When you're reaching for just the right phrase to describe a situation with intelligence and humour, it's helpful to turn to the great minds of the past. As Oscar Wilde once said, "a quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."
But wait a moment ... maybe it was Voltaire who said that?
In fact, neither Wilde or Voltaire ever used those exact words. The website Quote Investigator tracked the source down to Somerset Maugham, who once wrote: "She had a pretty gift for quotation, which is a serviceable substitute for wit."
This type of misquotation is not unusual. Many popular turns of phrase were said by someone other than the person to whom they are often attributed - and in some cases were never said at all. But how do you find the true source of a quotation?
"Elementary, my dear Watson." You ask someone in the know.
That's Fred Shapiro, the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. He's also the author of the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations and is a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary, as well as a librarian and lecturer at Yale Law School.
Shapiro spoke to CBC radio's The Sunday Edition about famous quotations. Here are some popular sayings that have been attributed to the wrong source or just plain misquoted, according to Shapiro's research:
- "Elementary, my dear Watson." Popularly attributed to Sherlock Holmes, but Holmes never said this. He DID say "elementary".. but he doesn't say "my dear Watson."
- "Golf is a good walk ruined." Popularly attributed to Mark Twain, but given it was first used in 1948, and Twain died in 1910, it seems unlikely to be the case. Read more about its origins here.
- "Wagner's music is not as bad as it sounds." Another one many attribute to Mark Twain, but he didn't say it.
- "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. It smells like victory." Many link this to actor Robert Duvall, in the film Apocalypse Now. What Duvall actually said was, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over I walked up. We didn't find one of them. Not one stinking body. That smell - you know, that gasoline smell - the whole hill smelled like victory."
- "I have nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears." Winston Churchill? No, he actually said: "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."
- "I disapprove of what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it." Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet), right? Well, no. It was actually from a 1906 book by Evelyn Beatrice Hall called The Friends of Voltaire. It was written as a paraphrase of Voltaire's attitude, but he never said those words.
- "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." Many say these were the words of Sigmund Freud, but they first appeared in 1950, 11 years after he died.
- "The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax." It sounds like something Albert Einstein might have said, but there's no evidence that he ever actually did.
- "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." It sounds like classic Yogi Berra, but that quote actually has been found in newspapers going back to the early 1940s and is first attributed to an obscure woman in Montana.
- "I really didn't say everything I said." Yes, Yogi Berra really did say that one.
[Hear The Sunday Edition's full interview with Fred Shapiro by clicking the "Listen" link at the top-left of this story.]