Thursday, June 08, 2006

Did They Really Say That? Quotations and Misquotations


"You could look it up." So said colorful Casey Stengel, who led the New York Yankees to ten American League pennants and seven World Series championships. He was explaining how his team could have won 103 games in 1954 and still failed to win the pennant. "We had a splendid season," he was fond of saying afterwards, "but 'The SeƱor' (Al Lopez, manager of the Cleveland Indians) won 111 games and beat us. You could look it up."

So you could. Familiar quotations are often mangled, misquoted or misattibuted. Here are a few examples:

"Go west, young man, go west!" Everyone knows Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, was the author of these rousing words. He wasn't. The phrase was first used in an 1851 editorial by John B.L. Soule, in the Terre Haute Express. Greeley was so impressed with the editorial that he printed it in his Tribune and expanded its message to: "Go west, young man, and grow up with the country."

Greeley repeatedly disclaimed credit for originating the expression, yet he continued to be tagged with its authorship. To stem the spreading impression that he had said it, he even reprinted the piece from the Indiana newspaper in the Tribune. Misattributions die hard; despite Greeley's best efforts, the phrase has stuck to him.

"Lafayette, we are here!" This ringing phrase is often credited to General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, speaking on July 4th, 1917, at ceremonies at the tomb of Lafayette in the little-known Picpus Cemetery in Paris. The cemetery, in the 12th arrondissement, is on the grounds of a convent. Lafayette and his wife share it with victims of the Reign of Terror and their descendants.

The announcement apparently was made by Col. Charles E. Stanton, Pershing's chief disbursing officer and a nephew of Edward M. Stanton, Secretary of War during the Civil War. Colonel Stanton had been deputized by Pershing to speak for him. In My Experiences in the World War, published thirteen years after the Armistice, Pershing wrote that he could not recall having said "anything so splendid."

Despite Pershing's disclaimer, Naboth Hedin, a 33-year-old uniformed American war correspondent, asserted that he heard Pershing pronounce the famous words three weeks earlier on June 14th, the day after the American general arrived in Paris. Hedin said Pershing stepped up to Lafayette's tomb, saluted smartly and said in a loud voice, "Lafayette, we are here." Hedin insisted, "I was about twenty feet away."

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. This famous observation is often attributed to Mark Twain, who made frequent references to the weather in his writings. The words first appeared in an unsigned editorial in the Hartford Courant. Charles Dudley Warner, a close friend of Twain's, was the newspaper's editor.

In the editorial, the saying was attributed to "a well-known American writer." But Warner was also a well-known writer, having co-authored the novel The Gilded Age with Twain. Moreover, the expression does not appear in any of Twain's works. The jury is still out; some authorities give Twain the nod, others favor Warner.

As so often happens with quotations, "you pays your money and you takes your choice." This expression, by the way, is from a cartoon by John Leech in the British magazine Punch, January 3, 1846.

Mistaken Identities
It is not uncommon to hear the name Frankenstein applied to the wayward creature crudely put together from the body parts of corpses in the 1818 novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Frankenstein was not the monster, but the name of the man who created it: Victor Frankenstein. Even in dictionaries, the name Frankenstein has now taken on a life of its own and has come to mean any monster having the appearance of a man. Thus, in a sense, Frankenstein's nameless monster has destroyed its creator.

Horatio Alger is another example of literary transformation. Alger was not the hero of a series of 19th-century dime novels with a rags-to-riches theme, as many believe; he was their creator. Originally a Unitarian minister on Cape Cod, Alger turned from religion after being accused of sexually molesting young parishioners, traveled to New York and became a crusading author who preached the gospel of success.

Close, but No Cigar
"Blood, sweat and tears." Who doesn't remember Sir Winston Churchill's famous exhortation during the Second World War? Memory can play tricks. Churchill didn't quite say that. What he said in his first speech to the House of Commons as Prime Minister in 1940 was, "I would say to the House, as I said to those who joined this Government: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.'" Churchill was too canny a politician to end a memorable catch phrase on a defeatist note with a word like tears. The powerful line about blood, toil, tears and sweat was so effective, he used it again in five subsequent speeches.

The title of a traditional Christmas carol is usually rendered as God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen."Those in the know, however, will shift the comma to make it read God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. In 18th-century England, "God rest ye merry" was a common greeting.

