Mark Twain Epigrams: Analysis & Meaning

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

One of the most popular authors of the early twentieth century is also known for his use of epigrams. But, what's an epigram? In this lesson, we'll take a closer look at Mark Twain's success with epigrams.

An Epi-What?

You've probably heard of an episode, maybe even an epitaph, but what about an epigram? Have you ever heard this one by Oscar Wilde, ''I can resist everything except temptation''? How about this one from Ogden Nash, ''Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker''?

What do both of those quotes have in common? They're both epigrams. An epigram is a short, interesting, witty saying that generally boasts an ending with a satirical twist. Satire is useful for exposing corruption or something the speaker or writer thinks is foolish. Epigrams are memorable because they're clever, and they're effective because they usually include humor and leave readers with a lot to think about.

Mark Twain is one of the most frequently quoted writers of epigrams.
mark twain, epigrams

Mark Twain, the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was one of the best known authors and writers of humor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Famous for books detailing the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, Twain was also popular for his use of epigrams. In this lesson, we'll examine some of Twain's popular epigrams and the meaning behind them.

Twain and Epigrams

For Mark Twain, some of his epigrams are almost as well-known as his novels. Here are a few attributed to the humorist and the point he was trying to make.

1. ''Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.''

Twain had a lot to say about politics. Here, he is telling people that they can be supportive of their country, without necessarily supporting the government. Patriotism, according to Twain, is tied to where you live, not who's in charge.

2. ''The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.''

This is another epigram concerning Twain's opinion of the United States' political climate. It's a scathing comment, but still delivers a touch of humor. He's saying that there is so much to laugh at about America morals that it's enough to dine out like an elaborate meal.

3. ''There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he is less savage than the other savages.''

This one will have you thinking about what people think of themselves in relation to those around them. For Twain, the idea that a white man considers himself less ''savage'' than other types of people in the world is comical - not in a joking way, but in an odd way.

4. ''I don't like to commit myself about heaven and hell; I have friends in both places.''

Twain is offering his opinion on heaven and hell, by reminding that he, like most of us, knows people in both places. In making this statement, the author is dodging any religious leanings by saying he will not choose between the two.

6. ''Politicians and diapers must be changed often, and for the same reason.''

Remember when I said that many of Twain's epigrams are political in nature? Here's another one. In this quote, Twain is likening politicians to diapers, saying that both become dirty and soiled. He is advocating for changing politicians frequently because they get dirty.

7. ''What is the difference between a taxidermist and a tax collector? The taxidermist takes only your skin.''

Ouch! This is a scathing remark about tax collectors who ask for so much, they even want your soul. Twain's commentary is that taxidermists, who are known for stuffing dead animals, use only the skin to craft their creations. Tax collectors take even more than your skin.

8. ''Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits.''

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