Yellow Springs News (Ohio)
By Jane Baker
We all know that Mark Twain said, “Golf is a good walk spoiled” and “Whenever I feel an urge to exercise I lie down until it goes away” and that Abraham Lincoln said “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client”—right? Wrong! As Ralph Keyes points out in his latest book, The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When (St. Martin’s Griffin), quotes are often incorrectly attributed to the famous.
In the case of the golf quote, no scholar has been able to verify that Twain actually said it. The line about exercise, also often attributed to Robert Maynard Hutchins, former University of Chicago president, was most likely by the humorist J. P. McEvoy. And Lincoln is only one of many credited with making the lawyer remark, for which no source has been identified. Often, to paraphrase (misquote?) Keyes, “quotes migrate from obscure to more prominent mouths.”
Another eye-opener here is the fact that so many “well-known” quotes are actually misquotations, the original phrase having been pared down to catchier and more memorable words. An example: Leo Durocher’s “Nice guys finish last” was originally “The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.” Over time these words were “condensed and polished into the terse version that became the most familiar of American quotations.”
An impressive amount of research has gone into Keyes’s engrossing book. It’s a handy reference volume, with its entries arranged alphabetically by key words, but also a delight just to dip into randomly or to read straight through. The book’s many “sidebars” (I put that in quotes since these are boxed and highlighted sections of the text, some running several pages) focus on individuals (among them Twain, Yogi Berra, Benjamin Franklin) and topics (e.g., movie lines, Vietnam, civil rights). Detailed notes on sources, many of them found on the Internet, a bibliography, and indexes of key words and names make this a very useful resource for anyone interested in learning who actually said what.
Keyes navigated some tricky terrain in researching this book. As he points out in his excellent introduction, even reliable sources can err, and it’s likely that quotations “everyone knows” are misquotations. Each discussion ends with a pithy “verdict.” Anyone who loves words will love this book.