"All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Lord Acton was a British historian who is often quoted as having made that observation. What he actually said in an 1887 letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, professor of ecclesiastical history at Cambridge, was, "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

Mining the Bible
As might be expected, the Bible is the source of many a misquotation. For example, the cloud "no bigger than a man's hand" has become a standard allusion to any small, menacing omen. Go to the first book of Kings, however, and you'll find the reference actually reads, "There ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man's hand."

The much-quoted "prophet without honor in his own country" is, to be exact, "not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house," in the Gospel according to Matthew.

"Money" is today universally condemned as "the root of all evil." But in the first epistle to Timothy, Paul tells us it is "the love of money" that causes all the mischief.

"The voice crying in the wilderness," is really "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, according to Isaiah.

"Pride goeth before a fall"
is widely quoted. It turns out that in Proverbs, we read, "Pride goeth before destruction," and "an haughty spirit" before a fall."

Try to find this in your Bible: "Esau sold his birthright for a mess of potage." You won't; this phrase does not appear in any currently used Bible. It can be found only in the so-called "Geneva Bible," popularly called the "Breeches Bible" for its rendering of a verse in the first chapter of Genesis. First published in 1560 and a favorite with the Pilgrims, it was displaced by the King James version. That the phrase still has wide currency is a testament to the power of folk sayings alone to transmit religious texts.

Similarly, "the good Samaritan" is never called that in the Bible. In the Gospel according to Luke, we read only that "a man from Jerusalem" had been set upon by thieves and was wounded. "A certain Samaritan . . . had compassion on him." The Samaritans and the Jews were traditional enemies; any Samaritan performing a kind deed for a Jew must implicitly have been "good."

Brush up Your Shakespeare
In the final scene in John Huston's 1941 film made from Dashiell Hammett's classic detective novel The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) holds the worthless replica of the elusive statuette. Detective Sergeant Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) asks him what it is. Spade laconically lisps, "The stuff dreams are made of." Great ending--but bad Shakespeare. What the Bard of Avon had Prospero tell Ferdinand in The Tempest was, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on."

Many writers think the Bard wrote in "Hamlet" that "the engineer is hoist by his own petard." A petard was a bell-shaped, gunpowder-filled bomb, ancestor of the IEDs, improvised explosive devices so lethal to American troops in Iraq. In siege warfare in Shakespeare's time, specialized troops tunneled under fortifications and exploded the petard--often simultaneously blowing themselves up in the process. Hamlet planned to turn the tables on the fawning courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. By altering the letters they are carrying, he hoped that they will be killed instead of him. He tells his mother of his plan and admits it would be "knavery," but adds, "'tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard."

"To gild the lily." On close examination, this vivid Shakespearean phrase, shortened and corrupted in popular use makes no sense at all. In "King John," the Earl of Salisbury deplores as unnecessary the crowning of the king a second time, and says: "To gild refined gold, to paint the lily, to throw perfume on the violet . . . is wasteful and ridiculous excess."

How often have we heard someone declaim, "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well"? Unfortunately, Hamlet never says it. When a grave digger identifies a newly unearthed skull as that of Yorick, the king's jester, Hamlet takes it and says to his friend Horatio, "Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy."

Could anything be wrong with the quotation from "The Merchant of Venice" that says, "All that glitters is not gold."? What the Prince of Morocco really says in that play, dating from about 1596, is "All that glisters is not gold." The first use of glitters in this saying did not come until 1687--by John Dryden, English essayist and poet laureate, in his poem, "The Hind and the Panther."

Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare did not write "a poor thing, but my own" often used to describe a work less than perfect. The exact words can be found in Act 5, Scene 4 of As You Like It. When Touchstone describes Audrey, a sluttish country wench he is introducing to Jacques, he calls her, "a poor virgin, sir, an ill-favoured thing, sir, but mine own."

Phrases that Backfired
Sir Samuel Wotton, a British diplomat, is frequently misquoted as having defined an ambassador as "an honest man sent abroad to lie for the good of his country." What he actually wrote was, "an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." The cleverness of the adage depended on his placement of the verb "lie." In the 17th century, "to lie" meant "to stay," so "to lie abroad" meant "to live abroad." Intended as a clever private joke written in the album of a friend, Wotton's little jest was published and caused him to lose favor with King James I.

