Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Fake facts and favourite sayings

When the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations was first published in 1941, it all seemed so simple. It was taken for granted that a quotation was a familiar line from a great poet or a famous figure in history, and the source could easily be found in standard literary works or history books. Those early compilers of quotations did not think of fake facts and the internet. “Fake facts”, or perhaps more accurately misunderstandings, have been around in the world of quotations for a long time. Often, when people see a line they like, they simply copy it and repeat it. Take, for instance:

“At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet”

If (at the time of reading), the words were attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato, this would be repeated too. But in fact it was not Plato who originally said it. Although it is found in his work The Symposium, he was explicitly quoting the playwright Euripides.

Sometimes it is even possible to spot the very point at which such mistakes occur.  “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time” is often attributed to the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell, but actually first occurs as an editorial comment by the Canadian writer Laurence J. Peter on Russell’s line “The thing that I should wish to obtain from money would be leisure with security.” Clearly the aside has taken on more life than the original. On the same page Peter adds to Aristotle’s “The end of labour is to gain leisure” with “so that you can drink coffee on your own time”, but somehow no-one has attributed an enthusiasm for coffee to Aristotle!

More often the transition remains unclear. Over twenty years ago we kept coming across a rather long but very apt quotation, always linked to the Roman satirist Petronius:

“We trained hard…but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be reorganized. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganizing; and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency, and demoralization.”

Image Credit: “Head of Platon, roman copy.” The original was exposed in the Academy after the death of the philosoph (348/347 BC) by Bibi Saint-Pol. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Given that only a limited range of writing by Petronius has survived, it was relatively easy to establish that this was not included, so we attributed it to the very prolific author “Anonymous” as a modern saying. A few years ago, the origin was finally traced to a passage in a short story about the war in Burma by Charlton Ogburn Jr., published in the magazine Harpers in 1957. How it became attached to Petronius is a mystery we’d love to solve.

One fruitful source of confusion is film. A favourite quote from the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is:

“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future”

Spoken by Galadriel, this line does not appear in the book, and the credit should really go to the screenwriters, not the author J.R.R. Tolkien (the idea does occur in a speech elsewhere in the book by another character, Elrond, but the wording is completely different). Likewise, “We read to know that we’re not alone” is almost universally attributed to C. S. Lewis. However this is not something that Lewis himself said, but a line given to his character in the film Shadowlands, and the credit for it should really be given to the screenwriter William Nicholson.

Clearly, misattributions have been arising ever since people started quoting each other, but the existence of the internet has greatly expanded and accelerated the process. In the past, an attribution was only likely to become widespread if it appeared in print, and this limited the possibilities. Today, it only takes one careless tweet or blog, and repetition on a huge scale sets in. For example:

“And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down”

Is a quotation widely attributed to G. K. Chesterton, but the Oxford English Dictionary has not found the phrase “to rain on a person’s parade” before Bob Merrill wrote the song for the musical Funny Girl in 1964. G. K. Chesterton died in 1936, and there is no sign of this saying before the twenty-first century. It is highly unlikely, not to say impossible, that Chesterton ever wrote this.

But while it propagates errors, the internet is also invaluable in tracing quotations, particularly with the advent of full-text searching. In the early 1990s our researcher looked diligently in the voluminous writings of Thomas Jefferson for the quotation:

“Nothing gives one person so great advantage over another, as to remain always cool and unruffled under all circumstances.”

Turning page after page, he failed to find it, but years later with an online text search it was immediately traced to the right letter. So unsurprisingly, the internet both helps and hinders the seeker after accuracy in quotations. It can be a great resource, so long as we remember with John Dryden:

“Nor is the people’s judgement always true:
The most may err as grossly as the few.”

And perhaps we should give the last word to the novelist Dan Brown:

“’Google’ is not a synonym for ‘research.’”

Featured Image credit:Jefferson, Thomas (bust)” from the National Archives and Records Administration. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Eric Thompson

    One possible misattribution that always strikes me is the observation that the past is another country. This seems to be a summary of a thought in, for example, Thomas Maddox’s Preparatory Epistle, dated 10 August 1708, to “The History and Antiquities of the Exchequer of the Kings of England”. [See page xii of the second, 1769, edition.]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *