The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations.

Ben Yagoda reviews Garson O’Toole’s new book, Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, which sounds like a lot of fun; I’ll quote the ending, which I especially enjoyed:

And so it goes with that wonderful tale about Hemingway being challenged to write a short story in six words, and coming up with, “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.” O’Toole traces more than a dozen iterations and variations going back to 1906, including an item in a 1921 newspaper column attributed to a reader named Jerry:

There was an ad in the Brooklyn ‘Home Talk’ which read, ‘Baby carriage for sale, never used.’ Wouldn’t that make a wonderful plot for the movies?

The above item, which O’Toole harvested from NewspaperArchive, is a good example of his research chops in action. It wouldn’t pop up in a search for the supposed Hemingway quote (in quotation marks or not) because it refers to a carriage, not shoes, that was never used, not worn. I’m still not exactly sure how he got it.

The Hemingway connection, he goes on to explain, stems from a play produced in 1989 where “Hemingway,” the character, used the baby shoes line. There is no evidence that the real Hemingway ever did.

There is one darling O’Toole doesn’t murder. It’s perhaps my favorite quote of all time: “I have made this [letter] longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” O’Toole finds that it has been misattributed to John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, and Woodrow Wilson, but confirms that it was written in 1657 by Blaise Pascal. If he hadn’t, I might just have had to murder him.

I’m not surprised the “quote” is not actually from Hemingway; I am surprised, and pleased, to learn the misattribution only dates to 1989! How quickly we adopt an attractive error…

Comments

  1. Yes, 1989 was just yesterday!

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    Medicine is prone to this manufacturing of prior attribution.

    Physicians of a certain sort are fond of the Hippocratic “Primum non nocere” (“First Do No Harm.”)
    It occurred to me one day that, what with Hippocrates actually being Greek and all, this couldn’t be the original form, and tried to find out the Greek.
    There isn’t any. It seems to have originated in a nineteenth-century misattribution (to Thomas Sydenham.)
    This pleased me, as it’s a pretty stupid principle, at least in the contexts in which it’s usually invoked. It would entail needlessly allowing a great many people to suffer or die in order to prevent the occasional side-effect.
    (It may well have been a less stupid principle prior to about 1900, however. Before about that date, if you went to see a doctor, you were on balance slightly less likely to get well than if you hadn’t.)

    The sort of people who peddle management panaceas are fond of “Darwin’s”

    “It Is Not the Strongest of the Species that Survives But the Most Adaptable”

    which screams its inauthenticity to anyone familiar with nineteenth century prose, and is far too stupid a dictum in its quasi-tautological teleological inanity for the man himself ever to have written it. He didn’t.

    More spectacularly egregious is the fact that in contexts of “assisted dying” I have several times seen

    Thou shalt not kill, yet needst not strive
    Officiously to keep alive

    attributed to the general-purpose all-round medical sage William Osler.

  3. Rodger C says:

    William Osler? That’s really quite horrible. I assume you expect us all to know it was really Ambrose Bierce.

    I ask my students on their Western Lit final to identify this quote: “[S]ince men are wicked and do not keep their promises to you, you likewise do not have to keep yours to them.” It’s Machiavelli, of course, but I always have students who attribute it to the Sermon on the Mount. I think this says a lot about American Christianity.

  4. There isn’t any. It seems to have originated in a nineteenth-century misattribution (to Thomas Sydenham.)

    This pleases me as well; thanks!

  5. William Osler? That’s really quite horrible. I assume you expect us all to know it was really Ambrose Bierce

    You only say that because you know it is really by Arthur Hugh Clough

  6. Uh … Um. Oh.

  7. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve always taken “primum non nocere” and “First, Do No Harm” as later summaries of the Hippocratic Oath, of which I’ve encountered at least one much, much longer version (not in the original Greek of course).

    but I always have students who attribute it to the Sermon on the Mount. I think this says a lot about American Christianity.

