Sometimes, Buzzkillers, the stars just seem to align. There’s a meteor shower and a rainbow on the same day. And a whole bunch of writers, pundits, journalists, and aphorists come up with roughly the same idea at roughly the same time. Or at least they come up with it over a couple of decades, and, in terms of the history of quotations, that’s the story of the aphorism and witticism, “life is just one damn thing after another.” But it’s easier to attribute such a quotation to Mark Twain, and that’s what people have done.

The basic idea, that life can be boiled down and summarized in one phrase that is so obvious and observant, is too pithy not to love (and to employ whenever it’s needed). Such things, if they’re not Shakespearean in language or tone, are almost always attributed to Mark Twain. The famous American writer is often credited with similar quotes, including: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics;” “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco;” and “Golf is a good walk spoiled.” If it’s short, humorous, and has an implied observation about life, it’s a Twain-ism. (Sometimes it’s a Churchillism, but let’s not muddy the waters.) But did good old Mark Twain ever say it?

Like the statistics quote, the San Francisco winter quote, and the golf quote, there is no evidence at all that Twain ever said, “life is just one damn thing after another.” Like so many quote magnets (Churchill, Gandhi, Lincoln), Twain was one of the most recorded people in modern history. He make sure _never_ to miss an opportunity to publish one of his many witticisms in stories, novels, or essays; and reporters and hangers-on wrote down nearly everything he ever said. So if there’s no evidence of Twain making this “one damn thing after another” observation about life, it’s pretty certain that he never said it.

All the quote stars seemed to align in 1909, though. That’s when the saying first appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers. Sometimes it was described as a proverb printed on a sign (like “the buck stops here”), and sometimes as a snippet of overheard conversation. In addition to Twain, it’s been attributed to Charles Dickens, Lillian Bell, H.L. Mencken, and Elbert Hubbard (all without any evidence). But the most accurate attribution is to “anonymous.”

One thing’s for certain, Buzzkillers. Facebook Quote Pages, Twitter “Memorable Quote” accounts, and the emails from your nutty uncle are just full of one misquote after another.


Buzzkill Bookshelf:

The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain: A Book of Quotations (1998).

This remarkably inexpensive volume gathers together hundreds of Twain’s most memorable quips and comments on life, love, history, culture, travel, and a diversity of other topics that occupied his thoughts over 50 years of writing and lecturing.