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Posted by on May 3, 2011 in Religion, Society | 1 comment

Chasing A Meme: The Twain Quote That Isn’t

“I’ve never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure.” – Mark Twain

It was the meme of the moment on Twitter, in the wake of the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed by an American military team. Heck, even NPR tumbled it!

But it’s not Twain.

To be more precise, there is no record of its being Twain.

When I first saw the quote Sunday night, I almost tried to track it down. It was too perfect, too seductive, the perfect way to express joy in another’s death.

And it set my crap detector (thank you, Howard Rheingold) abuzz.

But I was too busy reading commentary and then working on a @Storify tale of the relationship between the news and Twitter to give it much thought.

The quote continued to punctuate my Twitter timeline tonight. The itch demanded scratching.

A straight search from Google was not helpful. Given the search engine’s desire to serve up real-time info, that’s what I got: a bunch of tweets and Facebook status updates. So I went straight to WikiQuote. No joy. Next, TwainQuotes. No joy. Finally, BrainyQuote and ThinkExist. No joy here, either.

I changed my search. I broke the phrase into two parts.


“I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” – Clarence Darrow

The two were contemporaries: Darrow, 1857-1938; Twain, 1835-1910. Both were known for their wit, although one was a lawyer while the other was a writer/humorist.

Perhaps the catchy phrase was first posted by Mary Alice Stephenson (@MaryAliceStyle) since as of this writing she has more than 700 retweets. Or Laureen McCubbin, with 200+ retweets.

Alas, I’m not the first to point out that this wasn’t Twain. On Sunday, @ffish tried to, without success.

But it’s still not Twain.

:: First posted at WiredPen : Follow me on Twitter!