you know, others have only quoted him and, in fact, Socrates seems to have been very suspicious of the very idea of writing. “Spoils the memory,” he said – or something to that effect.

    Confucius did write – or may have written – quite a lot. But much of what is attributed to him was compiled (in The Analects) many years after his death.

    But, yes, you’ve caught the irony. Often what’s passed around as a wise saying of so-and-so is really a paraphrase or a description—written by someone else—of a well-known person’s philosophy. The Socrates “quotation” is one of those bits of freshman philosophy that has young heads bobbing agreement and would-be philosophers murmuring, “Ah, yes; how true.” It doesn’t really say much, though it sounds very deep and gives one a sense of attaining some particle of wisdom.

    But it seems wise, Socrates was wise (so they say), it sounds like Socrates, it encapsulates some of Socratic philosophy – and, so, we are ready to accept it as the word of the man. Except for you, of course.

  9. What I meant was a bit more precise: I know Socrates didn't write (I'm right in the middle of a "let's throw some academical knowledge in a management pamphlet so that my litterary studies are not quite wasted" kind of job, which is why I'm re-reading Plato), but usually philosophy textbooks assume the sentence can be found in Plato's writings using Socrate's character; and apparently it cannot. Some scholars even seem to argue that it's not even what Socrates meant, but maybe they're going a bit far: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I_know_that_I_know_nothing

    As for Confucius, the correct quote is: "Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to hold that you know it; and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it;— this is knowledge." (Analects, II, 17). Which is slightly different from the one you gave. I honestly thought you did it on purpose, I didn't mean to be arrogant or anything...

    The thing is, your post helped me a lot, and I'm really grateful: I was looking for the origin of the "It ain't what you know" quote, which I was given as being Will Rogers'. Your research was precious to me, and it allowed me to write a little sub-chapter about "thinking you know it's true, but it's not so", with a nice "mise en abîme". Like, "You think you know Socrates said that all he knows is that he doesn't know anything? Well, it's not quite true!"

    We French are terribly vain people, sorry for that.

    Thanks again!

  10. I ran across "It ain't so much what I know that gets me in trouble, it's what I know that ain't so." in a Farmer's Almanac back in the 60's attributed to Artemus Ward (AKA Charles Brown). Ward was one of Abraham Lincoln's favorite humorists.
    Bobby G.

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  12. Mark Twain was also surely echoing Shakespeare's observation in Measure For Measure "Man proud man...most ignorant of what he's most assured."

  13. Actually, this is not a Mark Twain quote - sorry all. It was written by a fellow named Josh Billings. The reference is here: http://www.forbes.com/2009/08/12/nigel-rees-misquotes-opinions-rees.html

  14. Yep, Anonymous, I noted Josh Billings as a potential original source but actually the exact words aren't in any of his writing. As mentioned in my screed above, the closest that can be found is "I honestly believe it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so" (his spelling, not mine). This appears on page 286 of the Google Books version of "Everybody's Friend Or Josh Billing's Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy." Even the source article that you cite admits the exact words ain't thar (as Billings might put it).

  15. Thank you for investigating the source of this quote.

    I too have most often seen it attributed to Twain, but I've read a lot of Twain, and never thought it sounded like him. I think it sounds more like Will Rogers, and have wondered if he might have said it as we most commonly see it quoted it today, inspired by having read Billing's articulation of the same idea.

    The problem with trying to confirm Rogers as the original source of this or many other quotes is that he was a performer, rather than a writer.

    My personal favorite is a bit different that what is commonly quoted: "It's not what you know that gets you into trouble, but what you think you know that you don't know." This version might be attributable to me, but perhaps I read it somewhere. I know I don't know. :)

  16. What a great treatment of the issue. I enjoyed every word!

  17. Howdy Bob!
    I really enjoyed your post. I was searching for the author of this quote when I fortuitously stumbled upon your blog. The first time I remember hearing it where it was used with any significant pertinence, was in the 1984 presidential debate by Walter Mondale towards Ronald Reagan. Mondale attributed the quote to Rogers, but as we know, that don't make it so either! He did deliver it with much aplomb, but unfortunately for him, and I believe fortunate for the country Reagan won anyway. Incidentally Reagan was no slouch himself, the next debate is when Reagan said " I will not make age an issue of this campaign, I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponents youth and inexperience!" Pardon me for getting off track, lol! What is also amazing is that your blog post was written in July 2008 and we're still commenting on it in 2017! Hope all is well. I will now attempt to read some more of your posts, I'm sure I'll find them interesting.

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  19. Well, now, George, thank you for your comments and I trust we can agree to disagree about Mr. Reagan and the outcome of that election. It is remarkable that folks are still commenting (if rarely) about this blog post. Moreso that folks have been saying things like "It ain't what you don't know..." for about as long as human history--and so many folks still don't get the message. Thanks for taking the time to write.