Mark Twain Didn’t Say That!


A Miscredited Mark Twain Quote

Many people through the years have used a quote and attributed that quote to Mark Twain.

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines! Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover!

As a sailor, I’ve often referred to this quote and have heard it many times in my life. And almost every time I’ve heard it, it has been credited to Mark Twain. It has even been listed as his quote in The New Yorker. It’s actually surprising to me how many times it has been quoted by serious organizations without ever checking to see if it was accurate or not. In fact, this week I spoke to a writer who said this was her favorite Twain quote and it had been on her desk for years. That was probably the straw that broke my camel’s back and made me write this article.

The Peace Corps and The Navy

It turns out that Mark Twain didn’t say it. In fact, it has only been a known saying since the 1990s. According to one source, it was first attributed to Mark Twain by the Peace Corps in 1999 and later adopted by the US Navy. This is really how it got so widely attributed. Everybody just assumed it came from Mark Twain.

In actuality, it came from a book called P.S. I Love You by H. Jackson Brown. And even Mr. Brown doesn’t take credit for saying it, but rather attributes it to something his mother said. Her name was Sarah Frances Brown. Technically, if we are to give anybody the credit for saying it, it should be her. But since it was first printed in his book in 1990, the credit goes to him.

This quote would probably not have been attributed to Mark Twain if it had come out in the past 10–20 years. Everybody would have checked it online. But because it came out in 1990, really in the Internet’s infancy, people just attributed it to Twain without checking it. We assumed everything that happened before the wide-scale adoption of the Internet, must have been accurate. A lesson learned about checking your quotes and not assuming they are accurate.

My Favorite Mark Twain Quote

One of my favorite quotes that Mark Twain actually did say is this:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

This quote has been on my Facebook page since I’ve had a Facebook page in 2007. I have been on a traveling journey much of my life. In the past 4 years alone (before Covid) I traveled to 40 different countries by crewing on sailboats. It’s what I call, Global HitchHiking and I used this method to sail completely around the world between 2016 and 2019.

I’ll always be a fan of Mark Twain for this quote alone. Unfortunately, the earlier quote about throwing off the bowlines can no longer be attributed to him. And even though it applies to me and my journey around the world, it still needs to be credited appropriately.

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