Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch
By Jann Malone
Read a reference book from cover to cover?
That sounds like something only someone with nothing better to read would do.
But I bet if you pick up a copy of Ralph Keyes’ “The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When” (387 pages, St. Martin’s Griffin, $15.95), you’ll get sucked into it, too.
What fun to discover that baseball’s Yogi Berra isn’t responsible for some of the best quotes attributed to him. Even he knew it: “I really didn’t say everything I said.”
Like what? “It’s déj? vu all over again” is an unlikely Berraism, Keyes says, as is “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
And, sadly, the research trail also shows that Yogi didn’t say “It ain’t over till it’s over,” though I think what he did say is almost as good: “We’re not out till we’re out.”
And if you’re thinking what Yogi actually said was “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” he didn’t. Washington Bullets coach Dick Motta did during the 1978 NBA playoffs.
But he’s not the original source. He credits Dan Cook, a San Antonio sportscaster, but Keyes traces its origin back to a widely-repeated Southern saying.
How does this kind of misattribution happen? “The reference we’re most likely to consult,” Keyes writes, “is our memory.”
There’s more to it, though: Keyes says people want quotes to come from the people they want them to come from, and they also want them to be better than they actually are.
That’s how Winston Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” became “blood, sweat and tears.”
Keyes calls this kind of pruning and improving “bumper-stickering.”
In a quote that matches the best in his book, Keyes says: “Memory may be a terrible librarian, but it’s a great editor.”
Here’s more about that Churchill quote: Keyes says “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” left a long literary trail before Churchill used it in 1940.
How does Keyes know all this? Research.
The Internet is both a blessing and a curse, he says. Online tools — digital books and newspaper databases — help, but many Web sites contain unverified information.
He even finds errors in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” and “The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations” and suspects readers will find some in his book, too.
Since he spends a lot of time warning us about accepting quote attributions without checking back to the original sources, it’s comforting to find about 75 pages of his own source notes at the back of the book.
The rest of the book is organized alphabetically by key words, which works just fine, as long as your key words match the author’s. When they don’t, there are three indexes that help: key words, names and sidebars.
Most of the sidebars belong to the most frequently quoted — or misquoted — people: Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Ann Landers and the like.
I’d like to give you quotes from them, but I can’t. I hear the fat lady singing.