The Art of "Quotemanship" and "Misquotemanship"

Quoting people accurately is really hard — and you can quote me on that.


by Frank Herron
0 comments

Never Never Never Give Up on CONTEXT for a Quotation

All hail Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair.

WINSTON CHURCHILL in 1942.

WINSTON CHURCHILL in 1942.


Yesterday, VF published a lengthy interview she had with New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Before zeroing in on the publisher and his decision to fire Executive Editor Jill Abramson, Ms. Ellison paused in her second paragraph to expose the shallowness of a framed quotation attributed to Winston Churchill that the publisher keeps on a side table in his office. The quotation in the frame is “Never never never give up.”
She is not the first, nor will she be the last to do so, but she took the time to point out a truism among quotations: Shorter quotations are not neccessarily better (or more accurate) quotations. The five-word outburst might sound like Churchill (blunt, gruff, needing a smoke). But it reduces him to mere froth. Sarah Ellison includes (and Vanity Fair editors decided to keep it) the real quotation:

“Never give in, never, never, never–never, in nothing, great or small, large or petty–never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

GULP! Did he really say that?

GULP! Did he really say that?

Of course that cannot possible fit on a coffee mug. (ONE RULE REGARDING QUOTATIONS: If the quotation can fit on the side of a coffee mug, be wary. Something might be missing!) (The mug at right is available NOW on the Internet!)
And, in a smallish frame on a side-table the type might be too small to read quickly and comfortably. Therefore Churchill’s statement is snipped and cut and ruined all for the sake of snappiness.
Ms Ellison presents an accurate version of the immediate context of what Churchill said during a 20-minute speech at Harrow School on October 29, 1941. You can hear a slightly fuller version on this YouTube clip. This clip includes an extra “never give in” in the beginning and adds two other short, relevant sentences afterward:

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing great or small, large or petty–never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Before the statement, he said “this is the lesson” learned from the previous ten-month period during which “very terrible catastrophic events in the world” threatened Britain and others, thanks to the attacks by Nazi Germany. (Remember, this is before Pearl Harbor.)

The framed version in the publisher’s office is a horrible disservice. As framed, “Never never never give up” offers a blank check to a stubborn, selfish, unwise approach to a problem. Visually, here’s how the framed version compares to the real one–with the frame’s words in bold face:

“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never–in nothing great or small, large or petty–never give in [change to “up”], except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.”

Yes, there’s quite a lot missing. (I mean, at least give Churchill the fourth “never” for goodness’ sake.)
To me, Churchill’s whole quote offers a more subtle, nuanced approach to the challenge of what it means to stand up for what you think is right. The key, to me, is the word “EXCEPT.” He puts “honor” and “good sense” front and center. That’s where the roots of “never give in” should lie. Absent “good sense” and “honor,” a “Never never never give up” rallying cry should fall on deaf ears.
By leaving out the context–that the stick-to-your-guns and go-down-with-the-ship mentality must be rooted in “honor” and “good sense,” Churchill’s statement has become oversimplified and “strengthened.” I would call this a “steroid” treatment.
And, of course, we must bear in mind the over-arching context of the quotation: WAR. Britain was at WAR. The never-give-in principle might not be so easy to apply in the vast majority of situations–for example, marital and familial discussions.
Then again, maybe all this is off point. After all, “give in” is very different from “give up.”
Or, for that matter, discussions in, say, a newsroom.


by Frank Herron
0 comments

Irish Press Is Alert: Don’t Mess with Yeats


Vice President Joe Biden has a penchant for quoting–or trying to–Irish poet W.B. Yeats (shown at right).
On Monday, September 17, he spoke on the phone with a few Iowa supporters while campaigning in that state.
Here’s what he said to Hal Goldstein, according to theblaze.com:

“[W]hat you ought to do is, this is, there’s awful lot in transition. There’s a great line from the Irish poet Yeats writing about his Ireland back in 1916, its called Easter Sunday 1916. And there’s a line in that poem that better describes, in my view, where we are today in the world than the state of his Ireland in 1916. It was after the first rising, the first attempt to rise up against the British in the 20th century and he said: ‘All’s changed, changed utterly. Terrible beauty has been born.’

Theblaze was unfazed.
The reaction was different at the IrishCentral web site, which pounced earlier today.
For one thing, Biden got the title of the poem wrong. It’s Easter 1916.
For another thing, Biden’s version of Yeats’ line went this way:

“All’s changed, changed utterly.
Terrible beauty has been born.”

The actual last line is “A terrible beauty is born.”

