Have you ever quoted a famous person, only to find that it was a misquote?? I must plead guilty to that literary crime.? Fortunately, it is normally a spoken rather than a written sin.? Sometimes it is merely a word or two, but I have occasionally incorrectly attributed a quote.? Some “famous phrases” are outright fabrications.? For instance, it’s pretty generally known that George Washington never said, “I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree.”? Many know that Marie Antoinette never said, “Let them eat cake.”? If she had, she would have been quoting a tale by the philosopher Rousseau, written years before this air-head (and soon headless) queen was to have said it.? However, did you know that John Paul Jones never said, “I have not yet begun to fight?”? Well, if he did, it was never recorded until well after his death.? So, what can you believe when it comes to quotes?? Wikipedia, of course, because everyone has a chance to put in his or her two-cents worth.? Right.? Dr. Gregory House (of the series, “House”) oft said, “Everybody lies.”? That’s a quote I do remember accurately and, while I am not quite so jaded in my view of humanity, do feel has a bit of truth.
There are times that a great quote has simply been mis-attributed.? General “Black Jack” Pershing is supposed to have said, “Lafayette, we are here,” when he landed with the American Expeditionary Force in France in the First World War.? Yet he himself regretfully denied saying it, citing his subordinate Colonel Stanton as the source. In the same way, Marshal Petain’s pledge to save Verdun from the Germans in that same war, “They shall not pass,” was spoken by another subordinate with a better command of words, Robert Georges Neville.? But it packs more of a wallop when said by the main honcho, doesn’t it?? Better press.? And you can always trust the Fourth Estate, can’t you?
Unfortunately, quotes as we are given them sometimes alter their original meaning.? Consider that down-home comment by Will Rogers, “I never met a man I didn’t like.”? What a wonderfully inclusive statement that is.? But what he really said was, “I joked about every prominent man in my lifetime, but I never met one I didn’t like.”? Not nearly as all-encompassing, is it?? And the Bible says, “Money is the root of all evil,” does it not?? Not.? I Timothy 6:10 says, “The love (my italics) of money is the root of all evil.”? It is not money itself, but the passion for it.? The words have been changed in both of these in ways that affect their meanings.
Then there are quotes that are attributed to a number of people who probably never said them.? Consider, “Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”? A great quote, but who said it?? I’ve seen Ben Franklin, Mark Twain and even Will Rogers cited.? Sadly, we will probably never know who originally said it, since when it appeared in an 1897 editorial, the source was named as a “well-known American writer.”? Alive or dead, we have no idea.? Some pundit will surely tell you, I’m sure.?? Another great quote is that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language,” which is to have been said by George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill, depending on your source.? No written record can be found to support any of them as the originator.? It’s still a great saying and any of those wags might have said it.
I will close with a famous misquote that, in one sense, isn’t one, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never wrote it.? His Sherlock used the words “elementary” and “my dear Watson,” but never together.? However, Basil Rathbone, as Sherlock Holmes in the old movies, did say it numerous times.? So, did Sherlock Holmes ever say, “Elementary, my dear Watson?”? It all depends how you define Sherlock Holmes: a character in a novel or an actor in a movie.? You decide.