Mark Twain in Recovery
August 12, 2007 10:00 PM   Subscribe

Why is the quote "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt" so often attributed to Mark Twain? Is this not an anachronism? Does anyone know the real origin of this phrase?
posted by macinchik to Writing & Language (21 answers total)
As to the why, it comes up often enough here that it should be a FAQ. It is known as the "flypaper effect"

See also the Matthew effect and the Matilda effect
posted by vacapinta at 10:23 PM on August 12, 2007

What does it mean that I've never heard this phrase (which I've heard many times) attributed to Mark Twain before?
posted by jjg at 11:27 PM on August 12, 2007

As a Twain fanatic these spurious quotes bug the hell out of me. Jim Zwick used to maintain a page debunking spurious Twain quotes at, but it is gone.
posted by LarryC at 12:46 AM on August 13, 2007

Is this a denial joke? There are hundreds, nay--thousands of references to this, all of which are attributed to Mark Twain, and nobody else. And it doesn't appear in What Mark Twain Didn't Say.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:55 AM on August 13, 2007

It also doesn't appear at Twain Quotes. The real origin, I have no idea. A lot of things are attributed to Twain. Probably because he seemed to have something to say about everything, mostly the simple aspects of human nature, and was such an immensely popular author.
posted by Roman Graves at 2:07 AM on August 13, 2007

Why do you think it would be an anachronism?
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:15 AM on August 13, 2007

I don't know the real origin of the phrase, but Mark Twain seems to be a sort of totemic figure for wit.

It's the same reason that people will say things like, "To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of the American processed aluminum industry are greatly exaggerated." Putting aside the misuse of the word "paraphrase," invoking Mark Twain allows you to evoke a sort of a sense memory of humor, even if your statement isn't remotely funny.
posted by yankeefog at 7:55 AM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: Back to the question:
Here is a June 1994 NYTimes story that cites the saying as being "the words of Stuart Smalley". Smalley is a fictional character invented and played by Al Franken on Saturday Night Live, as part of a "mock-self help program." See Wikipedia on this. Wikipedia lists the phrase in question, with "ain't", as being a Smalleyism. A 1991 transcript of Smalley using the phrase in an interview with Michael Jordan is here, although that may not be the first time he used it. Franken included the phrase in a 1992 book, "I'm Good Enough, I'm Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!: Daily Affirmations by Stuart Smalley." So, it looks like the answer to "the real origin" is Al Franken, unless someone can come up with a pre-Smalley, pre-1991 citation.
posted by beagle at 9:56 AM on August 13, 2007

To clarify: I will that Mark Twain never said or wrote any such thing. It does not sound like Twain. It falls far short of Twain's standard of wit. In the 19th century the word "denial" did not have the psychological meaning that it does in the quote. And I don't recognize it. It is a spurious attribution.
posted by LarryC at 10:07 AM on August 13, 2007

Du'oh! "I will guarantee that Twain..." And here I was trying to appear all authoritative and shit.
posted by LarryC at 10:09 AM on August 13, 2007

Mod note: a few comments removed - take your crabbyness to metatalk, or to the beach
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:16 AM on August 13, 2007

A Google Book Search for the phrase comes up with an earliest usage of 1966, in a lame book of quotes, attributed to Twain. But there is no citation. Since all of Twain's works are in the GBS database, we can say for certain that Twain never wrote it.
posted by LarryC at 10:19 AM on August 13, 2007

Factoid that may be relevant: According to the OED, "denial" as a psychoanalytical term did not exist while Twain was alive (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910 according to Wikipedia --- yes I am aware of the irony of citing Wikipedia as an authority in this context). Here's the OED's entry:

denial, n.

Add: 7. Psychoanal. The suppression (usu. at an unconscious level) of a painful or unacceptable wish or of experiences of which one is ashamed. Now also in more general use, esp. in phr. in denial (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Cf. RESISTANCE n. 2 b.

