Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Hillfinger quotes

I propose a term - "the Hillfinger" - for a false celebrity quotation.

Terms already exist (misquotations, spurious quotations) but I think it needs something more eccentric (like the "mondegreen" for misheard song lyrics, and the "Mountweazel" - see Mountweazels and other fictions - for deliberate copyright traps in maps). Why "Hillfinger"? Because a false celebrity quotation is a fake designer label product, akin to the fake designer products imitating, say, Tommy Hilfiger jeans that are given away by misspellings like "Hillfinger".

I hadn't realised until yesterday how major the phenomenon is, during discussion at a Language Log thread, Did Plato say this?. This concerned a quotation, found in many variants, generally credited to Plato:

The wise talk because they have something to say; fools talk because they have to say something

Extensive searching finds no such attribution. Quite by coincidence, Mrs Ray asked me about an alleged Gandhi quotation:

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

and this morning the Language Log thread raised another, this allegedly by Ruskin:

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort"

Same problem. Maire Smith wrote there: "I've been looking for a source for over a year now and haven't found a thing".

Hillfingers are astonishingly rife. Arnold Zwicky, who raised the subject at LL said "There's a huge tradition of folk quotation, almost entirely removed from scholarship". Faith, commenting, said: "There are a million of these things and librarians spend our days trying to debunk them", citing the Jefferson Library's Spurious Quotes page, the Institute for Intercultural Studies page about its own motto, which even they accept probably wasn't said by Margaret Mead, and the Plato FAQ showing the "Only the dead have seen the end of war" (quoted in Black Hawk Down) also to be apocryphal. Here's another one: Lincoln never said that by Thomas F. Schwartz at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency site.

For writers, a simple rule to follow is: even if it's in a dictionary of quotations, don't quote unless you've actually verified it's in the work cited. Otherwise, you may easily be propagating a Hillfinger.

As to the quotations mentioned above, again it's feasible for anyone these days to use Google Books to trace quotation origins. Just use the "text1" "text2" date=yyyy-yyyy format or similar, bearing in mind the possibility of variants, to search on key phrases within a date bracket (e.g. wise "say something" "something to say" date:1900-2008. By an iterative search, adjusting dates, you find where a quotation took off. On that basis:

Wise men talk because they have something to say; fools, because they would like to say something.

Via collective search at Language Log: first appeared in 1903 credited to Anon in Proverbial Wisdom: Proverbs, Maxims and Ethical Sentences, of Interest to All Classes of Men by Abram N. Coleman, and credited to Plato in A Dictionary of Thoughts: Being a Cyclopedia of Laconic Quotations from the Best Authors of the World, Both Ancient and Modern by Tryon Edwards, 1908. Perhaps evolved from a statement in Elements of Rhetoric, Richard Whately, 1858.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

There's no traceable atttribution to Gandhi for this one, beloved of counter-culture and alternative medicine proponents. It became popular post-2000, but the oldest modern quote is in the 1993 Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, which cites a variant to the Labour politician Tony Benn ("First they ignore you, then they say you're mad, then dangerous, then there's a pause and then you can't find anyone who disagrees with you"). Then there is a sole quote for 1914: "First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you". Guess who? Not Gandhi but an American trade union speech: General Executive Board Report and Proceedings [of The] Biennial Convention, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1914.

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of intelligent effort"

As Maire Smith said, not Ruskin. It appears in many variants, but the general expansion in this Hillfinger tracks to the 1940s on the American industrial-technical circuit.

The Internet is a major factor in the propagation of Hillfingers, mainly through the many sites such as QuoteDB or BrainyQuote that offer online quotes of unknown provenance, with no mechanism for dispute or correction. Probably most of these get their data from the open source user-contributed Wikiquote. Its brief - see What is Wikiquote? - explicitly includes the aim of accuracy via research ("Where possible, we try to cite sources: preferably those in which the quotation first appears, otherwise notable attribution of the quotations. We try to find those quotes which are misattributed, clearly label them and research how the misattribution came about"). The reality is, unfortunately, that people just add quotes indiscriminately. Wikiquote's Gandhi page, for instance, has a long "unsourced" section with little sign of analysis, despite the existence of an excellent site, Epigrams from Gandhiji, where S. R. Tikekar gives checkable origin data for a large corpus of Gandhi quotes. (There's a project for someone).

26 November 2009: the italicised section above is now outdated. I'm pleased to see that Wikiquote has more or less formalised rules that unsourced quotes arent permitted: see the new post, In praise of Wikiquote.

- Ray

Addendum, Nov 29th 2008. A further exercise for the reader: track down attribution for the Gandhi quotation cited in this Prince Charles lecture.

It was a question from a newspaper correspondent back in the 1930s that drew from Mahatma Gandhi one of his pithiest responses. During his visit to Britain he was asked what he thought of Western Civilisation, to which he replied, "it would be a very good idea."

Of course it's generally attributed, but citations never say which newspaper, and a look at Google Books finds no instances of the story until the late 1960s, two decades after Gandhi's death and after he had become a countercultural icon.

Addendum: see Tracking bee story for a Hillfinger attributed to Einstein.

Addendum 2: Unreal Nature just cited a New Yorker article, Notable Quotables by Louis Menand, reviews the Yale Book of Quotations, discussing in detail the phenomenon of misquotation (it concentrates on mutation for maximum pithiness rather than misattribution). See also Looking at Language: Get the Quote Right!, an article on the same topic by Fred R. Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations. This is a particularly good source; any credible book of quotations should cite exactly where the quotation came from. One the other side of the coin, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (Paul F. Boller, John H. George, Oxford University Press US, 1989) looks good too.

- Ray

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