Quotable quotes occasionally give birth to other quotable quotes. Paraphrasing Wotton's wit a century and a half later, Samuel Johnson defined a journalist as "a man without virtue who lies at home for his own profit."

Even earlier, referring to Julius Caesar, in his Ad Atticum, Marcus Tullius wrote, "He is his own worst enemy." This must have been a tall order, given the number of Caesar's hostile adversaries. When the saying was used in Sir Winston Churchill's presence about someone he disliked intensely, the crusty old prime minister grumped, "Not whilst I live!"

Mangled Phrases
Topsy is a humorous character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's absurdly sentimental antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. An eight-year-old slave who has been brought to Miss Ophelia to be educated, Topsy is often quoted when making comparisons with someone or something that "jest growed." But this phrase does not appear in the novel's text. When asked who made her, her artless answer in the book is, "I 'spect I grow'd."

Miguel de Cervantes' knight, Don-Quixote, is an impractical idealist bent on correcting the ills of the world. When he mistakes windmills for giants and attacks them, we've all heard this described as "tilting with windmills." The proper usage, of course, is "tilting at windmills." Cervantes' satirical chivalric novel also has given rise to another persistent misquotation, "if worse comes to worst." What Cervantes wrote was, "Let the worst come to the worst."

Does music have charms "to soothe the savage beast"? Not in the opening lines of William Congreve's play The Mourning Bride, dating from 1697. In it, he claimed that "music has charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak."

No Basis in Fact
Some quotations do not bear close scrutiny. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in the Prologue to his Canterbury Tales, "His palfrey [horse] was as broun as is a berry." Of course, there are no brown berries. It has been suggested that the reference is to roasted coffee beans--but coffee in any form was unknown to Chaucer.

Also mistaken was the poet, theologian and hymn-writer Isaac Watts, author of more than 600 hymns, including "Joy to the World" and "O, God, Our Help in Ages Past." In his 1715 book "Divine and Moral Songs for Children," Watts wrote, "Birds in their little nests agree; and 'tis a shameful sight when children of one family fall out, and chide, and fight." Animal behaviorists know only too well that--in their nests or out--birds do not agree. They are among the most contentious creatures in the animal kingdom and spend their lives in an atmosphere of violence toward other birds.

Some misquotations are pure fabrications. Millions believe that Voltaire wrote, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." The words were actually invented by British author Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing under the pseudonym of S.G. Tallentyre.

She enclosed the sentence in quotation marks in her 1906 study titled The Friends of Voltaire. Later she expressed hurt surprise on learning that readers regarded the words as a direct quotation from the French philosopher. Voltaire was many things--a champion of justice, tolerance, and freedom of conscience and speech--but he was not foolish enough to risk his life defending an empty sentiment most often repeated by politicians in the well of the U.S. Senate or by argumentative drunks in neighborhood bars.

In contrast to the pompous promise falsely credited to him, what Voltaire actually said in his Essay on Tolerance was more than enough to comfort today's civil libertarians: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege of doing so too."

Cinderella's glass slipper is perhaps the most famous example of what can happen when literary busybodies get to work. In 1697, Charles Perrault told the story of "Cendrillon," a fairy tale in which the heroine escapes from a life of drudgery to marry a handsome prince. The same book also marked the first appearance of such stories as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Tom Thumb" and "Sleeping Beauty."

In the English-language version of Perrault's story she wears elegant slippers of glass ("verre," in French) to the masked ball, and loses one on the stairs in her hasty midnight departure. Never mind that slippers of unyielding glass would make for an miserable evening of dancing. Perhaps taking their cue from that prospect, apologists later claimed that Perrault had written "pantoufles en vair" (slippers of white squirrel fur).

In translating this charming escapade to English, the claim is that the translator mistook "vair" (fur) for "verre" (glass). As a result, down through the years the Prince has been searching desperately for a young woman whose foot would fit an inflexible slipper of glass. Go back to Perrault's original, however, and you will find that he indeed described the material as "verre," glass. That was the whole point of his story: a foot of almost any size could be squeezed into a slipper of fur. But a slipper of glass would fit only one female foot: Cinderella's.

You could look it up.

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