WHO SAID IT?

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.

Comments

  1. @”I do love a good debunking”
    Nice to know that being a descriptivist does not preclude being a contrarian. :)
    Thanks for the addition to my wishlist though. This one appeals to me for much the same same reason, I think.

  2. There is debunking and debunking — and debunking. On the one hand, doubtless many quotations are misattributed: it was not W.C. Fields who said “Any man who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad”, but Leo Rosten, describing him. On the other hand, some quotations come out of nowhere and are hung on famous wits (often Twain or Churchill or Johnson) like “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”, as Edmund Burke didn’t say.
    But on the gripping hand, many have undoubtedly said at a moment of indignation “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” over the centuries since English took its present form, but that does not undermine the fact that when someone says it today, they can generally be taken as alluding to Joseph Welch and the Army-McCarthy hearings, and a discovery that John Huston Finley said it in a speech before my not-quite-alma mater in 1908 wouldn’t change a thing.

  3. Ooh, one to add to my wish list too. It will be fun comparing it to Bartlett’s and the few others that I have.

  4. hmm… Stuart’s link goes to a page that says “nothing is here – absolutely nothing – now go, go!” in Hindi. I think.

  5. John Cowan: There is debunking and debunking — and debunking. On the one hand, doubtless many quotations are misattributed: it was not W.C. Fields who said “Any man who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad”, but Leo Rosten, describing him.
    Um, yeah, well, check the YBQ on that one. The journalist Byron Darnton said it in 1937, trumping claims by Fields and Rosten.

  6. “hmm… Stuart’s link goes to a page that says “nothing is here – absolutely nothing – now go, go!” in Hindi. I think.”
    Well read, good sir! Sorry about that, and thanks for highlighting my mistyped URL

  7. The devil fly away with Byron Darnton and all his works. That’s the point of my third point. Unless someone can show that Rosten was quoting Darnton (unlikely), then it’s Rosten (as creator) and Fields (as subject) that are relevant to the quotation as it is used today.
    Similarly, the OED 1st edition entry for truthiness is simply irrelevant to its current use. And when I first used the term ground zero to refer to the site of the World Trade Center, it was an independent coinage, as I had not yet heard others use the term. (I scrupulously avoided all media coverage of 9/11 after the first few hours, not for lexicographical reasons but for psychological ones.)

  8. Darren Shupe says:

    I suspect the The Frederick (Md.) News writer is far from being the coiner of “All politics is local.” O’Neill certainly doesn’t claim to have invented the phrase, either, relating in his autobiography that his father used it in the mid-1930′s after O’Neill suffered a difficult election setback:
    This was the only race I ever lost in my life, but in the process, I learned two extremely valuable lessons. During the campaign, my father had left me to my own devices, but when it was over, he pointed out that I had taken my own neighborhood for granted. He was right: I had received a tremendous vote in the other sections of the city, but I hadn’t worked hard enough in my own backyard. ‘Let me tell you something I learned years ago,’ he said. ‘All politics is local.’
    One may question O’Neill’s memory, but the aphorism may have been rather well-worn even when his father is said to have used it. I wouldn’t be surprised if pre-1932 appearances of the phrase are readily found.

  9. Arthur Crown says:

    Looking up the Burke non-quote, I came across this, the site of the man who has written about the probable misattribution:
    http://tartarus.org/~martin/essays/burkequote.html
    He says at the end:
    Can we learn anything from all this? Going back to the triumph-of-evil quote, we may ask, how can we defend ourselves from the bogus quote? It is clearly unreasonable for anyone to have to prove a quote bogus. This Burke quote, for example, is, I am certain, bogus,
    The hottest fires in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis (…) But to prove it, you would need to read through the complete works of Burke and note its absence. Even this would not be conclusive proof. Official ‘Complete Works’ are rarely complete. And it could always be argued that Burke said it, but never wrote it down, after which it was handed down in a little-known but trustworthy oral tradition, to emerge at the beginning of the 21st century on a couple of isolated web pages in some remote corner of the internet. It should therefore be the responsibility of the quoter to prove a quote genuine.
    I therefore formulate and offer to the world the following Principles for Quotations, two for quoters and two for readers, which, if universally followed, would make an immense improvement to the reliability of the information available on the world wide web.
    Principle 1 (for readers)
    Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume that it is probably bogus.
    Principle 2 (for readers)
    Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter has read it in the source.
    Principle 3 (for quoters)
    Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.
    Principle 4 (for quoters)
    Only quote from works that you have read.

  10. Any thread on original attributions has to include a reference to Merton’s “On the Shoulders of Giants”. And no, Isaac Newton was -not- the first person to say it.

  11. Crown, Arthur says:

    Yeah, but for all his faults, at least Newton didn’t refer to himself as a dwarf.

