Sunday, November 1, 2020

Quotes, Misquotes and Misattributations


This week sees Covid-19 running riot all over the globe, the UK careering downhill towards another full lockdown, the US in the throes of a bitterly fought election, and vast amounts of methane being released from the melting permafrost in Eastern Siberia.


The phrase ‘Hell in a handcart’ would seem to have some relevance here.


So, I felt in need of some distraction, and for that I turned to quotes, misquotes, and misattributed quotes.


There is a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results. This has occasionally been attributed to Albert Einstein. In fact, it would appear that the original was said by mystery author Rita Mae Brown, in her book SUDDEN DEATH, published in 1983.


Frequently, it seems, quotations such as the one above are attributed to someone other than their originatoralmost invariably somebody more famous.


The phrase “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” is often attributed to Sir Isaac Newton. Indeed, he wrote it in a letter of 1675 to fellow scientist Robert Hooke. Such is the weight carried by it, that the inscription ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ appears around the edge the UK £2 coin, introduced in 1997.


But the concept behind the statement has been credited to twelfth-century French Neo-Platonist philosopher and administrator, Bernard of Chartres, with possible origination going back to the scholars of ancient Rome and Greece.


Another quote regularly misattributedto Voltaireis “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” In fact, this was written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing as SG Tallentyre, in her book, THE FRIENDS OF VOLTAIRE. She uses it as a summary of Voltaire’s attitude towards the persecution of French philosopher Claude Adrien Helvétius for his book, ON THE MIND, which was burned publicly.


Then there are quotes which are correctly attributed but misquoted. The one every crime writer or reader should know is “Elementary, my dear Watson!” from Sherlock Holmes.


Only, he never said it. Not in any of the 56 short stories or four novels written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The closest he came was in THE ADVENTURE OF THE CROOKED MAN, published in 1893:


“I have the advantage of knowing your habits, my dear Watson,” said he. “When your round is a short one you walk, and when it is a long one you use a hansom. As I perceive that your boots, although used, are by no means dirty, I cannot doubt that you are at present busy enough to justify the hansom.”


“Excellent!” I cried.


“Elementary,” said he.


In fact, the phrase appears in PG Wodehouse’s PSMITH, JOURNALIST, which was serialised in The Captain magazine in 1909-1910 and then published in 1915.


Equally, the Rick Blaine character played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 movie Casablanca, never said, “Play it again, Sam.” Nor did Ingrid Bergman’s Ilse Lund, for that matter. But such was the myth that built up around the line that it became the title for a stage play and 1972 movie by Woody Allen.


One of my favourite misquotes surrounds what was said by astronaut Neil Armstrong when he first set foot on the moon. On first listen, it would appear he misquoted his own quote: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”


Armstrong frequently said afterwards that he did say “…one small step for man…” as otherwise there is no distinction between ‘mankind’ being many and ‘man’, also being many, rather than an individual.


Such was the controversy over this, that in 2013 Laura Dilley, an assistant professor in the department of communicative sciences at Michigan State University, led a team to analyse how the words “for a” are pronounced in Ohio—Armstrong’s home state. Using recordings of people raised near Wapakoneta, where Armstrong was born, Dilley revealed that “for a” sounded very like the “frrr(uh)” spoken by the astronaut at the historic moment.


So, it looks as if that misquote might, in itself, be misquoted…


And finally come the quotes that are of unknown origin but falsely attributed to someone.


Napoleon is often credited with saying, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” It has also been attributed to 19th-century Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, who wrote: ‘[N]o plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.’ Personally, I’d always vaguely thought it was Sun Tzu from THE ART OF WAR.


British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was supposed to have said, “A week is a long time in politics,” regarding the sterling crisis in 1964 but did not originate the quote. It’s possible it comes from Liberal politician Joseph Chamberlain, who was recorded in 1886 as having said: “In politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight.”


And although the following quote has been attributed both to Oscar Wilde and to Erica Jong, it remains unclear who actually said it first: “Bigamy is having one wife/husband/spouse too many. Monogamy is the same.”


This week’s Word of the Week is scaphism, allegedly a means of execution in ancient Persia, also known as ‘the boats’. The word comes from the Greek, skaphe, meaning hollowed out. It involved the victim being placed between two boats with his head, hands and feet protruding, then force fed and covered with milk and honey until he was eaten by insects and vermin. Although this method was recorded by Greek essayist, Plutarch, his source is suspect. Scaphism is also described in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale and H. Rider Haggard’s THE ANCIENT ALLAN.


  1. And then we have the oft misquoted as, "Frankly, Scarlet, I don't give a damn."

    I've often found it interesting the number of truly awful ways people have found to kill other people. That would be an interesting subject for a book...

    1. Sadly, EvKa, I think there are plenty of books on the subject!

      Yes, the Gone With The Wind closing quote was my other choice for oft misquoted.

  2. Great fun, Zoe. Thanks for giving us a break from the "handcart".
    One of my favorite quotes is attributed to Winston Churchill, "A magnum is the perfect size for two gentlemen to have over lunch, especially if one isn't drinking.” Unfortunately, it seems he never said it...

  3. What about the legend that a woman said to Churchill, "Sir, you are drunk." To which he replied, "And you are ugly. In the morning I'll be sober." Did that really happen?

    1. Apparently so. Churchill is supposed to have made the remark to MP Bessie Braddock.

      I could have made up an entire post from Churchill quotations. My particular favourite is this exchange with Lady Nancy Astor:

      Astor: If I were your wife, I'd put poison in your tea.
      Churchill: If I were your husband, I'd drink it.

  4. As much as your post successfully distracted me from the present, I cannot help but wonder if given the choice between scaphism and continued trumpism, how many would choose the former.

    1. You might very well think that, Jeff, but I couldn't possibly comment...

  5. My word of the week is
    Psephology: quantitative analysis of elections and balloting

    1. I think there will be plenty of that going on this week, Kwei!