Sunday, 17 July 2011

Batrachian breakfasts

A recent post at Fencing Bear at Prayer - Bear's Frogs - reminded me of an aphorism that has had my attribution-sense tingling for some time. A fairly typical statement of it is this:
Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.
- -Brian Tracy, Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time (2007)
It's a very good metaphor for workflow - a reminder of the necessity to tackle the unpleasant/dull tasks rather than procrastinate - but if it's by Twain I'll (metaphorically) eat a batrachian for breakfast. Twain and frogs are linked thematically via his rather unpleasant 1867 story The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, but no such aphorism appears there; furthermore, a quick search of Google Books for "eat * frog" Twain finds no attributions to Mark Twain prior to Brian Tracy's self-help book, so I think it's likely the Twain part started there.

The aphorism comes in variants of what you have to eat - the first version I heard concerned a live toad, and rarely it's a bullfrog - but none of them at first glance seemed very old. For instance:
Above the cash register was a small sign which read, "Eat a live frog for breakfast and nothing worse can happen to you all day."
- Foreign Service Journal, Volumes 56-57, American Foreign Service Association, 1979

Eat a Bullfrog First Thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.
- advertisement in Hobbies, Volume 82, Issues 1-6, Lightner Pub. Co., 1977

Upon rising each morning a man should eat a live toad, to be sure that for the rest of the day he will have to swallow nothing more disgusting.
- The thirty-eighth floor: a novel, Clifford Irving, McGraw-Hill, 1965
However, one major lead takes the trail right out of the English language, two centuries back, and to a firm attribution: Cyril Connolly's 1945 The Unquiet Grave ("a collection of aphorisms, quotes, nostalgic musings and mental explorations") contains a discussion of the French writer Nicolas Chamfort (1741-1794) and the following footnote:
"All literature might be ransacked in vain for a more repulsive saying than this (of Chamfort): 'A man must swallow a toad every morning if he wishes to be sure of finding nothing still more disgusting before the day is over.'" — Morley: Studies of Literature, p. 95
Googling "Nicolas Chamfort" crapaud rapidly found the source of this quotation. Although Chamfort specialised in acerbic aphorisms, in this case he's citing an earlier author, who is commenting on high society:
M. de Lassay, homme très-doux, mais qui avait une grande connaissance delà société, disait qu'il faudrait avaler un crapaud tous les matins, pour ne trouver plus rien de dégoûtant le reste de la journée, quand on devait la passer dans le monde.

M. de Lassay, a very indulgent man, but with a great knowledge of society, said that we should swallow a toad every morning, in order to fortify ourselves against the disgust of the rest of the day, when we have to spend it in society.

- pp. 35-336, Oeuvres, Volume 4, Sébastien Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, 1795.
- translation from page 192, Causeries du Lundi, Volume 7, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, Routledge, 1851
The M. de Lassay cited by Chamfort is Armand de Madaillan, Marquis de Lassay (1652-1738), a flamboyant character nicknamed "the Don Juan of the Grand Siècle" ("The Great Century" = the 1700s in France) and who was a well-known aphorist.  Obviously Chamfort didn't get the toad aphorism first-hand - he was born three years after M. de Lassay's death - and I haven't been able to find an earlier citation.  Still, tracking it to 1795 is a good result, and it well disposes of the Mark Twain theory.

- Ray


  1. Oh, very well done! Thank you! And well-spotted that it was not a true Twainism!

  2. It seems some people attribute all humorous quotes to Mark Twain (or Oscar Wilde). I'm reminded of a line in Tom Weller's Culture Made Stupid which claims that "almost all quotations are either from Shakespeare or the Bible".

  3. I suppose de Lassay may have been satirising the practice of applying a live or moribund frog or toad to the stomach in order to cure colic. Perhaps he had heard of someone who couldn't read the Latin of the medical treatises and applied in- what was meant for outside. What does Dioscorides say?!

  4. Blaise Pascale famously said: «Tout le monde devrait lire un message sur JSBlog dès qu'il sera disponible, pour stimuler l'esprit merveilleusement» ("Everybody should read a JSBlog post as soon as it becomes available, to wonderfully stimulate the mind").


  5. I think Twain might have used a rattle snake rather than a frog. One could become very tangential and substitute something like a Republican (or Democrat) or whatever your pet bete noir. (sorry, no accent marks). Who knows, maybe the toad is sacred in some primitive culture. Then we would really be in trouble.

  6. I think swallowig a Republican or Democrat might be ... physically challenging, even for Mark Twain :-)

  7. Thanks for finding this. I don't like it when a self-help book perpetuates a lie. Indeed, they have multiplied the lie many-fold. I would only consider this a half-truth is somebody can point to ANY writings of Twain that refer to frogs, bullfrogs, or toads in the context of how to avoid procrastination