The Dark Side of Quotations
I like to collect and share quotations. They can provide germs of wisdom and humour from great and some not so great thinkers. Lately, though, I’ve discovered a “dark side” to quotations.
- That Isn’t What They Said
- The Flypaper Effect
- Quote Mining
- Invented Quotations
- Translation Errors
- Recommended Source
That Isn’t What They Said
“I didn’t say everything I said” - Yogi Berra
There are many ways in which a quotation can become twisted, but they all produce a quotation that doesn’t represent what the person actually said. Many times the meaning is completely turned around from the original intent.
While some of these distortions are the result of honest mistakes, they are often deliberate attempts to bolster a political or personal position. Apt quotations from a recognized authority carry weight with many people.
The Flypaper Effect
“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice,
there is.” - Yogi Berra or Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut or maybe Albert Einstein
Ralph Keyes in his book Nice Guys Finish Seventh: False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations talks of “the flypaper effect,” where a good quotation from a relative unknown becomes attributed to a more famous person. This often happens when someone remembers a quote, but not its source, and their confusion leads them to attribute to quote to some one they do remember. This is generally not a deliberate deception. It can also be deliberate attempt to mislead, since it implies the endorsement of the famous person when they may not even agree with the sentiment of the quote.
It appears that while Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut was the original source for the quote above, it can be found attributed to many different people on the internet. Most people know who Yogi Berra is, but few have ever heard of van de Snepscheut.
“I am quite conscious that my speculations run quite beyond the bounds of
true science.” – Charles Darwin
This is when actual quotations are used, but are presented out of context or edited to alter the meaning. Quote mining appears most common in the evolution/creation debate, although I found an example where Hillary Clinton was a victim of quote mining.
The quote above is often used to “prove” that Darwin didn’t think his Theory of Evolution was true. However, it is taken from a letter on a related subject and the quote does not refer to his theory of evolution. An example where edits can be quite extensive can be found in the movie No Intelligence Allowed.
“How I wish I had not expressed my theory of evolution as I have done”
- Charles Darwin
Often, when people can’t find an appropriate quotation, they are tempted to make up a quote, and some succumb to that temptation. Samuel Goldwyn, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx and George Carlin are frequent targets of invented quotations. For the most part, the misquotations of Samuel Goldwyn were made in jest. Hitler and Marx are usually quoted to discredit an idea by association with them.
Elizabeth Reid, Lady Hope claimed to have witnessed Darwin make the quotation above, but it is almost certainly an invention. http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2009/03/31/darwins-deathbed-conversion-legend
"The ends justify the means." - Niccolò Machiavelli
Many quotations were originally in other languages, and often the meaning can be distorted in the translation. A more literal translation, of "The ends justify the means" would be "One must consider the final result." (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations) This is a significant change in meaning. The quotation is frequently used to justify illegal or immoral behaviour when the goal is noble. The more literal translation does not provide a blanket justification to bad behaviour.
I found this book very useful in preparation of this article:
Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions