By Jan Freeman
AS COMMENCEMENT SEASON peaks this month, students across the nation are hearing, from keynote speakers great and small, the recycled wisdom of their forebears. And those speakers, in turn, are carrying on a grand tradition of quotemongers through the ages: Spreading misinformation far and wide.
At Boston University last Sunday, for instance, Les Moonves, the president of CBS, quoted John Lennon to the assembled throng: ”Life is what happens to you when you are making other plans.”
Senator Bill Frist, encouraging graduates-to-be at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, quoted Margaret Mead: ”Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world.”
And Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia, promised the audience at Wake Forest University that he would follow ”Winston Churchill’s sage advice” on public speaking: ”Be clear. Be concise. Be seated.”
You could look it up (as James Thurber, and then Casey Stengel, said), but could you trust the source? As Ralph Keyes explains in his new book, ”The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When” (St. Martin’s Griffin), even the most respectable sources can get attributions wrong, and the less respectable don’t even try to get them right.
That line Moonves quoted does appear in a Lennon song, for instance-but it doesn’t originate there. Keyes found it attributed to Allen Saunders (creator of the comic strip ”Mary Worth”) in a 1957 Reader’s Digest-though you wouldn’t want to take that as the last word on the subject.
Frist had the right wording for Margaret Mead’s most famous ”quotation,” but, says Keyes, nobody has ever been able to show, ”despite copious research,” that she ever said or wrote it. As for Churchill, he-like Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln-is what Keyes calls a ”flypaper figure,” a personage so famously quotable that lesser wags’ witticisms and anonymous maxims, like the one Warner used, get stuck to him.
Why is it so easy to go wrong? ”Our memory wants quotations to be better than they usually were, and said by the person we want to have said them,” writes Keyes. A good line-like ”any man who is not a socialist at 20 has no heart, and anyone who is still a socialist at 40 has no head”-deserves a Churchill (or a Disraeli or a Bismarck). Unfortunately, the sentiment originated with a French statesman named Francois Guizot. Who wants to quote Francois Guizot?
Keyes’s mission, however, is not just to winnow the true from the false, but also to show why eternal vigilance, in the realm of quotations, is the price of accuracy. He explores how misquotations and misattributions germinate and spread, and how hard it can be to hack through the thicket of conventional wisdom to find the truth.
Even reference books are not infallible, says Keyes. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations had Leo Durocher saying ”Nice guys finish last” long after Keyes had corrected that wording in his 1993 book, ”Nice Guys Finish Seventh.” One edition of Bartlett’s misquoted Milton; Cassell’s Companion to Quotations cited a nonexistent speech by Twain.
The Internet, as Keyes notes, is potentially both help and hindrance in the search. On the one hand, it speeds misinformation around the globe; on the Internet, a lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth can boot up its computer, as Twain or Churchill or Shaw didn’t say. On the other, the increasing wealth of primary sources on the Web will make it easier for quotation sleuths to prove-or disprove-longstanding attributions.
And perhaps caution is catching on in the quotation racket. In the second edition of the Oxford Dictionary of American Quotations, hot off the presses, many of the quotes come with explanations of sourcing and context. Its editors, like Keyes, point out that Emerson’s famous ”build a better mousetrap” is only semi-sourced, recalled by someone who once heard him lecture. And they remind readers that it wasn’t Robert Frost himself, but a speaker in his poem, who believed that ”Good fences make good neighbors.”
But it won’t be easy to get public speakers to abandon their time-tested aphorisms in favor of mere accuracy. ”As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand,” said the 19th-century humorist Josh Billings. At least, a lot of quotation collectors hope he did.