August 24, 2015

"Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."

In 1897, two of the most famous residents of Hartford, Connecticut were Mark Twain and his friend and fellow writer Charles Dudley Warner, who was then editor of the local newspaper, the Hartford Courant.

They had been close friends for decades.

Back in 1873, they had even written a satirical novel together, titled The Gilded Age. (It was the only novel Twain ever wrote with a collaborator and its title coined the term that came to be used for the greed-fueled, corruption-tinged post-Civil War era it lampooned.)

Twain and Warner are also both connected to a famous joke about the weather that’s commonly given as:

       “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”

This line is most widely credited as a quote by Twain. But it doesn’t appear in anything he wrote or in any of his recorded speeches.

It is also widely credited to Warner and there is a published source for that attribution. But that source — an editorial published in the Hartford Courant on August 24, 1897 — doesn’t exactly clarify the facts.

For one thing, the editorial was unsigned.

Warner was writing editorials for the Courant at the time, so he probably did write it.

However, even assuming he did, there are two other quotation accuracy problems: the editorial itself credits the saying to someone else and gives it in a form that’s slightly different than the familiar traditional “quote.”

What the editorial actually says is:

       “A well known American writer said once that, while everybody talked about the weather, nobody seemed to do anything about it.”

It’s likely that the popular version of the “quote” was derived from or popularized by the version in this editorial.

It also seems likely that the “well known American writer” referred to was Warner’s friend Mark Twain.

However, when asked, Twain denied it and credited Warner with writing the quip.

A few years ago, the frequently-groundbreaking Quote Investigator site documented two sources published prior to 1897 that attributed versions of the quote to Warner, thus adding to the evidence that he — rather than Twain — coined, or at least popularized, the saying.

Interestingly, one of those sources claims Warner made the remark with reference to the weather of New England.

That makes me wonder if Charles Dudley Warner may also have inspired another famous saying that’s often mistakenly attributed to Mark Twain:

       “If you don’t like the weather in New  England, just wait a few minutes.”

Many websites and books, including some otherwise authoritative ones, like The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations, claim that Twain said this in a speech to the New England Society in New York City, on December 22, 1876.

In fact, he didn’t.

If you actually read the speech you find that, while Twain did make several remarks about the unpredictability of New England weather, he did not say the “If you don’t like the weather in New  England…” line. (Or anything close to it.)

My conclusion is that, while thousands books and websites talk about the famous weather quotations attributed to Mark Twain, nobody has done anything about them that definitively clears up their true origins.

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