Hear Ralph speaking with Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation from July 4, 2006.
And last Monday I cited a quotation which I attributed to P.T. Barnum. Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. Well, it turns out it wasn’t Barnum, and Ralph Keyes caught it, as well he should. He’s the author of the just published book, The Quote Verifier, which examines the roots of some 450 such sayings, ranging from ain’t I a woman, to show me the money.
So we’ve called him on it. We reached Ralph Keyes at his home near Dayton, Ohio, and thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. RALPH KEYES (Author): Thanks for having me.
CONAN: So it wasn’t P.T. Barnum?
Mr. KEYES: It was not.
Mr. KEYES: It was H.L. Mencken.
CONAN: H.L. Mencken. Well, I had somebody beginning with two letters for their name.
Mr. KEYES: Very close.
CONAN: I understand that a lot of loose floating quotes get attributed to either H.L. Mencken or P.T. Barnum.
Mr. KEYES: Yes, I call them flypaper figures. Like Lincoln, Twain, Shaw, Churchill, Wilde. These are people to whom orphan quotes stick.
CONAN: And orphan quotes, these are people, orphan quotes, these are sayings that people think are incredibly clever and therefore must have come from the likes of Mark Twain.
Mr. KEYES: Exactly. Something like, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
CONAN: Who said that?
Mr. KEYES: Obviously Vince Lombardi must have said that. We’ve all heard of him.
Mr. KEYES: But it was actually Red Sanders(ph), a coach at UCLA in the early ’50s who originated that one. But who’s heard of Red Sanders?
CONAN: Well, in your e-mail you mention another well-known line, a bit more contemporary. The movie Jerry McGuire has to be the source of show me the money.
Mr. KEYES: Well, of course. It’s in there.
Mr. KEYES: And Cameron Crowe is the screenwriter for Jerry McGuire, and Bartlett’s actually attributes Cameron Crowe with having coined that. It’s even on their back jacket.
But there are a lot of databases now where you can enter key words and they’ll take you back to early newspapers and early magazines. I did that, and I found show me the money was early boxer parlance in the early 20th century. For example, in 1907, when he was asked if he’d fight Jack Johnson, the heavyweight Tommy Burns said, Show me the money! Show me the money and I’ll fight, if its enough!
CONAN: He came to regret that.
Mr. KEYES: Oh, yes. With Jack Johnson.
(Soundbite of laughter)
But that catch phrase, show me the money, it’s a century old, at least.
CONAN: This is Independence Day. Are there any misattributed famous quotations from the American Revolution? I mean, surely Patrick Henry did say, give me liberty or give me death?
Mr. KEYES: Unfortunately, he didn’t.
Mr. KEYES: Yeah. There’s a guy named William Wirt(ph) who was a biographer, very flowery, very willing to put words in his subjects’ mouths. And when he wrote a biography of Patrick Henry, he put give me liberty or give me death in Henry’s mouth.
Now, Henry was supposed to have said that at a convention in Virginia in March, 1775. Jefferson and Washington were both present at that convention, and neither of them ever remembered Henry having made that, you know, momentous declaration.
CONAN: Haven’t you ever heard of the journalistic principle of a story too good to check? Aren’t there quotes too good to check?
Mr. KEYES: Somebody think – some people think Twain said that.
CONAN: Ralph Keyes, thanks very much.
Mr. KEYES: Thank you.
CONAN: Ralph Keyes is the author of The Quote Verifier: Who Said That, Where and When. He joined us from his home near Dayton, Ohio.