A polymath, on waking up in the middle of the night and seeing this comment under one of his LinkedIn posts, might immediately think of featuring it in a song chorus while planning a TED Talk, with slides and everything, all at once. An avalanche of creativity, including a quick social media meme ‘claiming’ it in some spurious way. However, it appears this quote is apocryphal and does not appear in any of Twain’s writings. Darn!
According to the website ‘Fact Check’, while Twain authored many famous quotations, this oft-shared maxim on the power of kindness is not a Twain original. Nowhere in his written body of work does such a phrase appear.
Furthermore, scholars have noted that the saying doesn’t even sound like Twain. “If the aphorism in question indicates a sentimental, nostalgic, or otherwise optimistic attitude towards humanity, it probably didn’t come from Twain,” the Centre for Mark Twain Studies wrote in 2017.
The expression has been in existence since the 19th century, according to the website Quote Investigator, with slight variations in some of the earlier references.
Christian Nestell Bovee often receives credit for the quote. “Kindness: a language which the dumb can speak and the deaf can understand,” he wrote in his 1857 book ‘Thoughts, Feelings, and Fancies.’
Quote Investigator found instances of the saying being circulated in newspapers within years of this book being published. The first known attribution to Twain was printed in 1942.
It’s still a great chorus though, I can hear it with a reggae beat
“Kindness is a language
That the deaf can hear
And the blind can see
What about you and me?”
I can hear how the verses would lead us there but the song probably won’t get completed. I can see the band now performing it a beach bar, that will have to do. It’s a feel good summer anthem.
I’ll certainly get it into an upcoming talk though, mentioning its apocryphal nature to make a point about the often random origins of inspiration, and how those starting points don’t have to have academic legitimacy. To demand so would block all sorts of creative ventures like the Dyson hoover for example. Did you see what I did there? I really shouldn’t drink coffee at 5 o’clock in the morning.
Back to Twain. Should we meet at a party over Christmas, no doubt I’ll slip his apocryphal quote into the conversation we’re bound to have about the commercialisation of public rituals. I just like using the word apocryphal, to be honest.
Should there be any eavesdroppers on that conversation it’s likely they’ll chip in with, “Ah, but do you know the FULL quote? Do you mind if I join you? It’s generally accepted that Bovee himself said, ‘Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear, the blind can see and the dumb can speak. Even fools can master it’. We should tweet it to Trump shouldn’t we? Oh I’m so sorry, politics at a party. Isn’t it wonderful about the Labour landslide though? Do you know either of the hosts, I came with a friend. Are you musicians? I’m tone deaf, not a rhythmic bone in my body, my ex-wife was a concert pianist. I often think we might have stayed together if only…”
This will be a test of our kindness. I wish us luck.