Although the writing is hard to read, here’s a snip below of the two lines from the manuscript of the poem, from the Web site of the National Library of Ireland.

An occasional Yeats reference has been known to roll from the tongue of the vice president. And it’s not always wrong. He quoted from from Yeats’ A Woman Young and Old
while speaking at a convention of the National Association of Police Organizations in Manalapan, Florida, on July 23, 2012. His presentation came three days after the movie-theater killings in Aurora, Colorado. The somber tone matched this couplet from Yeats:
“Pray I will sing and sing I must
And yet I weep–”
These words, he quoted accurately.
He used the same phrase a month and a half later during a moving speech in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, on September 11, 2012.
He didn’t quite nail it, but he was close. On that occasion, he switched a conjunction and according to this transcript said, “But yet I weep.”
He got eleven out of twelve words right. Not bad.
And yet, Yeats lovers weep.


by Frank Herron
7 Comments

It’s a MUCH More Effective Quotation to Attribute It to Aristotle, Rather than to Will Durant

Yesterday, longtime offensive lineman Matt Light (left, bearded) announced his retirement from the New England Patriots. During the moving and humorous ceremony, he turned to a quotation attributed to Aristotle (right, also bearded).
Light ended his prepared remarks this way, according to a transcript from espn.com [emphasis added]:

I kind of wanted to end it with this. I always look to something that someone else has said. When I was looking through a list of different quotes, I found one from Aristotle. It was fitting to not only where I’m at in my life, but experiences I’ve had in this organization, but all the people I’ve met: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” We hear it here five thousand times a week. Just worry about yourself, not others, make it part of your routine. Keep striving to do it better and better. The excellence we all shared as an organization, teammates, friends, everyone else. It’s not just as an act, it’s a habit, it’s how we live our lives, what we try to do day-in and day-out. I hope this habit continues. Thank you.

Journalist Julian Benbow described it this way in his recap about the retirement ceremony, which was posted at 12:32 p.m. Monday on Boston.com.

Light said while he was preparing his speech, he pored over quotes until he found one from Aristotle that sounded like a philospher’s [sic] translation of something Belichick says over and over again.
“You are what you do repeatedly,” the philosopher said. “So your excellence isn’t an act, it’s a habit.”

The quotation was also mentioned in the Web site of the Boston Herald in this summary:

Light ended with a favorite quote from Aristotle: ”We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

The sentiment certainly sounds great. And it sounds like something that should adorn a wall at Foxboro Stadium.
The trouble is that ARISTOTLE DID NOT SAY IT.
As far as I can tell, those words were actually written by Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers.
In part VII of that book, dealing with “Ethics and the Nature of Happiness,” Durant sums up some of Aristotle’s thoughts. After quoting a phrase from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (“these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions”), Durant sums it up this way: “…we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit.” Then he quotes again from Aristotle’s work. The footnotes 1 and 2 in the excerpt at left refer to passages in Aristotle’s Ethics, ii, 4. (The passage at left is from Page 87 of an edition of Durant’s book that bubbled up in GoogleBooks. One explanation of the misattribution is in this Wikipedia entry.)
This is an example of the way that provocative words tend to gravitate toward famous mouths. As the great quote-sleuth Ralph Keyes wrote in The Quote Verifier: “clever lines … routinely travel from obscure mouths to prominent ones….”
In this case, the journey was from the North Adams, Mass., native Durant (right), who lived from 1885 to 1981, to Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 BC.
I’m not faulting Matt Light. For one thing, it’s refreshing to hear the word “Aristotle” in an NFL-related press conference. He was probably using an Internet source such as BrainyQuote, which wrongly attributes the comment to Aristotle.
Journalists, however, who pride themselves on “checking the facts” should not be lazy about passing on–unthinkingly–such misattribution.
Remember the shopworn journalistic bromide: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”


by Frank Herron
0 comments

An Accurate Quote Is Elusive, Even When the Original Is Inches Away


There was a very interesting story by language expert Ben Zimmer in Sunday’s Boston Globe about the origin of the memorable word from Disney’s Mary Poppins film: supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
Anyway, the article sails along, telling a tale of the murky–and disputed–origins of the word, which burst on the scene with the release of the 1964 Disney musical. On the jump page, on column 3, the Globe includes a reproduction of a very early “smoking-gun” use of the word (or one VERY CLOSE in spelling)–from a 1931 edition of the Daily Orange, the student newspaper at Syracuse University. It’s on the left in the photo above. The next column over, the writer quotes from that excerpt. The trouble is, the quotation is not completely accurate. The statement from the 1931 student newspaper:

I’ll admit it’s rather long and tiring before one reaches its conclusion.

