Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

About a week ago, Brian Morton, novelist and the director of the graduate program in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College, published an amusing op-ed in the New York Times titled "Falser Words Were Never Spoken". It began this way:

IN a coffee shop not long ago, I saw a mug with an inscription from Henry David Thoreau: "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined."

At least it said the words were Thoreau's. But the attribution seemed a bit suspect. Thoreau, after all, was not known for his liberal use of exclamation points. When I got home, I looked up the passage (it’s from "Walden"): "I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

Morton went on to discuss similar misquotations of Gandhi ("Be the change you wish to see in the world" — Not!) and Nelson Mandela, noting that in all three cases the words put in these famous people's mouths had the effect of turning originally complex ideas into simple ones that suit our present culture's simplified and self-flattering view of the world:

... ours is an era in which it's believed that we can reinvent ourselves whenever we choose. So we recast the wisdom of the great thinkers in the shape of our illusions. Shorn of their complexities, their politics, their grasp of the sheer arduousness of change, they stand before us now. They are shiny from their makeovers, they are fabulous and gorgeous, and they want us to know that we can have it all.

I'm naturally inclined to agree with the dim view of "our era" expressed here. You only have to spend a few minutes in front of the television to hear quotations like these, or lyrics from popular songs, or other bits of culture being used to persuade you that can indeed "have it all."

But there are perhaps other, broader reasons for the — in fact — large number of misquotations that circulate through our culture by various means (and, increasingly, at ever-faster speeds). In 2007, the historian and critic Louis Menand, reviewing The Yale Book of Quotations in The New Yorker, cited a few of the most famous things people never said (e.g., "Play it again, Sam," "Nice guys finish last") and observed that some misquotations take the speaker's original words and render them more "quotable":

Quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation. What Michael Douglas did say in "Wall Street" was "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." That was not a quotable quote; it needed some editorial attention, the consequence of which is that everyone distinctly remembers Michael Douglas uttering the words "Greed is good" in "Wall Street," just as everyone distinctly remembers Ingrid Bergman uttering the words "Play it again, Sam" in "Casablanca," even though what she really utters is "Play it, Sam." When you watch the movie and get to that line, you don’t think your memory is wrong. You think the movie is wrong.

Menand also offers some interesting thoughts about the public nature of quotations: "Public circulation is what renders something a quotation. It's quotable because it's been quoted, and its having been quoted gives it authority." And, we might add, once it's public, it's bound to be appropriated in various ways by various people.

I found my way to that Menand article through the journalist Megan McArdle's two blogposts last spring in the wake of Bin Laden's slaying. In the first, she complained about the lightning circulation via Twitter of a manufactured quotation from Martin Luther King: "I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy." In the second, she explained what she learned subsequently about the origins of that false attribution in a Facebook user's innocent mistake, a mistake that then went viral because, as Menand might put it, what King didn't say was, in fact, highly quotable.