A Summer Across the Bay From San Francisco

“The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”

Recall that famous line? No, Mark Twain never said it quite that way. It turns out that’s a misattribution. If, indeed, Mark Twain (Can you ever just say “Twain”? I can’t) uttered something like it, it might have been in reference to Paris.

Clear late summer afternoon
Fog blanket late afternoon

Our own experience of a Parisian summer was quite the opposite—hot and humid. Made us wish the banks of the Seine were a beach. Ah, the caprice of Mother Nature. Mark Twain was luckier than us, I think.

A dozen years or so ago, some forward-thinking and, maybe, wistful city bureaucrat seemed to have wished it, too. The offshoot? The Paris Plage (French for beach). Never mind that it’s probably in the interest of the city’s coffers to lure people with its faux, short-lived beaches—Parisians and outsiders alike.

By the banks of the Seine #1
By the banks of the Seine #2

But back to that non-quote which a journalist claims is dear to the heart of San Franciscans. It’s catchy and funny and having Mark Twain’s name tacked on to it makes it all the more irresistible. But who dreamed up that line in exactly the form usually quoted nowadays?

Rather than point to one person, that line might have evolved through various interpretations made across time by different people. The Quote Investigator, providing full references not often found on the internet (but standard in research articles), traces its various iterations. He quotes from a newspaper article in 1900:

“One of these days somebody will tell that mouldy chestnut about the finest winter he ever saw being the summer he spent in Duluth….”
—from Duluth News-Tribune

Well—darn! I think you’ll agree that Duluth is nowhere near as seductive or titillating as San Francisco and no one from there, at that time, could have had Mark Twain’s stature. If that’s where the quote originated, I wouldn’t have given it ten seconds of curiosity. But the life of the quote doesn’t end there; maybe because it’s intriguing in its contradiction.

The QI goes on to show how several people from Kentucky to Wisconsin and, finally, to San Francisco adapted the expression in some form or other. The version about San Francisco, published in a 1963 psychology textbook, puts the words back into Mark Twain’s mouth, using the very words now frequently quoted:

“There are other related differences to conditions of weather that induced Mark Twain to observe that the coldest winter he could recall was a summer he spent in San Francisco.”

—from Jon Eisenson, J. Jeffery Auer, and John V. Irwin, The Psychology of Communication, Page 139, Appleton-Century-Crofts Division of Meredith Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust)

Great. That’s the closest we could tie this line to both Mark Twain and San Francisco. But we know now, it’s a misinformation. Yet, the line lives on and we certainly would prefer to think Mark Twain said it.

It intrigues me how words get distorted and passed on. The quote probably grew the usual way a gossip or a rumor does (Two different phenomena, according to the American Psychological Association). While a rumor is more public and spreads across diverse groups of people, gossip is passed around an inner circle with common histories or interests.

Gossip or rumor, people are more likely to repeat one coming from a credible source (like Mark Twain and a textbook, for instance), if it feeds into our own insecurities and anxieties, or serves our purpose in some way (as the “Mark Twain quote” did for that psychology textbook or for San Francisco). Would we be concerned, then, that we’re passing on wrong information?

Here are my thoughts when I got up this morning: Gloomy again this morning; foggy and cold. Some sun would be wonderful—they wake up to it just a few miles east of here. Why not us? It’s summer, after all (Envy? Feeling sorry for myself?).

I do expect sun sometime this afternoon and, maybe, it will last for the rest of the day or only stay for a stingy couple of hours or less. We’re luckier than our neighbors across the bay. They often have to endure fog all day (Making the most of what I have? Resignation?).

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