“quashed quotatoes”—one of the many ingredients in the writer’s lair as described in Finnegans Wake (183).

“Crawling at your feet,” said the Gnat, “you may observe a Bread-and-butter-fly. Its wings are thin slices of bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.”
“And what does it live on?”
“Weak tea with cream in it.”
A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. “Supposing it couldn’t find any?” she suggested.
“Then it would die of course.”
“But that must happen very often,” Alice remarked thoughtfully.
“It always happens,” said the Gnat.
–from Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

There’s a meme circulating on the internet that shows Mark Twain beside his famous quotation: “Never believe anything you read on the internet” –Mark Twain.

It’s referring to a phenomenon so common that I think most of us get the joke: the internet is full of misattributed quotations and, as a result, so are people’s speeches, presentations, office posters, signature blocks, and inspirational coffee cups.

I’ve become increasingly perturbed by this prevalence of misattribution.  The other day I came across one from one of my favorite writers and books: “The secret, Alice, is to surround yourself with people who make your heart smile. It’s then, only then, that you’ll find Wonderland.” 

I didn’t even have to look it up to know that there was no way this came from Lewis Carroll and the Alice books. And if I had gone to the internet to look it up, what would I have found?  Multiple citations of this quotation attributed to Lewis Carroll, rustic wooden signs ranging from $39.99 to $43.99, stickers for under $4, greeting cards, posters, a blog post attributing it to the Mad Hatter, and citations in LinkedIn and Facebook accounts.  As is often the case with misinformation, it gets rapidly replicated online which seems to verify the initial error and amplify it at the same time.

I have learned, however, that there are multiple online sources that research misattributed quotations to verify original sources and correct the record.  The best is Quote Investigator, a website run by Garson O’Toole, who also has a book on the topic, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations.  The Snopes website investigates some of the most prominently circulated misattributions, and scholars of particular authors who are often the subject of these misattributions—Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, William Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson—also take the time to do the research.

What makes an attribution suspicious?

I said that the Carroll quote immediately made my literary error antennae go up.  But why?  I love the Alice books and know them well, but I’m not a Carroll scholar. But because I know Lewis Carroll, I do recognize his wit, his love of play, his mockery of Victorian pieties, and his dislike of a society that treated children like little criminals.  What he is not is sentimental; I could not imagine him writing “make your heart smile.”  

But really, it is not specific to Lewis Carroll. Probably no one in the Victorian period would employ such a locution.  As is often the case with these quotations, the inspirational sentiment is in a language of self-realization and happiness advice characteristic of our time (and genuinely important to us and our historical moment). But that’s not the language or the framing of thought in Lewis Carroll’s time or Mark Twain’s, let alone Shakespeare’s or Plato’s.

Sometimes it’s easy to infer an attribution is off. Bizarrely, the following quotation is attributed to Shakespeare in memes and all over social media: “I always feel happy, you know why? Because I don’t expect anything from anyone; expectations always hurt. Life is short. So love your life. Be happy. And keep smiling.” (It goes on, but I’ll spare you the rest).  

What makes that unlikely to be Shakespeare? First, it is exactly the kind of modern self-help sentiment I alluded to with the Carroll misquote: it’s simply out of place hundreds of years in the past.  But, also, all we have of Shakespeare are his plays and poems. Unlike some writers, we don’t have speeches, letters, essays, or diaries from Shakespeare. That means almost every surviving line is written in verse or, if it comes from a prose passage in the plays, in very outdated Elizabethan slang.

If you are searching a quotation you will also find another clue: you will find the author attribution over and over again, but it is never linked to a particular source (say Hamlet, Act II sc I, for example).  Unfortunately, several of the big online listings of quotations like Goodreads and Brainy Quote also rarely attribute to individual works. Most of their quotations are accurate, but those lists are full of the error quotes, too.

So what?

So, what’s it to me?  I’ve seen dialogue on social media where someone points out the misattribution and others defensively respond that it doesn’t matter who said it, the quote is a wonderful inspiration.  And, indeed, the sentiments expressed are often wise and inspirational and worthy of remembering. I, too, believe that surrounding yourself with friends who make you happy can greatly enrich your life. I understand fully why people seeing that summed up in a quotation would say, “Yes, I really like that, and I’d like to remember it and share it with others.”

In fact, I care about this precisely because I believe in the power of inspirational touchstones in life: the passages or quotations from poems, stories, essays, sermons, speeches, movies, plays, and so forth that capture our imagination and our memories and inspire us.  I think of the tradition of the Commonplace Book, more practiced in the 18th and 19th centuries than now, in which individuals would keep a journal, not for their own diary entries but to copy passages and quotations from their reading that stirred them.  I believe in those practices and have my own touchstones that have grown, deepened, and changed throughout my lifetime.

