The editor of Forbes’s venerable quotes page reflects on the hazards of his profession.
“Misquotation is the pride and privilege of the learned. A widely-read man never quotes accurately, for the rather obvious reason that he has read too widely.” –Hesketh Pearson.
Those words are soothing balm for the not-so-learned editor of the Forbes Thoughts on the Business of Life page, for there’s always a lingering fear as the page goes to press that an item was either mangled or misattributed. This editor, who has shepherded that page for the last decade, also takes solace in the fact that far greater men than he have butchered citations, in the process making them their own mutant creations (sometimes even improving on the original).
As Ralph Keyes points out, in his superb book The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When, (St. Martin’s Press, 2006): “Misquotation is an occupational hazard of quotation. The more we quote, the more likely we are to misquote.” Keyes’ book is devoted to adjudicating whether some of Western civilization’s most famous sayings are correctly attributed. He devotes a whole section to pointing out John F. Kennedy’s numerous misattributions, the most famous being “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing,” which JFK attributed to Edmund Burke. It turns out that Burke likely never said or wrote that, and nobody is certain who did.
So, anyone compiling quotations is diving into a historical stream of earnest malfeasance; as long as that person uses good sources (several of which are listed at the end of this article), sound judgment (trusting the gut) and due diligence, his mistakes will be few and far between. Let’s face it, we’ll never know the provenance of many words of wisdom. How many Yogi Berra-isms were actually uttered by that great athlete and sage? (I can’t resist quoting one of my colleagues who once went to the Yogi Berra museum and discovered that he was there early. Shrugging, he said, “Well, it ain’t open till it’s open.”)
One other hazard of putting together the Thoughts page: boring our readers with overused utterances. The best way to avoid this is to steer clear of the titans (Wilde, Shaw, Thoreau, Emerson, Bierce, the usual suspects). They all had great things to say, but you’ve probably heard them all.
The goal at the Forbes Thoughts on the Business of Life page is to never use a quote twice (unless it’s just so good that the editor can’t resist). Using quotes from contemporaries is a great way to keep the page fresh, but it takes discipline (if the editor heard a great nugget while sipping martinis at a cocktail party, he’s likely to forget it the next morning). One clever way a former editor of the Thoughts page assured that aphorisms were of the moment was to quote himself, sneaking his pearls in under the nom de plume of John P. Grier (a Thoroughbred racehorse from long ago).
Robert Benchley once said, “The surest way to make a monkey of a man is to quote him.” A corollary worth remembering is that the surest way for an editor to make a monkey of himself is to misquote somebody.