By Bill Moore
Writers like to quote the classics and the famous. Often, though, through misinformation or poor research, they end up misquoting—and sometimes misinforming. In some cases, they attribute a statement to someone who never made it. Because they’ve heard the quotation misquoted so often, they don’t bother checking the authenticity. Everyone pretty much knows by now that Marie Antoinette never said, Let them eat cake, even though she gets the blame. And Sherlock Holmes, in the books, never said, Elementary, my dear Watson. (But, then, he never smoked a calabash pipe, either.) Beatrice Hall, who wrote a biography of Voltaire admitted that he never said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” He did say, “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too,” but that doesn’t imply anything to die for.
In other instances, a common way to misquote is to attribute a statement to the author when it was something said by a character in a play, poem, or book. Famously, Shakespeare didn’t say, “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.” It was Dick the Butcher’s line in Henry VI, Part 2. Greta Garbo’s character in Grand Hotel said, “I want to be alone,” but Garbo never did. There are sources that quote her as saying, “I want to be left alone,” but there’s a world of difference. “Anyone who hates dogs and little children can’t be all bad,” wasn’t said by W.C. Fields. It was said about him by Leo Rosten. [For other good examples, Google Words Used Right—No. 5: An Accurate Quote Can Be a Misquote.]
Probably the most frequent way to misquote is to change the wording slightly as in Winston Churchill’s, We have nothing to give but blood, sweat, and tears. [The line: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”] or Alfred Hitchcock’s, Actors are cattle. [The line: “Sometimes, actors need to be treated like cattle.”] Lines from movies are notoriously misquoted. Many of the misquotes have become part of the culture. Bogart’s, Play it again, Sam. [The line: “You played it for her. You can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can. Play it! Play it, Sam.”]; Cagney’s, You dirty rat, you. [The line: “Mmm, that dirty, double-crossin’ rat.”]; Weissmuller’s, Me Tarzan. You Jane. [The line: “Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan.”]; and Dumbrille’s We have ways of making you talk. [The line: “We have ways of making men talk.”] get cited all the time, but they’re close to the actual lines and don’t change the intent of what was being said.
When the original intent is changed along with the words, it becomes a question of intellectual honesty. This is often what happens when writers quote the Bible without actually having read it. Money is not the root of all evil. [1 Tim. 6:10: “For the love of money is the root of all evil.”] And pride doesn’t go before a fall. [Prov. 16: 18-19: “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.”] Sparing the rod has nothing to do with spoiling the child. [Prov. 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”]
This kind of misquoting also happens often when historic sources or persons are used to shore up an argument. Does power corrupt as Lord Acton is quoted as saying? Not quite. [The line: “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”] Marx wasn’t really comparing religion to drugs, so he didn’t call it the opiate of the masses. [The line: “Religion is the sign of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”] This statement is a bit more subtle than the misquote and not as damning.
The Bard certainly gets his share of being misquoted. Juliet never asked about Romeo’s location. [The line: “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”] In this usage, ”wherefore” means “why,” and putting a comma before the last Romeo totally messes with what Shakespeare meant. All Hamlet said was that he was acquainted with Yorick but not how well. [The line: “Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio.”] And Macbeth didn’t need a guide, so he didn’t say, Lead on, Macduff. He wanted the fight to start [The line: “Lay on, Macduff, and damned be he who first cries, Hold! Enough!”]. Sometimes, the misquote seems a bit silly. Shakespeare never mentioned gilding a lily. [The line: “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.”] What’s really accomplished by dropping the middle four words? In the same vein, there’s Falstaff’s actual line, “The better part of valour is discretion,” not Discretion is the better part of valour, and Gertrude’s real words, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” being rendered, Methinks the lady doth protest too much. Why bother to rewrite Shakespeare if you’re going to say the same thing?
So, why do writers do it? For political correctness as when Congreve’s “Music has charms to soothe savage breast” gets “cleaned up” to soothe the savage beast? Or could it simply be ignorance and indifference? I don’t know, and I don’t care. I do know, though, that if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you need to check your sources and not rely on hearsay—no matter how many times you hear someone say it. Who knows, we may discover some day that Nathan Hale’s last words were actually, “I was misquoted.”
About the Author
Bill Moore is the author of Write Rite Right. This compendium of homophones, homonyms, and frequently misapplied words is a necessary resource for anyone who writes for others to read. (Available on Backoftheroom.com, Amazon.com, and Barnesandnoble.com.)
Bill is a freelance writer, researcher, instructional designer, trainer, and editor with over 30 years professional experience. For writing services, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit his Web site, http://www.writeriteright.com/, for more information on words and writing.