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Posts Tagged "Penn Jillette":

False Quotation Attributions and the Collective Unconscious

By now you will probably have seen the explanation by Megan McArdle in ‘The Atlantic’, (thank-you, Simon Sarmiento for the link):

Anatomy of a Fake Quotation
“May 3 2011 Yesterday, I saw a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. fly across my Twitter feed: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” – Martin Luther King, Jr”. I was about to retweet it, but I hesitated. It didn’t sound right. After some Googling, I determined that it was probably fake, which I blogged about last night.

Here’s the story of how that quote was created… Jessica Dovey… a 24-year old Penn State graduate who now teaches English to middle schoolers in Kobe, Japan, posted a very timely and moving thought on her Facebook status, and then followed it up with the Martin Luther King Jr. quote. “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” MLK Jr. At some point, someone cut and pasted the quote, and–for reasons that I, appropriately chastened, will not speculate on–stripped out the quotation marks. Eventually, the mangled quotation somehow came to the attention of Penn Jillette, of Penn and Teller fame. He tweeted it to his 1.6 million Facebook followers, and the rest was internet history. Twenty-four hours later, the quote brought back over 9,000 hits on Google. The quote also went viral on Twitter, and since the 140-character limit precluded quoting the whole thing, people stripped it down to the most timely and appropriate part: the fake quote.”

The Bible, Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and now Martin Luther King Jr all seem to have quotations which strike a chord with us attributed to them. Somehow the ‘collective unconscious’ is not satisfied with a good quotation which comes from an unknown person, particularly an unknown contemporary. When Oscar Wilde is said to have commented on a remark he particularly relished ‘I wish I had said that’, James Whistler added ‘You will, Oscar, you will!’

The one that has always bothered me is the ‘Desiderata’, printed on endless tea towels and proudly displayed in many downstairs loos. This is usually attributed to a nun, buried in a Baltimore church in 1692, but the wording cannot possibly have been seventeenth century. For example:

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be.”

I have now found the explanation at the splendid website, which I thoroughly recommend if you are the sort of person, like me, who is stupidly capable of spending hours in the middle of the night worrying about this sort of thing.

“The common myth is that the Desiderata poem was found in a Baltimore church in 1692 and is centuries old, of unknown origin. Desiderata was in fact written around 1920 (although some say as early as 1906), and certainly copyrighted in 1927, by lawyer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945) based in Terre Haute, Indiana. The Desiderata myth began after Reverend Frederick Kates reproduced the Desiderata poem in a collection of inspirational works for his congregation in 1959 on church notepaper, headed: ‘The Old St Paul’s Church, Baltimore, AD 1692’ (the year the church was founded). Copies of the Desiderata page were circulated among friends, and the myth grew, accelerated particularly when a copy of the erroneously attributed Desiderata was found at the bedside of deceased Democratic politician Adlai Stevenson in 1965.

I think these all come into the category of  ‘Si non e vero, e ben trovato’ or, freely translated: ‘If it’s not true, it bloody well ought to be’.

Does anyone have any similar quotations falsely attributed to add?


Post-script. ComRes published a survey on 13 May showing how many phrases from the bible are mis-attributed: “In one instance, an equal proportion (more than one in ten) believe that the phrase “a drop in the bucket” originates from Tony Blair (12%), Shakespeare (14%) or Charles Dickens (12%)”.

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