1914 A. A. BRILL tr. Freud's Psychopathol. Everyday Life vii. 149 Certain denials which we encounter in medical practice can probably be ascribed to forgetting. 1927 O. RANK in Mental Hygiene XI. 187 Freud is obliged to refer to special mechanisms, in particular the ‘procedure of making a thing as if it had not happened’{em}a circumlocution by which he avoids using the simpler and more natural terms proposed by others. (For a long time I have used the term ‘Verleugnung’, denial.) 1930 W. HEALY et al. Structure & Meaning Psychoanalysis VII. 457 On the basis of his theory of ‘denial’, Rank demands that there be an emotional reproduction rather than intellectual recollection... The fact that denial has occurred is, he says, often more important than the content of the corresponding memory. 1950 R. P. BISSELL Stretch on River xxi. 207 It's a transferral of intent. It's a result of childhood trauma. It's Oedipus denial. 1959 Jrnl. Personality XXVII. 364 The opposite syndrome, composed of high Admission, low Denial, and high Anxiety scores describes the other end of the repression continuum. 1979 H. SEGAL Klein x. 127 The denial of his mourning is also apparent in his running away. 1992 Village Voice (N.Y.) 8 Apr. 25/1 ‘You're living in denial. Abortion is killing your baby.’ He sounds the prolifers' warning of never-ending guilt, as if morality were mere avoidance of pain.
So the first reference to denial in this sense that OED found was in 1914, and the first that sounds vaguely like the way it's used in the quote was from 1950. Given this I'd say that Mark Twain is totally implausible, but LarryC's evidence suggests that it can't be Stuart Smalley either.
posted by jacobm at 10:42 AM on August 13, 2007

Larry C, the result you cite, A Farewell to the American Humanity by Gregory Glenn Neilson, was published in 2002 (click on Copyright page for that result). The author was born in 1966. Unfortunately, Google Books is full of data entry errors like that.
posted by beagle at 10:45 AM on August 13, 2007

WGP - put an email in yr profile pls
posted by CunningLinguist at 10:45 AM on August 13, 2007

Earliest citation on Google Groups.
Probably right after Franken first uses it on SNL.
posted by beagle at 11:03 AM on August 13, 2007

Usually in these "What is the origin of..." questions, the answer is that there are often two answers:

The popularizer - How did this phrase become familiar? Where did the first wave of people hear it from?

The 'true' origin - Who was the actual inventor of this, whether a community or subculture.

Yes, in some cases they are the same. But often a phrase would have been left in obscurity with nobody asking about its origin had not the popularizer shot it into popular culture.

All I'm saying is that if all the earliest references point to Smalley then that makes a strong case that he was the popularizer which may or may not be the same as the "origin" of the phrase.
posted by vacapinta at 11:12 AM on August 13, 2007

Best answer: Vacapinta, you're correct about that, of course, and we can't be absolutely sure about Franken/Smalley.

But. Weighing in his favor: Franken's a humorist; he made up a slew of other aphorisms for the character. And, there are zero citations on Groups before 1991, only a trickle until 1996, and around 400 since then. Aphrase may get used colloquially without appearing in books or on TV, but if it's in circulation, I would think it would show up on Groups, which is more like conversation than formal written discourse. It doesn't show before Franken, and doesn't even really take off until well after Franken puts it in a book.

Of course, we could just ask Al if he made it up, or not.
posted by beagle at 11:25 AM on August 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Well allow me to throw in a little anecdotal evidence. I was in college in 1994 and I wrote a little teleplay for five eps of a sitcom that I shot and produced. I WROTE the script in September of 1994 and I used the phrase "Denial ain't just a river in Egypt" in it.

Now I stole that, clearly, and I remember took it from a line in that sketch with the two gay movie reviewers "men on film" from the TV show "In Living Color"

It's possible they stole it from Smalley but I think they've got the chronological edge here.
posted by rileyray3000 at 11:48 AM on August 13, 2007

In Living Color ran April 15, 1990 to May 19, 1994. So the line would have to be in the first 11 months or so of that period to predate Smalley. The Men on Film did appear in the first season, according to the Amazon DVD listing, so it's possible.
posted by beagle at 12:07 PM on August 13, 2007

Pam Tillis's song "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial" came out in 1992 and received heavy airplay on MTV. This might explain why it was in a lot of folks' minds in the early 90's.
posted by Gable Oak at 3:07 PM on August 13, 2007

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