In tracking the Alice misattribution, I came across this response to a LinkedIn account that had cited it: “I too, love this quote! You have inspired me to break out the book again to see what other wonderful nuggets of brilliance there are.” That’s delightful—and I’m personally happy to have another reader exploring the brilliance of Lewis Carroll. All the more reason to attribute the quotations accurately: to inspire others to reach back to the wisdom and wit of great writers.

Finding Touchstones and Appreciating Differences

We read literature to connect with minds greater than our own. We read in part to see ourselves reflected and to underscore perceptions that resonate with our experience. But in reading we also encounter profound differences: Mark Twain and Shakespeare and their worlds are very unlike ours and those differences can be illuminating.

I recently attended a presidential inauguration at a neighboring college.  It was a beautiful event built around the theme of servant leadership and tied to the institution’s Christian mission and dedication to service. One of the many people who spoke that day intoned, “As Mark Twain famously said, ‘The two most important days of your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’” The sentiment, with its hint of being born again, was appropriate to the day and the common thread of the speeches. It’s just not from Mark Twain nor does it sound like him, one of the most cynical critics of religion and religious hypocrisy who ever lived.

As O’Toole points out, many of the misattributed quotations don’t come from famous people, so there may be a desire to undergird the strength of a powerful sentiment by tying it to a revered writer. The Twain quote above apparently comes from a New York minister named Ernest T. Campbell in 1970, though it also appears in a Mormon self-help book and many other publications since then. It was more recently popularized by game show host Steve Harvey without attribution and, as a result, one can find it at times attributed to Harvey.

Ted Lasso, too

I love the wit and fresh writing of the comedy series, Ted Lasso, and I particularly admire the scene in which Ted, in the midst of a high-stakes game of darts, talks about how people have always underestimated him. 

It’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking that ends with a quotation that is perfect Ted Lasso: “Be curious, not judgmental.”  Alas, it insists on tagging the quotation as “Walt Whitman.” At least those sentiments (curiosity over judgment) bear some affinity with Whitman’s thinking.  But, no, he never wrote those lines. The source is unclear but there is a very similar sentiment in a 1970s newspaper advice column for parents dealing with teenagers.

This one really stung because Ted Lasso can be a surprisingly literary show. After one episode, I commented to a friend about the show’s fascination with how people’s lives are distorted by their problematic relationship with their parents. I said, you could sum up the show with Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.”  In the next episode, the pub proprietor quotes that entire poem (without attribution, but correctly and beautifully).

And then there’s context

One of my favorite scenes in Joyce’s Ulysses—a touchstone of mine, if you will—is when Stephen Dedalus is getting his weekly teacher’s pay from the self-righteous headmaster, Mr. Deasy. “But what does Shakespeare say? [Deasy remarks]. Put but money in thy purse.” “Iago,” Stephen mutters under his breath.  The quotation about the importance of money does indeed come from Shakespeare—it’s just stated by his most villainous character.

Jane Austenites were thrilled when the writer was put onto British currency, but disgruntled when she was coupled with this quotation from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” True Austen aficionados know that, though the quote is accurate, it is spoken by the silly Caroline Bingley, who doesn’t like books at all but is pretending to in order to impress a suitor.

I had my own experience with this when a very good journal on leadership wanted to use a quotation for a discussion about the theme of reluctant leadership I had treated in an article. Their recommendation was from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This is an oft-quoted line, including in leadership textbooks—and it can certainly stand on its own. But, in context, it is part of a cruel joke played on a pompous character, Malvolio. His enemies have faked messages convincing Malvolio that the lady Olivia is in love with him. He reads these lines with passionate delight, believing Olivia is going to raise him to her stature. The crew who’ve forged the letter literally hide behind some plants to laugh at him as he reads these lines.

Like “the apparel oft proclaims the man,” uttered by the bombastic fool, Polonius, the sentiment about greatness probably has earned a life of its own separate from its original context—but it doesn’t hurt to know that context.

The weblike nature of the internet can be ideal for connecting a random fact or quotation to its context as you follow hyperlinks to other articles and original sources. But too often the effect is the opposite: we encounter a piece of information stripped of cultural context and left to stand on its own or be manipulated by propagandists. 

I care about misattribution because I understand and celebrate the role of inspirational passages and quotations in people’s lives. It is one of the ways that literature and history populate our imaginations and how ideas attain currency.

We all should care about stanching the flow of misinformation and about deepening our understanding of the writers and contexts who do inspire us.

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