Thursday, January 13, 2011

You can (mis)quote me on that

A version of this article appeared in the National Post on Jan 10th:

Quotes are usually misquoted and you can quote me on that


Howard Richler

Mea culpa. Several eagle-eyed National Post readers noticed that I had rendered a quote by Alexander Pope incorrectly in my November article on malaprops. Notwithstanding that googling “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing + pope” yields over 100,000 hits, the correct saying is “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” This was the opening line of a little ditty Pope composed in Essay on Criticism; the rest of the stanza being “Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:/There shallow droughts intoxicate the brain,/And drinking largely sobers us again.” Actually, I was aware of this misquotation, but alas, in this instant, perhaps because I'm over sixty, I forgot, and Pope would probably say I drank shallowly.

In my defense, however, I can relate that misquoting famous expressions has a long lineage. In his 1713 play Cato, Joseph Addison wrote “The woman that deliberates is lost.” This was later changed to “she who hesitates is lost” and finally to “He who hesitates is lost.” William Shakespeare turns out not only to be the most quoted person but also the most misquoted. The expression “To gild the lily” was actually rendered by the Bard as “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily”; “Discretion is the better part of valour” was originally “The better part of valour is discretion” and “There’s method in his madness” was actually, “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.” The phrase “All that glitters is not gold” is often attributed to Shakespeare but the actual phrase in The Merchant of Venice is actually “All that glisters is not gold.” In any case, Shakespeare did not originate the phrase and the Oxford Dictionary of Phrase, Saying & Quotation (ODPSQ) states that the expression was used in the early 13th century. Similarly, the expression “Every dog has his day”’ is thought by many to have originated as “The dog will have his day” in Hamlet, but the ODPSQ displays it as a mid 16th century expression and it has been cited as a proverb as early as the 1520s.

There is also the tendency to credit famous people for quotations that they did not originate. For example, W.C. Fields is usually seen as the progenitor of the saying “No man who hates dogs and children can be all bad,” whereas this statement was actually first uttered by a New York Times reporter named Byron Darnton in 1930. Never heard of Darnton? That is exactly the point. Famous words require famous voices in order for them to endure. For example, everyone credits Harry S, Truman for the expression “The buck stops here.” Truman displayed a sign on his desk with this saying in 1945 but recent research has uncovered a photograph bearing the same message on the desk of Army Col. A.B. Warfield in 1942.

Even modern sayings become mangled and misattributed. Andy Warhol’s mantra that everyone enjoys “fifteen minutes of fame,” was originally rendered by the artist in 1968 as “in the future everybody would be world famous for fifteen minutes.” It is commonly believed that former NFL coach Vince Lombardi said that “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” Actually, it was UCLA football coach Red Sanders who coined “Sure, winning isn’t everything; It’s the only thing.”

Ralph Keyes wrote a book on misquotes that he titled Nice Guys Finish Seventh because former baseball manager Leo Durocher's maxim that “nice guys finish last” was rendered by Durocher in seventh place, not last. Keyes claims that ever since cavemen and cave-women have quoted, they have screwed up the quotes. Keyes states that “as a general rule, Misquotes drive out real quotes. This is the Immutable Law of Misquotation. Misquotation takes three basic forms: 1) putting the wrong words in the right mouth; 2)putting the right words in the wrong mouth; and 3)putting the wrong words on the wrong mouth.”

So dear erudite National Post readers, please forgive my misquoting Pope. Actor/director Hesketh Pearson said that “Misquotation is…the pride and privilege of the learned. A widely-read man never quotes accurately, for the rather obvious reason that he reads too widely.”

Howard R ichler's latest book is
Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.


  1. Wonderful! That would be me, I can misquote everything and everybody. Now I feel better about it. Thanks!

    Kay, Alberta
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  2. Brilliant. Thank you so much for this entertaining read.