When you’re one of the most quoted authors of all time, you’re also bound to become one of the most misquoted authors of all time. Such is the case with Mark Twain, whose famous quip about his own death is frequently butchered by well-meaning admirers, as This Day In Quotes explains.
You’ve probably heard that Twain once said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated,” or another common version containing the phrase “grossly exaggerated.” The gist of the quote is accurate, but neither wording is quite right.
Twain is one of the few people in history who was lucky (or unlucky) enough to comment on newspaper reports of his own death. In 1897, an English journalist from the New York Journal contacted Twain to inquire whether the rumors that he was gravely ill or already dead were indeed true. Twain wrote a response, part of which made it into the article that ran in the Journal on June 2, 1897:
“Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a Journal representative informed him today of the report in New York that he was dying in poverty in London ... The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health. He said: ‘I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead. James Ross Clemens, a cousin of mine, was seriously ill two or three weeks ago in London, but is well now. The report of my illness grew out of his illness. The report of my death was an exaggeration.’”
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Apparently, many of the misquoted versions stem from a Mark Twain biography by Albert Bigelow Paine published in 1912, two years after Twain’s actual death. According to Paine’s embellished version, Twain had told the reporter, “Just say the report of my death has been grossly exaggerated.”
That’s not the only Twain quote that’s been a little embellished over the years. Many other witty maxims often attributed to the author have even more dubious origins. You may also remember the quote, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.” Or perhaps this one: “It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” While they’re often attributed to Twain, he never said either of them.
Fortunately, there are still plenty of good—and accurate—Twain quotes to go around.
[h/t This Day in Quotes]
A version of this story was published in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.