Honest Abe didn’t say that. ‘Quotation inflation’ is out of control.
Published 12:18 pm Friday, May 7, 2021
When I returned to The Jessamine Journal last year after 15 years away, I found my old office looked the same as I had left it. One thing I was surprised to see was a sticker I had attached to the inbox on the door that said: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
The words were attributed to George Orwell, but they were not his words. They were an example of what has been called “quotation inflation,” the misattribution of a quote by an anonymous or almost unknown person to someone more famous to give it more heft.
Orwell, an English journalist and novelist who devoted his life to truth, would not be pleased.
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According to the Quote Investigator, a blog by Garson O’ Toole that seeks out the truth of quotations, the earliest example researchers could find of someone attributing those words to Orwell was in 1984 in a Canadian periodical. It’s likely based on something Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote in 1919: “To tell the truth, to arrive together at the truth, is a communist and revolutionary act.” It’s ironic that it’s misattributed to Orwell, a fierce anti-Communist best known for his allegories about Russian tyranny.
I began investigating the phenomenon of fake quotes a few years ago when I was watching the movie “The Big Short,” about the housing market collapse of 2008. At the beginning of the film was a quote attributed to Mark Twain that I knew for sure was by Will Rogers: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” So I looked it up, and it wasn’t by either one; it was by a guy neither you nor I had never heard of, Josh Billings, who published it in 1874.
Since then, one of the things I’ve learned as a copy editor (a journalist who reads and corrects other writers’ material) is that almost all famous quotations writers include are fake, unbeknownst to them.
Nigel Reese, a quote scholar, named this attribution of quotations by ordinary people to famous people “Churchillian drift,” because Winston Churchill is one to whom so often fake quotes are attributed.
Here’s an example: “If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35, you have no brain.” According to International Churchill Society, there is no record of the British statesman having ever said it. And as Paul Addison of the University of Edinburgh points out, it wouldn’t have made sense for Churchill to have said it because he was a member of the Conservative Party at 25 and a Liberal at 35!
One of the most comical quotes attributed to Churchill is, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Sir Winston never said it, but country music star Rodney Adkins included the line in a hit song.
Fake quotes have become a big problem in an era of social media and hyper-partisan politics.
Like Churchill, Abraham Lincoln is often the alleged perpetrator.
Years ago, I came across a series of quotes attributed to Lincoln that sounded out of character based on what I had read about him. It said you cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift, cannot strengthen the weak by tearing down the strong, cannot establish sound security on borrowed money and so on and so forth. It turns out that it was by John Henry Boetcker, who, according to Snopes.com, was the director of the pro-employer Citizens Industrial Alliance in 1916.
One explanation of how this list got attributed to Lincoln was that someone published a handbill with a list of Lincoln quotes on one side and Boetcker’s maxims on the other, and the two sets of sayings got mixed up in people’s minds.
My favorite supposed quote by Lincoln that I see on Facebook memes all the time is, “The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you can never know if they are genuine.”
There’s more truth in that statement than in most memes, and even though he didn’t say it, I think Honest Abe would agree.
“You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
Lincoln is supposed to have said this in a speech in Illinois on Sept. 2, 1858, but in 1905, the Chicago Tribune and a Brooklyn, N.Y., paper were unable to find any written evidence of it.
If he did say it, he didn’t originate it. It’s from a work of apologetics by the French Protestant Jacques Abbadie, published in 1684.
No matter who said it, it’s more pertinent than ever.