Quoth the Pepper…

It is nothing but coincidence that today is an election day in this country and the subject of this essay is lies… I think.

Bogus quotes are everywhere to be found on the Internet. For some strange reason, people will find a saying they like, but, when repeating it, attribute it to someone different than the person who actually said or wrote it — someone like Albert Einstein or Marilyn Monroe, just to name a couple of more popular attribution magnets. The psychology of what drives people to do this (originally) is fascinating.

There is also the phenomenon of people changing actual quotes into something they think reads better, continuing to attribute their (sometimes vastly) different words to the original inspirer.

Many writers make no effort to discover whether or not any quote they read (and then re-quote) is genuine. I think this says more about the ability words have to convince us than any thoughts about a particular political leader or movement might do. We read it somewhere, so, it must be true.

I have found, over the years, that people never said things I had long thought they said: false quotes are both pervasive and pernicious. Reflecting on it, I found myself asking, “How do I make sure, when using quotes, that they are genuine?”

There are any number of articles on the subject of phony quotes; most of them refer you to sites who check the validity of quotes. However, I decided on a different method for me, which can be summarized in one sentence:

“Never use a quote that you didn’t directly read from the original source.”

I’ll give an example of the first time I employed this principle. I had frequently encountered the following saying, attributed to Charles Dickens:

“A loving heart is the truest wisdom.”

The suspicious thing about this quote is, I’d never seen it in any of Dickens’ works, and I was pretty sure I had read them all. When the exact work a quote comes from is never mentioned, it’s a tell — there’s probably something wrong with the quote.

I couldn’t find the quote, as written, in any of Dickens’ works, using the fact I have them in searchable form to my advantage. However, the following passage, from Chapter 9 of David Copperfield, comes close:

“Daybreak had come, and the sun was rising, when she said to me, how kind and considerate Mr. Copperfield had always been to her, and how he had borne with her, and told her, when she doubted herself, that a loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom, and that he was a happy man in hers.”

Excerpt From: Charles Dickens. “David Copperfield.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/tnoDw.l

This is in a passage where David is learning of the death of his mother, and the words are in the mouth of David’s even earlier deceased father, as repeated by his mother, then repeated to him by his nurse.

At any rate, it seems evident Dickens didn’t say the words attributed to him as they are normally stated.

Printing that here will stop exactly no one from using the quote, and continuing to attribute it to Dickens.

Let me contrast that last quote with one that I do remember reading in it’s original context, namely, this famous quote from the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Excerpt From: George Santayana. “The Life of Reason.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/NyuDw.l

What is interesting about this quote is how it’s used or commonly understood. It’s typically thought to mean that people must study history, or they will inevitably repeat the mistakes their historical predecessors made. However, here is the quote, in context, in a section labeled “Continuity necessary to progress.”:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In the first stage of life the mind is frivolous and easily distracted; it misses progress by failing in consecutiveness and persistence. This is the condition of children and barbarians, in whom instinct has learned nothing from experience.”

Excerpt From: George Santayana. “The Life of Reason.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/NyuDw.l

In other words, Santayana is talking about the development of human beings, and how their improvement or progress involves the balance of being able to remember what has happened to them before and taking in new experiences to compare with.

Note also that the quote is often slightly misquoted, with the most common distortion introducing the word “history” into the (mis)quote:

“Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

Which alters the original quote to better fit the misinterpreted meaning.

(To be fair, Santayana is an unusually poetic writer for a philosopher, and his works are full of sentences and phrases which suggest much beyond the actual argument being advanced.)

People will lie when it suits them, and yes, you can quote me on that.

People love to join in a chorus when the music sounds good, and don’t bother to ascertain whether or not the words they are singing make any sense or are rooted in any kind of truth: the music itself is all the truth they need. They don’t stop at falsely attributing single sentences, they make up whole speeches or stories and place them into the mouths (or pens) of people who never spoke or wrote them, the logic being – and it seems faultless, given human psychology – the more audacious the lie is, the more likely people are to believe it.

If you see a quote with an attribution that strikes you, you might do the first thing many other people do, which is, search the Internet for the quote. The bogus Dickens quote, mentioned earlier, returns 33,000 citations, according to the Googles. That’s 33,000 reinforcements that he must have said it, in our minds, not 33,000 examples of shoddy research.

If casual lies, like misquotes, so easily seep into our consciousness, imagine how many other lies have done so.

“Another possible way to avoid using false quotes is to use your own thoughts.”

– Me, about ten seconds ago


For Nano Poblano this year, I’m trying a prose post a day instead of my usual work in poetry. Thanks for reading. – S.B.


Author: Sibelius Russell

Sibelius Russell (a/k/a/ Owen "Beleaguered" Servant) lives a life of whimsical servitude -- whatever that means.

2 thoughts on “Quoth the Pepper…”

  1. I like quotes not so much for the person who said or supposedly said it, but because of what it says..does that make sense? However, I do agree with what you have said and now I’m wondering how many “quotes” I’ve quoted that wasn’t really the true quote! O.O

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply if you want. It's your life.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.