In the body of the article, the writer changes the next-to-last word–from “its” to “the.” This does NOT affect the meaning, but it really should be the same. Especially in an article often devoted to the subtleties of language.
This one is a bit hard to swallow. Even a spoonful of sugar can’t help.
For some memories, you can hear Dick Van Dyke and Julie Andrews go through it:


by Frank Herron
1 Comment

Love Might be Unconditional, But Leave the “IF” Where Hesse Flung It, Please

Misquotations pop up in the strangest places.
Today, I was at a stationery store (it was stationary, too, by the way) looking at anniversary cards. (Don’t tell my wife; I’d like to surprise her.)
There, I found two which each referred to the same Hermann Hesse quotation. However, the quotes did NOT MATCH.
The one on the top (at right) apparently captured the quote correctly, with the important IF at the beginning.
The other one (below, at right) snipped off the IF. The proper rendering (translated from Hesse’s novel Narziss und Goldmund) is:

If I know what love is, it is because of you. [Boldface added.]

Without the initial IF, problems arise. For one thing, this leaves two independent clauses with a dreaded “comma splice” between. But the real problem is bigger than that. Here’s an example of a lazy approach to quotations.
Oh, I almost forgot. There’s another problem. Both cards spelled his first name wrong, dropping the second -n. At least they were consistent!
Back to the quotation…..
I see from one Web site that Hesse’s quotation in German was:

Wenn ich trotzdem weiß, was Liebe ist, so ist es deinetwegen.

I ran it through Babylon and got this:

If I, what love is, nevertheless know, so it is as far as you are concerned.

Google handles the translation this way:

If I still know what love is, it is because of you.

Not bad! I like the “still”.
And the elusive “IF” is in both.


by Frank Herron
0 comments

Blast from the Past: We Have Met the Enemy and It Is…a Misquote

Nearly two years ago, Neil Boyd, professor and associate director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, concluded that Canadians had apparently hit the canvas and were down for the count because of their growing attraction to blood-filled Ultimate Fighting Competition. To make his case, in an opinion piece in the Vancouver Sunon May 17, 2010, he compared ticket prices for seats in the first five rows at various auditoriums for various events. At the GM Place, prices for these premiere seats were $500 for a Simon and Garfunkel concert; $950 for the Eagles; and $800 for Michael Buble. Similarly up-close seats commanded $700 for Sting at the Chan Centre and $400 for Yo-Yo Ma at the Orpheum. With those prices in mind, Mr. Boyd then went in for the kill. He contrasted those prices with the $1,500 per seat ticket price for an upcoming Ultimate Fighting Competition bout. In closing, he asked:

How far removed are we from the days of blood sport as entertainment — lions and gladiators at the Roman Coliseum? Not very far, if at all. The market confirms Pogo’s aphorism: We have seen the enemy and they is us.

His points in the article are well taken, but I was puzzled that he chose not to somehow work a rough-and-tumble NHL hockey game into his price mix. In any case, he tarnishes it all with a mishandling of the Pogo quote. [I know. He doesn’t use quotation marks, making it a paraphrase, but even so, it wasn’t necessary to get it wrong.] His blunder was pointed out by letter-writer Frank M. Archer of Deltatwo days after the publication of the opinion piece. Archer wondered:

How can we trust the accuracy of what Neil Boyd states in his commentary when he mangles Pogo Possum’s famous phrase “We have met the enemy and he is us?”

Then it gets personal:

Shame on you, Neil, for wasting your time reading criminology books when you were a kid, when you should have been reading the comics instead.

I know this is an old example, but it’s still valid, I think. It illustrates a couple of things. First, don’t mess with Pogo. First, the handling of words can reinforce or undermine the credibility of the writer, especially if the words are widely known. Second, and most importantly, don’t mess with Pogo.


by Frank Herron
0 comments

The Hazards of Familiarity: My Quote Belongs to Stoppard

Sometimes we know a little too much for our own good when it comes to reporting some quoted material, even if it’s from, say, the line of a play. This happened in the New York Times in an article published on March 25.
The article, a review of Travesties by Tom Stoppard, which was playing in Princeton, quoted a line from the play as “My heart belongs to Dada.”
However, as was corrected thoroughly a week later, the line is actually “My art belongs to Dada.”
Both would be a clever twist on a song title, which might already lurk in the brain of any arts critic.
Did the writer’s (or editor’s) mind follow a low-resistance path to “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” by Cole Porter (right).
You can hear Sophie Milman sing a version here.

Skip to toolbar