The Art of "Quotemanship" and "Misquotemanship"

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

by Frank Herron

Would Both Hemingways–Outdoor and Indoor–Have Enjoyed Orwell’s Shooting Story?

Paul Hendrickson (biographer of Ernest Hemingway) wrote a review on a 15-disc audio presentation of some of Hemingway’s writings that appeared in the May 19 issue of the New York Times Book Review (“An Audible Feast”, page 18). (With the clever illustration shown above by the great Ben Wiseman.) Hendrickson says that Hemingway, known as a robust outdoorsman, “was a far more tormented and sickly soul, both physically and emotionally, than we ever really guessed. In a way, he was a far more indoor soul as well.” To nail down the concept, Hendrickson offers a quotation by George Orwell (right):

A man ‘wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it,’ George Orwell wrote.

The Times, perhaps rightly, assumes that readers know such things, but I usually fall short. So I scurried for the source and the context of the thought-provoking Orwell quotation. I guess my main question was: To what kind of man does Orwell refer? Or is it generally applied?

The quote lies within Orwell’s 3,300-word essay “Shooting an Elephant,” which was first printed in the late 1930s. From the context, we see that Orwell refers to the “white man” (presumably British) who is trying to survive/live/lead/thrive/pretend as a “sahib” in Burma. He speaks with lots of authority here because he served in Burma as an imperial police officer in the 1920s. Here’s the passage that includes the quotation (with a little emphasis added):

I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

Is the statement rightly applied here? Well it depends. If it implies that Hemingway felt outside pressures to wear the mask and then live up to it–at the expense of being true to himself–then, probably. But any concern for the proper handling of the quotation dissolved in the face of the essay. I loved reading it, happy that the review sent me there. I kept reading it, long past the “mask” quote. A key moment in Orwell’s tale came soon enough:

The rifle was a beautiful German thing with cross-hair sights. I did not then know that in shooting an elephant one would shoot to cut an imaginary bar running from ear-hole to ear-hole. I ought, therefore, as the elephant was sideways on, to have aimed straight at his ear-hole, actually I aimed several inches in front of this, thinking the brain would be further forward.

I don’t want to give much away but I will say it took a while for the elephant to die. Orwell’s character would have benefited from being able to whip out a smart phone before pulling out that “beautiful German thing.” He could have gone to this amazing site and seen this helpful diagram:

by Frank Herron

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

“[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

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

Misquoting Numbers Is Easy; It’s Like Shooting Oil in a Barrel!

A correction appeared Thursday (18 April) in the Austin American-Statesman regarding a “misquote” of a report from Bentek Energy, described as a Colorado energy market analytics company. The error occurred in a commentary on Sunday. The paper printed the correction this way:

A story on Page E1 Sunday about hydralic tracturing for oil and gas recovery misquoted a Bentek Energy report on projected production levels. The report forecast that U.S. oil production would increase by 2.2 million barrels a day by 2016.

So, what was the error?
As is the policy at many papers, the correction neglected to tell the reader what, exactly, was being corrected.
Was the year wrong? Did the earlier article say the increase in production could be realized by 2018? Or 2015? Or 3016?
Or was the number of barrels-per-day wrong? Did it say the increase would be 2.3 million barrels a day? Or 2.0 million? Or 3.2 million?
How big an error was it?
Well, it was a monstrous error. A true gusher.
Instead of 2.2 million barrels, the original article said

“U.S. production should surpass 2.2 billion barrels a day….”

That’s right: “2.2 BILLION barrels.”
That should have struck ANYONE as a crazy-big number. Worldwide consumption in 2010, I believe, was a little UNDER 90 MILLION barrels A DAY. If the 2.2 BILLION BARRELS A DAY increase in U.S. production is right, our energy troubles would disappear over a weekend.
Advice to journalists and editors, and readers: When you see the word BILLION, take a deep breath and break out the calculator. Or go to Google or Bing….
Millions and billions are not to be confused.
It takes a THOUSAND millions to reach a SINGLE billion. Confusing a million and a billion is like confusing a three-mile drive from Boston to Cambridge with a three-thousand mile drive from Boston to San Francisco.
The Sunday article, about hydraulic fracturing, carried this headline: “Drilling method low risk, valuable.” I’m not sure about the drilling risks of hydraulic fracturing, but I am sure of the risks that surface when journalists are entrusted with numbers. Those risks are high. Ask for a second opinion.

Skip to toolbar