Who said that?: Wrongly Attributed Quotes

Perhaps you have heard this quote before:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This quote, often attributed to Nelson Mandela, is actually from Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love. Like many people, I first heard it attributed to Mandela, but eventually learned the true source, and it wasn’t hard to verify. However, there are many famous quotes and statements floating around out there that are a lot harder to trace back to an original source.

Corey Robin wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education about this common but frustrating experience of uncertainty: he calls it the Wrongly Attributed Quote (WAS) phenomenon:

“The WAS is not just a thing, you see, it’s an experience. A quote floats in your head for years, resting in cloistered obscurity. One day you decide to use it in a book or an article. You look it up to get the exact wording and to cite the original source. But you find multiple wordings and no credible source. You keep looking, only to find that no one ever said it (at least not that anyone knows of). You keep looking, if for no other reason than to redeem the time you’ve already wasted. If you’re lucky, you’ll finally find someone—often someone you’ve never heard of—saying it. More often you find that no one said it at all.”

Sometimes, despite the best efforts of experts, it’s impossible to find an original printed source to confirm a quote commonly attributed to one individual or another. If it wasn’t written down somewhere, how do we know that Winston Churchill/Oscar Wilde/Chekhov/Plato said it? Instead of being frustrated by this situation, however, Robin takes a different perspective:

“I now see it as a kind of democratic poetry, an emanation of genius from the masses. We recognize the utility of crowdsourcing. Why not the beauty of crowdwriting? Someone famous says something fine—’When bad men combine, the good must associate’—and some forgotten wordsmith, or wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it into something finer: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ It’s good that we remember the knockoff rather than the original. The knockoff is better—and we made it.”

yalebookquotationsFortunately, we have an excellent and authoritative source – “the most comprehensive and reliable source in print,” according to Robin – here in the library: The Yale Book of Quotations. It’s in our reference section on the first floor, so it’s available anytime the library is open. The Yale Book of Quotations is “unique in its focus on American quotations and its thorough coverage of items not only from literary and historical sources but also from popular culture, sports, computers, politics, law, and the social sciences.” It’s organized alphabetically by author, with special sections including advertising slogans, film lines, modern proverbs, and television catchphrases. Each quote is attributed with its original source and earliest date of use.

From the “Modern Proverbs” section, for example, we have:

“You can’t argue with success.” –The New York Times, August 25, 1963

“The camera does not lie.” –The Chicago Tribune, May 27, 1900

“You can’t fight City Hall.” –The Washington Post, January 24, 1950

“Curiosity killed the cat.” –L.A. Times, August 22, 1901

With over 12,000 quotes in 851 pages (plus a keyword index that brings the total page count to 1067), this is one of those times when a book might just be better than the internet.



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1 Response to Who said that?: Wrongly Attributed Quotes

  1. Pingback: The Queen of Dinner Parties: in which I discover The Yale Book of Quotations | Jenny Arch

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