    I have often encountered American “evangelicals” on the Internet attributing “God helps those who help themselves” to the Bible… thanks to Asterix, I know the next older version is Fortuna audaces adiuvat, “Good Luck [personified as a goddess] helps the brave ones”.

  8. Bierce’s version of the Sixth Commandment was:

    Kill not, abet not those who kill;
    Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.

    It’s in the Devil’s Dictionary s.v. decalogue. The two versions do have some ideas in common, though: Bierce’s Eighth is:

    Don’t steal; thou’lt never thus compete
    Successfully in business. Cheat.

    a sentiment that Clough expresses as:

    Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,
    When ’tis so lucrative to cheat.

  9. One presumes Bierce had read (and probably memorized) Clough.

  10. Osler! Mary Baker Eddy, surely.

  11. I’m fond of arguing that Jefferson, Twain, Einstein, Churchill and Stalin never said a single word that wasn’t apocryphal.

  12. Lazar: That can’t be easy.

    Hat: Possibly. Clough died in 1861, and Bierce published his first definition six years later. But it’s not clear when Clough’s “Latest Decalogue” was first published (a problem with many 19C poems, which pop up in newspapers and such ephemeral sources).

  13. Other things being equal, I would agree with the dubious “possibly.” When it comes to a poem on an identical subject with a virtually identical couplet, the meter moves from “possibly” to “almost certainly.”

  14. @JC: In jest, if that wasn’t clear. But I’ve seen so many debunked that when someone cites a quotation from any of them, I generally assume it’s fake.

  15. And of course Julius Caesar said “Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος” (quoting Meander’s Arrephorus) rather than “Ālea iacta est”. And as for William of Ockham…

  16. There is a small canon of movie misquotations, like “Play it again, Sam”, “You dirty rat”, and “I want to be alone”, which was closed by the invention of the VCR.

  17. And “Go ahead, punk, make my day.”

  18. If so, it’s deeply ironic, because in saying “Don’t steal”, Bierce was in fact stealing.

  19. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    “Why, I never said any such thing!” Alice exclaimed indignantly.
    “Of course not,” the Red Queen retorted, “I never quote people in their own words. It would be unsporting.”

  20. My fave universal attribution: “As Bartlett said, in his Familiar Quotations, …

  21. With a bit of archival research Lazar could extend the range of the Phantom Time Hypothesis to cover his ‘historical’ figures, I’m sure.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phantom_time_hypothesis

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    On the topic of Julius Caesar speaking Greek (like any properly brought up upper class Roman) his last words (if you believe Suetonius) were not “et tu, Brute” but καὶ σὺ, τέκνον; “You too, child?”; rather more pointed than the Shakespearean version, as it was presumably attributed to him in allusion to the story that he was Brutus’ natural father. (Brutus’ mother Servilia was Caesar’s mistress.) Unfortunately neither the last words nor the paternity seem to be actual factual facts.

  23. “Vēnī, vīdī, vīcī” is not strictly documented either, while we’re at it.

  24. For the matter of that, nothing anyone said before the invention of sound recording is strictly documented.

  25. Another famous quote with an interestingly complex history (sometimes misattributed to Bismarck, Meillet or others):

    A shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot.

    Today we know, of course, that a language is a dialect that’s got its own Wikipedia.

    © Piotr Gąsiorowski 2017

  26. Hat: For the matter of that, nothing anyone said before the invention of sound recording is strictly documented.

    But Caesar is supposed to have written, not said it — in a letter to the Senate.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    There is a small canon of movie misquotations

    “I am your father, Luke”

    (actually “No, I!!! am – your – father –”)

  28. David Marjanović says:

    Today we know, of course, that a language is a dialect that’s got its own Wikipedia.

    Many articles in German dialect Wikipedias have names in Standard German for ease of input. Maybe this use of a Dachsprache should be considered to muddle these waters.

  29. January First-of-May says:

    “I am your father, Luke”

    I know this one as “Luke, I am your father”, and add the classic “Beam me up, Scotty” (though I guess it might predate the VCR).

  30. David Marjanović says:

    I got the misquotation wrong…

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