Famous Misquotations: The Two Most Important Days in Your Life

atkins-bookshelf-quotationsThe quotation, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” appears in hundreds of quotation anthologies in print and on the Internet; it is attributed to Mark Twain (1835-1910) although it is likely he never said it or wrote it. In his research, Barry Popik, an American etymologist and contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary and The Yale Book of Quotations, did not find the quotation (or any portions of it) in the sizable Twain corpus. Popik concludes that the quotation originated almost a century after Twain died. The source of the Twain-attributed quotation is found in Taylor Hartman’s book, The Color Code to Strengthen Your Character published in 1999: “The three most significant days in your life are: 1. The day you were born. 2. The day you find out why you were you born. 3. The day you discover how to contribute the gift you were born to give.” Two years later, Robert Miller writes a variation of this in his book Fire in the Deep: “A wise friend once told me that there are two great days in a person’s life: the day you are born and the day you find out why you were born.”

So why is this quotation attributed to Twain? Excellent question. Sharon McCoy — an expert on Twain who teaches American Literature at Emory University, is president of the American Humor Studies Association, and is executive coordinator of the Mark Twain Circle (a scholarly organization) — argues passionately and convincingly that Twain, as a revered, prolific, and multifaceted American author, is simply a magnet for quotations: “Mark Twain has more quotations he didn’t say attributed to him than any other person I’ve ever heard tell of. One of the most recent ones making the rounds of the Internet goes something like this: ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’ … [Hundreds] of [websites] all agree on one thing: Mark Twain said it. Go a little further back, and no one attributes it to him — mostly because he never would have said such a thing. He wouldn’t have believed in its truth, and if he did, he would have changed that word ‘important’ to something profane and blasphemous. But almost in spite of himself, Twain is one American writer that many people — and not just academics — have a personal stake in. He means something to them. And every time they find a sentiment that fits their preconception — whether bitingly funny, simply curmudgeonly, or fundamentally humane — the sentiment often gets attributed directly to him. Twain is a slippery figure, hard to see clearly in spite of extensive biographies and autobiographical writings, partly because he created a multifaceted character so many people still want to believe in.”

Read related posts: The Buck Stops Here
Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill
Hoist with His Own Petard
The Sword of Damocles
Clothes Makes the Man
Don’t Have a Pot to Piss In

For further reading: humorinamerica.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/if-i-hear-it-again-i-swear-ill-scream-hemingway-huck-finn-and-cheating/

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