By David Murdock
Special to The Gadsen Times
Friday, July 22, 2011
I love quotations in general. I collect musings of the great minds like some people collect stamps. My notebooks are full of scrawled quotations and attributions. The short, pithy encapsulation of a truth impresses me greatly. After all, William Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
My admiration comes from envy. A talent for pithiness truly impresses me because I have to struggle with it. As a writer, I have a weakness for wordiness and must edit constantly. No matter how many useless words I cut, I never feel I’ve achieved the tightest writing. Therefore, I admire a writer who can say what he means in short, memorable phrases.
However, I’ve noticed over the years that many famous sayings are not quite what they seem. Sometimes the quotation that is familiar to us is not exactly what the person said. Even worse, sometimes the person to whom the quotation is attributed often is not the person who originally said it.
A famous example of this trait is “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I heard it repeated for years without knowing who said it. No one ever is given credit for this line; it has assumed the authority of a proverb. In fact, it comes from the poet Lord Byron, who wrote, “for truth is always strange; / Stranger than fiction: if it could be told.” Not quite the familiar quotation.
Many sources of quotations err when they attribute a saying — not only the Internet, but trusted reference books as well. I’ve often been frustrated trying to track down a quotation and its source. Luckily, the proper tool has arrived: “The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When,” by Ralph Keyes. This excellent book now graces the go-to shelf on my desk — the reference books that are essential aids to writing. The book has the added virtue of being delightfully, gracefully and deftly written, making it a pleasure to read — a rarity for a reference book.
In the introduction to his book, Keyes explains the process by which quotations like Byron’s original become familiar adages. He calls the process “bumper-sticking” and explains, “Quotations that start out too long, too clumsy and too inharmonious end up shorter, more graceful and more melodious in the retelling.” That’s certainly true in Byron’s case.
Keyes also points out “flypaper figures” — famous people who are often attributed with lines that are not their own.
Most often, the quotation comes from a lesser-known figure. The most famous example is President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most quoted line: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” According to Keyes, this line has a long history, and Roosevelt seems to have drawn his version of the quote from Henry David Thoreau, who said, “Nothing is so much to be feared as fear.”
However, a version of the quotation originated with Michel Montaigne, the 16th-century French essayist: “The thing of which I have most fear is fear.” Francis Bacon, an English near-contemporary of Montaigne’s, wrote, “Nothing is terrible except fear itself.” The final “verdict” of Keyes on this quotation is “Credit the thought to Montaigne, its improvement to Bacon and the final version to FDR, with help from Thoreau.”
Keyes notes several flypaper figures, including Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. Twain is particularly sticky when it comes to quotes; almost any funny remark from the 19th century is attributed to him. Similarly, George Carlin is becoming the humorous flypaper figure of the 20th century, with all kinds of jokes he never told attributed to him.
One of Keyes’ flypaper figures is Dorothy Parker, the early 20th-century American writer, who always has been a favorite of mine. Her sarcastic and acerbic witticisms are legendary.
One famous “Parkerism,” which Keyes confirms she actually said, is a play on the Shakespeare line quoted above. While captioning an “underwear layout” in Vogue magazine, she expressed the idea that the season’s lingerie was skimpier than usual. Although her original line is longer, I prefer the bumper-stickered version: “Brevity is the soul of lingerie.” Much wittier.
Keyes writes that Parker’s tendency to be misattributed started during her life, with the playwright George S. Kaufman complaining that “Everything I’ve ever said is attributed to Dorothy Parker.” To her credit, Parker “herself disavowed authorship of most of the witticisms that were routinely put in her mouth.”
Truth be told, I’ve misquoted famous figures all my life without knowing it. The value of Keyes’ book is that it shows the great extent of misquotations and misattributions. I’m now very suspicious of any quote I hear.
This problem might not be a problem, though. After all, Aristotle said, “History is what happened; literature is what should have happened.” By extension, history is what was said, and literature is what should have been said.
Come to think of it, I wrote that quote down from a lecture many years ago and never have actually seen it in anything I’ve read by Aristotle. Hmmm.
Doesn’t matter. It’s great literature.