Trivia Teaser

Which is a Swiss dish of melted cheese served in a large pot over a lighted burner?


Quote. Unquote.


By Jessie

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?  

Jessie x


19 Responses to

Quote. Unquote.

yasdnyl said:
March 15, 2012 at 4:50 PM

Today is the first day of the rest of my life!!

mommyscat said:
March 15, 2012 at 5:21 PM

Sieze the day.

ekbg2002 said:
March 15, 2012 at 9:12 PM

I thought a thought, but the thought I thought I thought, wasn't the thought I thought, and now I've forgotten the thought I thought I thought!

March 16, 2012 at 5:32 AM

Wonder how GANDHI would feel about the fact his name is so frequently misspelled...

March 16, 2012 at 1:40 PM

You can't see your potential if you're standing on it.

kragzy said:
March 16, 2012 at 2:15 PM

It's not a bargain if you don't need it.

dj1 said:
March 16, 2012 at 2:34 PM

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

March 16, 2012 at 2:39 PM

Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his moccasins. Of course, someone added to that - because then you're a mile away and you've got his moccasins. But the original resonates with me, and I live by it.

Xrosie said:
March 17, 2012 at 7:41 AM

My late dads two favourite quotes "do what you do do well" and "If you can't something nice about a person,shut up" And I try to live these sayings, 60 years afterwards.

March 17, 2012 at 9:48 AM

Imagination is more important than knowledge - Einstein

deeneecee said:
March 17, 2012 at 11:41 AM

"He who hesitates is lost". Followed by "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread".

no1llama said:
March 17, 2012 at 9:30 PM

"love thy neighbor, just don't get caught" Ok, so I know it's not very serious, but there are so many inspirational, deep, funny, meaningful quotes out there, I think it's a tall order to chose. It's a bit like trying to define a person by one statement they may or may not have actually made! I was taught that it was wrong to generalise as it created a lack of tolerance and encouraged bigots... I think this might apply to individuals also, I would hate to be remembered by only one thing that I may have said or written, I know I am so much more, and constantly evolving, so feel it would be a deep shame if we allowed history to be shaved down to the abridged version of the occasional one or two liner... How many words does it take to make certain that a concept is interpreted as it was intended to all audiences? I need all the facts to allow me to make an informed decision, and I also like to have the flexibility to still accept and process any new information, adding it to my earlier conclusion and being able to continue to evolve.. I think you can guess that I have a problem with being succinct... "The more the merrier", and not "less is more", ok, stopping now.

March 18, 2012 at 6:53 AM

My dear no1LLama Pressed for time, you couldn't write a shorter comment, right? I am with you.

daffydill said:
March 18, 2012 at 3:40 PM

To take no risks is the greatest risk of all.

cheekygs said:
March 18, 2012 at 7:51 PM

The heart has reasons which the reason cannot understand. Blaise Pascal. Very often I do things from the heart and then kick myself because my intellect takes over but it always turns out to be the right thing I have done.

Scootmond said:
March 18, 2012 at 9:22 PM

If I try to be like him, who wil be like me. This is supposedly a Jewish Proverb from a book of quotes I have. Whether is was siad this way or not, I love the sentiment

March 19, 2012 at 12:59 PM

'Have the courage to be yourself!' I was a teacher for 30 years and always had this on the wall. I hope I encouraged a few nonconformists.

luddite said:
March 22, 2012 at 11:02 AM

Sternvogel - he would probably be passively resistant.

pommyval said:
March 22, 2012 at 5:26 PM

My Granny used to say 'We can't all like the same thing, otherwise they'd all be after your grandfather'