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The Word

The plague of incorrect quotation


There are certain lines everyone knows. Ever-brusque “Dragnet” Detective Joe Friday said, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Sherlock Holmes, somewhat condescendingly, has long said, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Those and many other sayings have something in common besides popularity — they’re wrong. They were never said by the characters to which they’re attributed, or at least not in those precise words.

Another type of misquoting is even further from the mark — though extremely close to Mark Twain. If someone tells you a famous quotation is by Twain, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, or some other famous person, you should probably take it with a grain of salt. Attributing quotes to the wrong person is a popular pastime. Don’t misquote me on this: Most people, and even many reference books, are terrible when it comes to accurate quotation.

Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, has done heroic work in finding the true form and author of many quotations. He’s recently found new evidence regarding a few of the most famous misquotes. Shapiro notes that the closest thing to “Beam me up, Scotty” in the original “Star Trek” series is “Beam us up, Mr. Scott,” from the 1968 episode “Gamesters of Triskelion.” The very first use of the formulation most people know is hard to identify, but the earliest documented example comes from a recent Shapiro find — a 1978 issue of The Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina’s student newspaper. Similarly, Shapiro recently found some missing links in the life of “Elementary, my dear Watson” that suggest this invention popped up not long after the publication of the Holmes short story “The Adventure of the Crooked Man” in 1893.

The unsexy work of quotation research typically involves following a tangled web of evidence through the historical record. Though most of us fulfill our quotation needs through Googling or simple retweeting, to find the real origin of famous phrases involves painstaking, time-consuming research that rarely yields a simple answer. In a recent Slate article, Laura Wagner tried to determine whether Michael Jordan ever really said “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Her research was thorough but inconclusive. No wonder few people have the patience to go digging.


As for how incorrect quotes spread, Shapiro puts misquoting in a positive light, suggesting that people have a tendency to improve the original. “My theory is that the popular mind is very powerful in polishing up a quotation,” he said, “and if a quotation is not quite euphonious, people will remember it in a way that is euphonious.” One example of quote improvement comes from Shakespeare. In “Hamlet,” the lead character says, “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him.” But the line is almost always remembered as: “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.” This is actually a strong revision. As Shapiro puts it, “The popular mind actually improved Shakespeare.”


Another kind of misquote involves people Shapiro describes as quote magnets: folks who get quotes attached to them, again and again, that they never actually said. There are distinct types of quote magnets. Sayings that are satirical or cynical tend to get attributed to Dorothy Parker or Groucho Marx. Extreme wittiness is associated (rightly) with Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, so these writers get credit for more than their fair share of witticisms. Albert Einstein is a magnet for quotations that are folksy, intelligent, or a bit of both. There are several popular versions of a supposed Einstein quote that sometimes goes “The greatest invention of mankind is compound interest.” Shapiro is dubious about its authenticity. Einstein, he says, had better things to think about.

Quote magnetism is common in politics. Winston Churchill, in particular, attracts mis-attribution. (Quote scholar Nigel Rees even refers to quote magnetism as “Churchillian drift.”) Other inspiring political sayings often get attached to Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., presumably to add weight to the sentiments. After Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011, a fake MLK quote — “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” — spread rapidly. That’s a noble thought, but it sounds even nobler coming from MLK.


Other quote magnets are invoked not to elevate, but to diminish. “If [propagandists] want a concept like gun control to be discredited, they put it in the mouth of Hitler,” Shapiro said. A recent example occurred in February, courtesy of then-Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson: “Joseph Stalin said if you want to bring America down, you have to undermine three things: our spiritual life, our patriotism and our morality.” It turns out there was no evidence Stalin ever said this. But the association with one of history’s greatest monsters made the idea all the more potent.

As for how such mistakes spread, Shapiro said there’s a “prevalence of misinformation,” particularly on the Internet, where social media can instantly spread a false quote. Reference books aren’t always a lot more reliable; many books of quotations are not thoroughly researched, and they repeat misquotations the old-fashioned way.

People also tend to be a bit gullible — or, to be nice, optimistic — about anything that reinforces their own beliefs. If we hear an inspiring thought, we want to believe Gandhi said it. And once we believe, it’s hard to be persuaded otherwise. Shapiro compared famous quotations to superstitions about grammar, like the debunked but still-resilient admonitions against ending a sentence with a preposition or beginning one with a conjunction. “You can’t shake someone from what their seventh-grade teacher taught them,” he said. “Even if you correct it, no one believes you.”


If you really want to be vigilant about getting quotes right, it’s important to go to a reputable source, like Shapiro’s book or Nigel Rees’s “Quote. . . Unquote” newsletter, which specializes in quote scholarship. A recent issue traced the history of a wry admonition: “Never argue with a moron. He will only bring you down to his level and beat you with experience.” Whether arguing or not, we can all be a bit moronic when it comes to quoting. But as Mark Twain never said: “Do your research, dummies.”

Mark Peters is the author of the “Bull[expletive]: A Lexicon” from Three Rivers Press. Follow him on Twitter @wordlust.