This week’s “On Language” in the NY Times, a guest column by Fred Shapiro, is basically a bit of publicity for Shapiro’s Yale Book of Quotations, but that’s OK, it’s worth plugging. Shapiro takes seriously the need to track down authentic citations and isn’t afraid to topple accepted attributions, with results like:
Surely some of our cherished political-quotation stories must be accurate. What about Vice President Thomas R. Marshall’s immortal crack, “What this country really needs is a good 5-cent cigar”? The usual story goes that Marshall, in his capacity as presiding officer of the Senate, was enduring a tedious debate on the needs of the country. He then interjected the one-liner about cigars. Quotation dictionaries typically date this incident precisely to reports in newspapers of Jan. 4, 1920. The Marshall attribution, though, is blown out of the water by another electronically derived newspaper citation. The Hartford Daily Courant, on Sept. 22, 1875, printed “What this country really needs is a good 5-cent cigar” with a notation that the original source was The New York Mail.
The Yale Book of Quotations disproves many other accepted origins. The next time you hear a commentator credit “All politics is local” to Tip O’Neill, impress your friends by mentioning that the line appeared in The Frederick (Md.) News, July 1, 1932, when the future speaker of the House was only a teenage proto-pol. When a candidate refers to Otto von Bismarck’s famous maxim about “laws and sausages,” grin knowingly, point out that the Iron Chancellor was not associated with that quip until the 1930s and cite The Daily Cleveland Herald, Mar. 29, 1869, quoting the lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe that “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.
I do love a good debunking.