Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

I'm not sure what "anything on which it is poured" actually means. I looked up the dictionary searching for "pour" and "pour on" and tried to construct the sentence but I got more confused. If you poured the acid on "anything", isn't it the same thing as storing the acid in since the "acid" would still remain? Or is it just the matter of degree?


Anger is compared to an acid. About acid, Twain observes the following:

  • If you pour acid on something, it is harmful to what you pour it on.
  • Acid is harmful to the container in which you store it.
  • If you leave acid in the container (long enough), the harm to the container is greater than to anything you pour it on.

In a similar way you can see anger:

  • If you are angry at someone (pour your anger at that person), it harms that person.
  • If you are angry (store your anger inside), it is harmful to yourself.
  • If you keep angry (long enough), the harm to you is greater than to the person you are angry at.

Pouring acid on something is compared with being angry at someone, in the sense that you can "pour" your anger on someone, or direct your anger at them.

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  • So does that mean it's better to be angry at somone than to bottle up your anger? – jack bang Oct 9 '16 at 17:47
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    I nearly agree, but not quite. Not all acids are harmful to the containers they are stored in: in fact usually acids are deliberately stored in containers which they are not harmful to: it is only when they are poured out that they are harmful. Twain compares anger to a particularly nasty kind of acid (relative to its container) that is more harmful to its container - note that there is no comma after "acid", so the relative clause is restrictive. – Colin Fine Oct 9 '16 at 18:21
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    @jackbang: I read him as saying that being angry hurts you more than it hurts whatever you are angry at. But your interpretation is also possible. – Colin Fine Oct 9 '16 at 18:21
  • @jackbang It's a metaphor, (anger isn't really an acid, and it doesn't physically burn or corrode your heart) it's a figure of speech not to be taken literally. +1, good answer by the way – Mari-Lou A Oct 9 '16 at 18:26
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    @jackbang A modern aphorism of similar sense, attributed to dozens (but authoritatively to no-one) goes like this: "Holding on to anger at someone is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies." – P. E. Dant Reinstate Monica Oct 9 '16 at 23:14

It looks like Mark Twain was "inspired" from an old saying, common in Turkey. Sharp vinegar harms its own container (i.e. clay barrel to be exact in translation). Keskin sirke küpüne zarar. It is used to suggest that our angry manners will only serve to hurt us.

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It's really not that complicated. Twain is a poet, thus poets speak metaphorically & figuratively. You're taking the quote way too literally &/or overthinking it.

Acid, when stored properly, does not usually harm the vessel in which it is stored, that is just literal fact, but when comparing anger to an acid, well, when not thinking literally, the anger eats one up inside; much like acid would to a surface.

Thus the literal functions of an acid must be taken out of context to fit this particular metaphorical context, in which anger will harm its user far more than on any person in which said person directs their anger to.

Honestly, to intellectualize further would be unnecessary.

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