Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Which quote is fake, and which is real?

1] "I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow." - Woodrow Wilson

2] “For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn.” - Ernest Hemingway

The first one, attributed to Woodrow Wilson, is real. A definitive source for it is the first footnote in a CIA web article by Mark E. Benbow titled All the Brains I can Borrow: Woodrow Wilson and Intelligence Gathering in Mexico, 1913-1915.

The second one, supposedly from Ernest Hemingway, is actually fake. Garson O’Toole discussed it in a 2013 web article at his Quote Investigator site, and it also is in his 2017 book titled Hemingway Didn’t Say That - the truth behind familiar quotations.
There are at least four other books that discuss the dubious nature of some quotations. In 1989 there was Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George’s They Never Said It a book of fake quotes, misquotes, and misleading attributions. In 1992 there was Ralph Keyes’s “Nice guys finish seventh”: False phrases, spurious sayings, and familiar misquotations. In 2006 there was another Ralph Keyes book, The Quote Verifier; who said what, where, and when and also Elizabeth Knowles’s What They Didn’t Say a book of misquotations.

Quotes have a bad habit of changing wildly, like in the parlor game we call Telephone in the U.S., but that Wikipedia calls Chinese whispers where:

“one person whispers a message to the ear of the next person through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group.”

The description of Mr. Keye’s 1992 book at Amazon notes some mechanisms for change:

“Freud may never have said ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ for example, but we certainly wish he had. Keyes calls this ‘the flypaper effect.’ Orphan quotes or comments by unknowns routinely gravitate to noted figures such as Churchill, Lincoln, or Twain. Other syndromes Keyes discusses include bumper stickering (condensing a long comment to make it more quotable), lip syncing (mouthing someone else's words as if they were your own), and retro-quoting (putting words in the mouths of famous dead people).”

I first used a slightly incorrect version of the Wilson quote in a June 14, 2008 blog post titled QUOTATIONS: “I use not only all the brains I have, but all I can borrow.”

The image of a shrug was adapted from one at Openclipart.


ch said...

When in doubt avoid quotations in speeches. It's too often either cliché 'filler' or an attempt to nab some glory from a far more distinguished person in the hope that a little of of sticks to the speaker.

My own full analysis of (mis)using quotations is here


That said, if you do choose to use a quotation, it's always wise to make sure that the quotation was actually said/written by the person you're citing.

Another good ploy is simply to make up something outlandish or faux-wise that helps move your speech along, and then attribute it to someone famous:

"One of Winston Churchill's best aphorisms summed up the fleeting nature of political glory:

The flag of fame flutters high. But in the stormy wind of events it is soon frayed and forlorn!"

No-one will know that you've made the quote up - they'll nod with approval and smile.

At some point in the speech you can tell them that you just made it up, to general mirth. And then continue elaborate on flags and glory and Churchill as you choose.

Richard I. Garber said...


Your article’s advice to disagree with a famous quote from Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address would likely get you lynched in some mainly Democratic areas of the U.S., where criticizing Roosevelt is the secular equivalent to blaspheming Muhammad in a Muslim country.

It would be far safer to get humorous (as you now suggest) and turn that quote into what Homer Simpson would have said:

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…beer itself!”

I also found it hilarious that you reposted your article to a LinkedIn group without editing it to explain that Reid Hoffman was the co-founder and billionaire CEO of LinkedIn!

And, I found it ludicrous that you only commented in January 2017 on Andrew Dlugan’s September 23, 2012 blog post at Six Minutes (since I did so the very next day).