By James Kilpatrick
In 1953 the New York Yankees won their fifth World Series in a row. Their popular catcher, Yogi Berra, took it in stride. “It’s deja vu all over again,” he said.
The trouble is, he never said it. It’s also probable that he never said of a particular restaurant, “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more.” And if Berra was the first to remark that “the future ain’t what it used to be,” the evidence is hard to come by. More to the point, Berra is among hundreds of well-known figures who now stand exposed for never having said the snappy things they are said to have said.
For this exercise in debunkery let us applaud word maven Ralph Keyes. His delightful compendium of dubious quotations, “The Quote Verifier,” was just published by St. Martin’s Griffin. No one who writes or speaks for a living should be without it.
As a sometime member of that tribe, I willingly confess our debt to the apt quotation. Nothing serves the role of parsley on our platters quite so well as an attributed piece of penetrating wit. And if Emerson never said it or Oscar Wilde never wrote it — well, they might have said it, or said the same thing differently. Thus misquotations spread their crabgrass roots, and we show-off scribes tend to write, as this one recently wrote, that Mies van der Rohe said that in architecture “less is more.” Yes, he said it, but as Keyes reminds us, Robert Browning said it first.
When it comes to quotations, writers are served poorly by their memories. Often we gild our quotable lilies. Keyes calls it “bumper-stickering,” a process in which “misremembered quotations often improve upon real ones.” We quote Winston Churchill’s warning of “blood, sweat and tears.” He actually spoke of “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” which lacked the prime minister’s usual sense of sis-boom-bah. In the same fashion, sportswriters long ago tarted up Leo Durocher’s famous comment on baseball’s losers. What Durocher actually said was, “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” His words of wisdom returned from the rewrite laundry as “Nice guys finish last.”
Famous quotations are not only misquoted, they also are often misattributed. It is a kind of social climbing by allusion. A funny malaprop is lots funnier if Samuel Goldwyn or Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde said it first. (Wilde often really did say it first.) Keyes calls a roll of celebrities who have inherited part of their reputations by osmosis: Shakespeare, Voltaire, Pope, Disraeli, Lincoln, Twain, Shaw, and especially Emerson and Franklin.
It appears that Franklin seldom met a good line that he couldn’t cheerfully steal. Thus he put in the mouth of “Poor Richard” a few plums of somebody else’s wisdom, e.g., “There are no gains without pains” and “Early to bed and early to rise make a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” The aphorisms were at least a century old before larcenous Ben latched on to them.
Such misappropriation works best, says Keyes, “if the person quoted is not around to correct the record.” Thomas Jefferson constantly is credited with things he never said — such as remarking upon a society that “pays plumbers more than teachers.” There were no “plumbers,” as such, in Jefferson’s time.
Who said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”? Who knows? It’s a great line, often attributed to Edmund Burke, but no scholar yet has found it in anything Burke ever wrote. It has to be credited to that famous master of the cryptic phrase, Alfred Nonymous.
Oh, and by the way, those lilies in Act IV of “King John” weren’t gilded. It was gold that Shakespeare gilded. The lilies were painted. You could look it up.