  12. I thought it was hilarious, when — possibly in the Yale alum magazine? — someone was all hot to track down the source of the “serenity prayer.” (Was it really Niebuhr?) It was such an egregious misapplication of scholarly energy. In high literature, as venerated by academics, it’s (apparently) terribly important to know who wrote what when — much more important than understanding what they say. In prayers and sermons people are more practical. What’s being said takes precedence, and no one bothers much about who said it or when.
    Nobody knows who really wrote the serenity prayer because nobody who cares about prayers gives a damn who exactly wrote them on what exact date. Prayers are actually for use, not for one-upmanship.
    Well, you can see why I didn’t last in the academic world. I just can’t see that it usually matters who said what first, and I roundly dislike the idea that people somehow “own” what they say. Individualism run mad. We’re all in an endless conversation, and the words and sentences flow through us all the time. None of us are really making much up for ourselves.

  13. I loved that article in the YAM (and ran to Wikipedia to add it to the relevant entry, only to find someone had beaten me to it). I don’t understand why the indubitable fact that those who use prayers don’t need to know who wrote them has to mean that nobody else should care who wrote them. Just because you personally don’t care whether Niebuhr invented it or came across it elsewhere doesn’t mean nobody else is allowed to care, or that those who do care are somehow of a lower moral stature. When did indifference become a virtue?
    I got out of academia too—it wasn’t for me—but that didn’t make me despise academics and their admirable drive to dig the truth out from under the midden heap of error and forgetfulness. And now you’re going to tell me that Truth is not to be found in mere facts. Well, to each his own.

  14. And of course, it was Fred Shapiro who wrote the YAM article on the Serenity Prayer. Dale, if you read the article carefully, you’ll see that it in fact captures the “endless conversation” you’re talking about, rather than trying to ascribe the prayer to a single source (which is actually the position of Niebuhr’s daughter in her rebuttal).
    (More on this here.)

  15. John J Emerson says:

    This prayer circulates misattributed (by more than two centuries) to an anonymous Quaker. That’s what I thought people were talking about. The misattribution makes it kitschy; it’s still implausible as an old Quaker prayer, but some of its mannerisms would be more acceptable if 200+ years old.
    The author, Max Ehrmann, was an American freelance writer, lawyer, and meatpacker.

  16. John J Emerson says:

    This prayer circulates misattributed (by more than two centuries) to an anonymous Quaker. That’s what I thought people were talking about. The misattribution makes it kitschy; it’s still implausible as an old Quaker prayer, but some of its mannerisms would be more acceptable if 200+ years old.
    The author, Max Ehrmann, was an American freelance writer, lawyer, and meatpacker.

  17. John Emerson says:

    It actually isn’t a prayer, but a meditation.

  18. Well, that depends on how you use it, doesn’t it?
    Also, you and that John J Emerson should get together sometime; I’ll bet you have a lot in common.

  19. A. Crown says:

    The only thing that relieved the boredom of school prayers was reading who it was who’d written them, what a motley crew: St Ignatius Loyola, Thomas Arnold, and so on.

  20. Oh, Hat, I adore scholarship and respect it hugely. I retract my comment. I meant something else, which I have not quite got clear yet.
    I have no idea what you’re talking about when you say I’m going to say truth is not to be found in mere facts. Are you confusing me with someone else?

  21. No, it’s just a common response to talk about scholars finding the truth. I didn’t mean to come at you so harshly, but it’s a topic I’m sensitive to. I’ll be glad to see your rephrasing of what you want to convey.

  22. I didn’t even know the saussage-sageness was attributed to Bismarck.

    If, with the literate, I am
    Impelled to try an epigram,
    I never seek to take the credit;
    We all assume that Oscar said it.

    I’m pretty sure that can safely be attributed to the dear Dorothy.

  23. Bob Helling says:

    All these comments were worth reading if for no other reason than to see John Emerson correct John J Emerson.
    As for wanting to know the earliest record of a quote, I do find it interesting but not crucial. As someone told me years ago, “everything has been said before.” It’s not literally true, but it gets the point across. Now can anyone find me the first recorded instance of that phrase? That would be very interesting to me.

  24. mollymooly says:

    Occasionally, when reading for the first time some well-known book, I will chance upon a phrase buried on page 257 which I recognise as a much-quoted quote. This recognition gives me some pleasure, but it also makes me wonder why, how, and by whom that particular sentence was plucked out and elevated to the pantheon of immortal phrases. I’m an inattentive and haphazard reader, and I have never underlined a passage in a book, committed it to memory, and quoted it: neither in speech nor in writing, neither with attribution nor anonymously. I suspect most readers are the same, and that nowadays most quotations that newly enter the collective wisdom are born in last night’s sitcom.

  25. molly, I could have sworn you were slyly quoting someone, but googling turns up nothing. Faked me out!

  26. Arfur "50 øre" Crown says:

    Language, you’re so smart. I bet he was doing that, but if not I bet he wishes he had. (I’m pretty sure Molly’s a he.)

  27. John Emerson says:

    Rabelais was a big admirer of sausages. I don’t remember him describing or referencing the sausage-making process, but I feel that if he had done so, he would have done so with relish, in anticipation of the tasty sausages.
    Haute cuisine was invented post-Rabelais, and his tastes ran to hearty peasant fare rather than to anything exquisite.

