I really didn’t say everything I said” — Yogi Berra (American baseball player). Everybody, prince or pauper, scholar or illiterate, likes quotations. Pithy quips from great men embellish our writings and speeches. Do we have any idea that many of these popular quotations are in fact misquotations and misattributions and edited versions of sayings? Well, it is time to pause and examine the authenticity of the quotes we lavishly use to impress our audiences. ‘Quote-sleuths’ are on the prowl to separate the wheat of authentic quotes from the chaff of spurious and misattributed aphorisms. Ralph Keyes is an intrepid quote-detective, who in his The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where and When, has pronounced verdicts on the veracity of popular quotes.
Keyes said, “Misquotation is an occupational hazard of quotation. The more we quote, the more likely we are to misquote”. Misquotations occur as “our memories want quotations to be better than they usually were, and said by the person we want to have said them”. For easy recollection, our memories edit long passages to appear crispier and appealing. Profound statements seldom occur spontaneously. Durocher’s “The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place” becomes “Nice guys finish last”
Sometimes editing may change the very meaning of the original quote. Lord Action’s “power tends to corrupt...” became “power corrupts...”. Did you know that Marie Antoinette never said the infamous words asking the peasants to eat cake if there was no bread.
In fact, several myths and versions of similar sayings were circulating at that time. An ancient Chinese emperor is reported to have said of his rice-starved subjects, “Why don’t they eat meat?” The author of “An army marches on its stomach” is not Napoleon Bonaparte as widely believed.
Misattributions happen because we love our heroes to be credited with wise sayings and that too about a particular virtue or quality. If it is saintly, we attribute it to Gandhi or Mother Theresa. If witty, Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde come to our minds. If it is about honesty, it must be Abraham Lincoln or George Washington. Great men, like great artists ‘steal’ existing ideas and produce quotable quotes after polishing and decorating them. Churchill’s “Blood, sweat and tears”, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “A man is known by the books he reads, by the company he keeps, by the praise he gives”, and Harry Truman’s “The buck stops here” belong to this category.
Winston Churchill never said what has been attributed to him, “Golf is a game in which you try to put a small ball in a small hole with implements singularly unsuited to the purpose”. Many Einsteinisms never came from his mouth. For example, “If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker”, “ We use only 10 per cent of our brains”. Another shocker. “Elementary, my dear Watson”, these words are never uttered as such by Sherlock Holmes in the collected works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
In Gandhiji’s published works, one cannot come across the words attributed to him, “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. Next time you google for quotes, pause and spare a thought for their authenticity. After all, quote-detectives have done the job for us. We need only to ask them.