THE MAIN MAXIM that I try to follow in living the conscious part of my life is a well-known quote by Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble—it’s what you know that just ain’t so.” These are wise words and ones that, should you adopt them, keeps you on your toes. In fact, if you know nothing else, knowing this could make you a wiseperson.
Following this bit of sagacity, one needs to question one’s every belief and utterance—or, at the very least, be open to intellectual challenges of those beliefs by others.
Needless to say, my attributing that bit of wisdom to Twain proves its point, because it was never said by Twain—at least not in those words! However Twain said it, he was paraphrasing someone else!
Artemus Ward: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble—it’s the things we know that ain’t so.”
Will Rogers and Artemus Ward?
I learned this in an article titled “Bloopers: Quote didn’t really originate with Will Rogers” (The Morning Call, October 25, 2017), where Bill White wrote about his use of a quote in an article: “It isn’t what we know that gives us trouble—it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
Except he attributed it to Will Rogers!
To complicate matters, Mr White received a letter from a reader informing him, “Perhaps Rogers borrowed it, but it belongs to Artemus Ward.”
If you look to GoodReads, you’ll find that they lists “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us in trouble—it’s the things we know that ain’t so” among Artemus Ward’s notable quotes, as do many other sites.
Even more list it among Twain’s.
For his research, Bill White turned to Ralph Keye’s The Quote Verifier, a book that demonstrates that few popular quotes are properly attributed. White wrote:
“Keyes wrote that this popular observation most often gets attributed to Mark Twain, as well as to fellow humorists Artemus Ward, Kin Hubbard and Will Rogers. Others to whom it’s been credited include inventor Charles Kettering, pianist Eubie Blake and baseball player Yogi Berra.”
Keyes noted that Twain did observe, ‘It isn’t so astonishing the things I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so,’ but he said Twain’s biographer reported he was paraphrasing a remark by humorist Josh Billings.
Keyes observed that Billings repeated this theme often in different forms, including, ‘I honestly believe it iz better tew know nothing than two know what ain’t so.’ He concluded that Billings deserves the credit.”
This situation of using multiple versions of the idea behind the maxim and crediting multiple sources is not like to be remedied anytime soon.
Will Rogers: “It isn’t what we know that gives us trouble—it’s what we know that ain’t so.”
In the lalaland of fake news
Actually, the reverse of this maxim is also true: knowing what’s so can get you in trouble in a world where millions of Americans are helpless trying to differentiate fact from propaganda! I know that our public school system has never been very good at teaching young Americans to think critically and to ratiocinate, but you’d think that sheer repetition of results would be an adequate learning experience.
But we have reached a point where, after decades of the Limbaughs and Fox Newses mixing fact, opinion, and propaganda together indiscriminately, there are millions of people who turn to the lie-tellers for facts and turn from the truth-tellers as liars. 1
Today, disseminating facts in some circles gets you accused of spreading vicious “liberal” “fake news.” 2
Ah well, as the Balkan people have long warned their children, “Speak truth, then run.” 3
FEATURED IMAGE: The twin photographic images of Josh Billings at the top of this page was used in 19th century stereoviewers. Josh Billings was the pen name of American humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw,who was almost as well known as a humor writer and lecturer as Mark Twain in the second half of the 19th century. (For more on this remarkable device, refer to “The Stereoview in the U.S.” by William Jaeger.)
1 Just think if everybody put the title of this post to use on a daily basis. Hell, they all probably do—especially those who still believe in trickle-down economics, finding weapons of Mass destruction in Iraq, Bill Clinton murdered 43 people as Governor of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton sold children as sex-slaves via a pizza parlor, and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016!
2 If anyone knows of a genuine liberal or progressive website devoted to disseminating propaganda as fake news, lease send me a link.
3 There are many variations on this simple phrase (“Speak truth and run” is one) and many attributions, although the Balkans is the area most often cited.