Monday, February 12, 2018

Book Reveals Famous Quotes, Wrong Attribution

I came across the recently published book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That:  The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations.  The author, Garson O’Toole, founded a website, Quote Investigator that eventually led to this book.  He debunks quotes that were wrongfully attributed or incorrectly quoted.  In our information era and fake news maelstrom, we need a resource to correct the record and ensure we operate under a truth-filled Internet.

It’s interesting to see how errors of quotations a rise.  Garson shares a few with us:

1.      Misattribution
“A famous person employs a pre-existing quotation that was originally crafted by a less famous or anonymous individual.  The quotation is then reassigned to the prominent individual.  In essence, the remark is reused and captured.”

2.      Concoctions
“Writers sometimes do concoct fanciful quotations as colorful asides.”

3.      Similar Names
“An ascription can jump from one person to another person who shares a similar name.”

4.      Textual Proximity
“When a well-known name appears in a book or article, sometimes a nearby quotation (created by a different person is scooped up and reassigned to the well-known name.  This also occurs when the picture of a famous person is near a quotation.”

"Over time things get mistranscribed.  Some purposely change quotes, using poetic license, but some will start quoting that very incorrect version. Others may shorten quotes or simply misapply them.  Our words and texts just get bastardized over time.”

This book does a number of things well.  It:
·         Highlights some quotes worth repeating.
·         Gives a scrutinizing history of what’s quoted and shows whether the attribution is correct, the accuracy of the quote, and in cases where the quote is a result of earlier people saying something like it we learn exactly how some of the most famous sayings really came to be.
·         Presents other established quotes to provide a context for judging the quotes in question.

It’s hard to believe that we may all be misquoting or misattributing these famous sayings:
“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.

“Behind every great fortune there is a crime.”

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.”

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

“Life is a journey, not a destination.”

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

“You’ll worry less about what people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”

Some of the biggest names did not say things others claim they did.  From Abraham Lincoln and Cicero, to Mark Twain and Woody Allen, hundreds of quotations circulating today are not exactly what was said.  The Internet can help correct things – but it also can easily spread misinformation, like a virus multiplies.

“You may be shocked by how fragile information is,” says the author, "and I fear it’s only going to get worse.”

Each transmission of a quote can sometimes seem to produce cracks in the truth.  When familiar quotations and attributions have been retransmitted over the decades, the text has often changed and the linkages have shifted.  But the modern age of large-scale databases provides an unprecedented chance to study these alterations and to correct misinformation.

“The goal of expunging errors is only one of the attractions, however.  Another wonderful aspect of the work involved in fact-checking attributions of popular sayings is the opportunity to show other inclined, casual researchers how to set the record right.

“The textual databases of today are the largest in humankind’s history and they continue to grow.  At the same time, misinformation can be propagated around the world in milliseconds.  Keeping track of who said what is one of the central tasks of properly recording history. The current generation of researchers has the tools to correct errors of attribution from the past and present, but will they respond to the challenge?”

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs.  Also named by as a "best resource."

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