Arriving at work each morning, one of the first things I do is flip the page on my little old-fashioned desk calendar to read the “quote of the day”.
Last week’s words of wisdom included “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” by Chinese philosopher Confucius, and a favourite quote of mine by Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.
Except that Confucius and Einstein never said these words at all. In fact, another Chinese philosopher – Laozi – wrote the first line in the Tao Te Ching and as for Einstein; this famous phrase originates from a 1914 Narcotics Anonymous pamphlet.
It got me thinking about how readily we accept fictions as fact, and how audaciously we shape the authentic expression of others into pithy platitudes. There are many examples of how mis-attributed quotes influence our language by entering the general lexicon as figures of speech, and in some cases even change the course of history.
Given the opportunity, former Queen of France Marie Antoinette would probably have something to say about how one false account can ruin your reputation. “If they have no bread, let them eat brioche (cake)!” is how she is famously remembered to have dismissed the bread shortage in Paris, circa 1790, (no doubt whilst gorging on gold-plated pigeons). But it has been categorically proven that she never said these words at all.
As the 'story' goes, the peasants, tired of starving to death, copped this contemptuous slight as their final insult from the French aristocracy before forming a Revolution and chopping off all their heads.
However the reality of Marie Antoinette is quite different. OK so she was certainly superficial and extravagant, but she was also a devoted mother, a talented dancer and held a keen interest in horticulture and science. As the fifteenth child of Empress Maria Theresa and Emperor Francis I, she was often neglected and her education was allowed to lapse. At the age of 12 she was made to endure excruciating oral surgery without anaesthesia to correct what the French lamented as the crookedness of her teeth.
Marie Antoinette will always be remembered as the personification of frivolity and caprice, and yet there is much evidence to suggest this image is unjust, including a final trial and execution that was outrageously flawed and vengeful.
So who said “let them eat cake” anyway? The origins of the quote can be found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s autobiography Confessions, published when Marie Antoinette was only nine and widely discredited by scholars as being inaccurate. Apart from the fact that Rousseau ascribes these words to an unknown princess – vaguely referred to as a 'great princess', there are many who believe he simply made it up.
Another notable figure whose public image has been crafted by quotes he did not say is George Washington. First President of the United States and celebrated as the ‘father’ of that country, his early life is surrounded in myth. “I cannot tell a lie. It was I who chopped down the cherry tree” he bravely confessed to his father after a brazen attack on the family orchard. Except that this story is almost certainly an invention.
The earliest source of this quote was a famous anecdote in The Life of George Washington, with Curious Anecdotes Laudable to Himself and Exemplary to his Countrymen (1806) by Parson Weems, whose total adoration of Washington (combined with the fact that none of his quotes can be independently verified) means he is not considered a credible source.
A more recent example of the power of mis-quotations to shape history is US political candidate and gun totin’ hockey mum Sarah Palin, whose understanding of foreign policy was reduced to the line “I can see Russia from my house”.
What Palin really said was “(Russia) are our next door neighbours and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska”. It was Tina Fey, impersonating Palin on Saturday Night Live who with precision accuracy destroyed the last shreds of Palin’s credibility.
Sometimes, quotes are selectively edited to maximise both brevity and gravity. Ghandi once wrote “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would change. As a man changes his whole nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him”. But it’s the much shorter aphorism “Be the change you wish to see in the world” that we remember.
What about Voltaire’s “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. This ‘enhanced’ version originates from The Friends of Voltaire (1907) by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, and was probably based on Voltaire’s actual quote “Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too”.
The Bible offers countless examples. Consider "Spare the rod, spoil the child”, (actually “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.") And "Money is the root of all evil" (“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.")
Do you think it is OK to reduce complex individuals to a one-dimensional quote? Do we have a responsibility to ensure history is recorded accurately? According to my desk calendar, Oscar Wilde advises that “Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit” while Voltaire cautions “A witty saying proves nothing". Jorge Luis Borges believes “life itself is a quotation”. What’s YOUR favourite quote?
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