The Art of "Quotemanship" and "Misquotemanship"

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

Do Law-Making, Sausage-Making and Quote-Making Have Something in Common?


An editorial in The Guardian out of Great Britain today (10 April 2012) again brings 19th century German leader Otto von Bismarck into the mix regarding a widely used statement that links (ha, ha) sausages and laws. The editorial opens this way:

“Bismarck never likened law-making to sausage manufacture, but the misquote is remembered because so many legislators act as if their craft is best carried out away from public view.”

Really. So, you KNOW Bismarck never said it. So why bring his name into the sausage-government mix here? Snow White never said it, either, for goodness sake. Should she be mentioned? I guess the Bismarck reference is just too tempting. The problem is not a “misquote” as the editorial says; rather, it’s a “misattribution.” The reference is there because many people THINK Bismarck said something along the lines of,

“To retain respect for laws and sausages, one must not watch them in the making.”
(That version is in Fred Shapiro’s The Yale Book of Quotations.)

Mr. Shapiro, like others, cites a use from 1869 that puts the sentiment in the mouth of the much-less-known John Godfrey Saxe, who is quoted as saying “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”
Well, I think sometimes “quotations” can be added to the laws and sausages because they too can “cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” Granted, no quotation was poorly made in this example, but the illustration here adds to the discussion of how historically “famous” quotes can be mishandled or misrepresented.
The sausage-law connection makes a perfectly good point. We don’t need to drag Bismarck’s name along with it, when it’s well established that the chances he coined the phrase are very low.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.

Skip to toolbar