Justifying Misquotations

August 17th, 2012 § 0 comments

Maria Konnikova writing for The Atlantic discusses many of common misquotations attributed to everything from Shakespeare to Star Trek.

There is, too, that well-known line from the Merchant of Venice, that admonition that "all that glitters is not gold." (Sometimes, it’s also quoted as "also that glistens.") In reality, nothing is glittering or glistening. What Shakespeare wrote was, "All that glisters is not gold." But it’s easy to see how the misquotation might arise—and the replacements certainly sound better to the modern ear, and make more sense.

I’ve never been a fan of pedantic arguments about grammar and spelling. To me the English language is constantly adapting to those that use it. If someone asks how I’m doing I will respond that “I’m well” but I will not get confused or irritated if they respond in kind with “I’m good”; I realize they are not saying that they are a morally good person. Perhaps the same could be said of quotes.

So if a misquote has more meaning, influence or beauty over the original who are we to insist upon absolute accuracy as long as integrity is maintained? “If she can stand it, I can. Play it” is a movie line that would have been long forgotten if it hadn’t been turned into the iconic “Play it again, Sam”. I like to think we are better off as a culture for having put those words into Humphrey Bogart’s mouth. The question of proper attribution gets a bit trickier though.

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics,” for instance, was, according to Twain, an invention of Benjamin Disraeli’s, and “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds” originated with Edgar Wilson Nye. Twain was a witty man, but, alas, he didn’t say it all.

On the one hand I find it totally acceptable to attribute such pithy sayings to a name I will remember especially if that person was fond of the original quotes. This can be taken too far however like the accidental misquoting of Martin Luther King Jr. last year after the death of Osama Bin Ladden.

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” MLK Jr.

After a couple of rounds playing the social network version of Chinese whispers the quotation marks dropped off and we have a well written political statement given considerable power by its incorrect attribution. I’m guessing that being a non-violent actor Dr. King would agreed with the statement but I’m not comfortable putting the words in his mouth. Perhaps it’s because killing people has more gravitas than statistics; perhaps that’s splitting hairs. It’s a tough call.

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