Adage: climate is what on an average we expect, weather is what we actually get (1902)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jun 13 06:20:08 UTC 2012

A climate scientist asked me about a saying attributed to Mark Twain
and Robert Heinlein:

The climate is what you expect; the weather is what you get.

Heinlein did include a version of this aphorism in his 1973 novel
"Time Enough for Love".

I hypothesize that the expression was credited to Twain because of
another statement about climate that he wrote in an article published
in 1887 titled "English as She is Taught". This humorous essay
contained a large number of ostensible examples of errors made by
students. Here are three:

Cite: 1887 April, The Century Magazine, Volume 33, Number 6, "English
as She is Taught" by Mark Twain, Start Page 932, Quote Page 934, The
Century Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link

[Begin excerpt]
The imports of a country are the things that are paid for, the exports
are the things that are not.
Climate lasts all the time and weather only a few days.
The two most famous volcanoes of Europe are Sodom and Gomorrah.
[End excerpt]

The second remark about climate and weather presented contrasting
durations. Since "climate lasts all the time" it is what one would
"expect". Yet, "weather" lasting "only a few days" might be what one
would "get". The semantic overlap is sufficient that confusion is
possible between Twain's remark and the saying under investigation.

The comment in Twain's essay was strictly speaking attributed to an
anonymous student. However, the words should be credited to Twain
because the "mistakes" were actually concocted by Twain. Indeed, in
the section of the paper where Twain explained how the examples were
collected he signaled their fictional nature by referencing a famous
work of unintentional humor titled "English as She is Spoke".

The earliest evidence I have located of an expression closely matching
the questioner's quotation was dated 1902. It appeared in the review
of a textbook called "Outlines of Physiography".

Cite: 1902 February, The Geographical Teacher, Volume 1, Number 2,
Recent School Text Books and Readers by E. R. Wethey, [Book review of:
Outlines of Physiography by Dr. A. J. Herbertson of Oxford. (Arnold
1901)], Quote Page 95, (Google Books full view)

[Begin excerpt]
... smart and neat such dicta as "climate is what on an average we
expect, weather is what we actually get"; ...
[End excerpt]

The textbook containing the saying was published in 1901, but I have
not yet located a first edition of that textbook. Here is the data for
an undated third edition.

Cite: Undated, Outlines of Physiography: An Introduction to the Study
of the Earth by A.J. Herbertson, [Third Edition Revised], Chapter 12,
Page 118, Edward Arnold, London. (Internet Archive full view) link

[Begin excerpt]
By climate we mean the average weather as ascertained by many years'
observations. Climate also takes into account the extreme weather
experienced during that period. Climate is what on an average we may
expect weather is what we actually get.
[End excerpt]

Earlier evidence for the expression would be welcome. Also, evidence
that some of the examples in Twain's essay are "real" would be
welcome. Thanks.


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