  28. Noetica says:

    From the official website of Australia’s Black Dog Institute:

    ‘Black dog’ was the term Winston Churchill coined for depression – his own depression. The logo of the Black Dog Institute refers to and respects that origin. [Refers to an image shown above: of Churchill's victory salute, with a shadow resembling a dog's head.] A victory sign that, enigmatically, casts the shadow of a black dog provides a metaphor for a disorder that is constantly lurking in the background. [Source]

    But in fact it was Samuel Johnson who coined it, or even others before him, as the site admits less prominently elsewhere (see for example this rather thorough essay). The public is still led to believe that it was Churchill, and we often hear this misconception affirmed in the popular media, at least in Ozland.

  29. Arthur Crown says:

    Rabelais was a big admirer of sausages.
    A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.
    A.P.Herbert, Uncommon Law (1935)

  30. @”A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso.
    A.P.Herbert, Uncommon Law (1935)”
    This seems appropriate given the theme of attribution, and relevant to the “highbrow” quote above. I read it more than 20 years ago in that highbrow treasure trove, The Reader’s Digest, and still find it apt:
    “An intellectual is someone who can hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of The lone Ranger”.

  31. Well, perhaps “All politics is local” wasn’t *coined* by Tip, but if he said it–if he popularized it, if he was known for saying it and demonstrating it, then who cares about the Frederick News in 1932?
    Tip’s position IN politics, his renown, and his reputation are what make it quotable.
    The point of writing “As Tip O’Neill said, ‘All politics is local’” is not so much that the writer wants to make the point that politics is local (if it were, the writer could just say it himself), nor is it to give the authoritative source of the quote.
    No, the PERSON who said it is actually more important than the quote. The writer quoting Tip is saying “this expert in the field had this to say,” or “this expert in the field agreed with the point I want to make.”
    Quoting W.C. Fields is more about telling us about W.C., and not about the wording. (not to say you should attribute to him something he didn’t say, of course; surely he *actually* said something that would reveal him to us)
    I don’t care who first said it. I want to know whether this particular person DID say it–even if they were quoting someone else. Their own credibility and reputation will make it “theirs” for *my* purposes.
    I wonder if the author got to the quote “a million here, a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” That’s the one that I keep running across in my editors’ writing, and can’t ever find a authoritative citation for.
    Everett Dirksen is associated with it, but apparently nobody else can find a true source, so they write things like:
    “Of course, as Everett Dirksen is supposed to have said, “a million here. and a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.””

  32. On, and on Dirksen–the fact that he was a U.S. Senator in the 1960s and was involved in the U.S. budget planning is what makes that quote important–and why it would be important to me a writer,
    So, if that quotation book only gives the EARLIEST FOUND sources for things, and eliminates all the interim (but more famous or relevant users of those words), then it’s useless to me.
    As Bob Helling said, “Everything has been said before.”

  33. Well, perhaps “All politics is local” wasn’t *coined* by Tip, but if he said it–if he popularized it, if he was known for saying it and demonstrating it, then who cares about the Frederick News in 1932? Tip’s position IN politics, his renown, and his reputation are what make it quotable.
    All of that is true, but it does not follow that it’s somehow wrong to care about earlier use. I may not care how my innards work (so long as they do), but that doesn’t make me think nobody else should. To each his or her own, n’est-ce pas?

  34. Oh, and about the billions: apparently Dirksen never said it. I could swear I recently saw a discussion of a prior usage (in the ’20s?), but now I can’t find it.

  35. Crown, Arthur says:

    My Norwegian wife thinks I coined this one.

  36. Crown, Arthur says:

    …What? It disappeared. Start again.
    “A billion here, a billion there…” My Norwegian wife thinks I coined this one.

  37. Bob Ladd says:

    @stuart: as long as we’re finding earlier instances of quotes, I distinctly remember reading the William Tell/Lone Ranger definition of “intellectual” in a “daffynishion” on the joke page of “Boys’ Life” in the 1950s. Given that the Lone Ranger TV show started in the 1950s, the joke can’t have originated any earlier.

  38. @ Bob: Thanks for that William Tell/Lone Ranger attribution. I guess that I was predisposed to doubt that the RD could have come up with anything “original”, so I had hoped for a more definitive answer. Much obliged, and once more this wonderful blog leaves me feeling very tonto.

  39. Crown, Arthur says:

    Rabelais was a big admirer of sausages.
    Having had this sentence in my mind for two days now, I think it is the best diverter of conversational topic I have ever heard. If I were writing one I would put it in my novel.

  40. Fred Shapiro says:

    I enjoyed reading through this thread. Note that my article in the New York Times Magazine did discuss the “billion here, billion there” quote as one of the seven political quotes treated, tracing it to the 1930s. The point that first use is less important than the use that popularized a quotation is one I hear often. In The Yale Book of Quotations, I do often note if someone other than the earliest known user is the person generally associated with the quote in question.

  41. I could swear I recently saw a discussion of a prior usage (in the ’20s?), but now I can’t find it.
    And it turns out it was IN THE GODDAM ARTICLE I MYSELF LINKED TO! Sigh. Thanks for reminding me I need to take my codger pills, Fred, and of course for being such a dogged quotation hound. (“Dogged hound”—hah!)

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