Notable Quotables

Louis Menand in the New Yorker:
Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Neither Ingrid Bergman nor anyone else in “Casablanca” says “Play it again, Sam”; Leo Durocher did not say “Nice guys finish last”; Vince Lombardi did say “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” quite often, but he got the line from someone else. Patrick Henry almost certainly did not say “Give me liberty, or give me death!”; William Tecumseh Sherman never wrote the words “War is hell”; and there is no evidence that Horace Greeley said “Go west, young man.” Marie Antoinette did not say “Let them eat cake”; Hermann Göring did not say “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my gun”; and Muhammad Ali did not say “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Gordon Gekko, the character played by Michael Douglas in “Wall Street,” does not say “Greed is good”; James Cagney never says “You dirty rat” in any of his films; and no movie actor, including Charles Boyer, ever said “Come with me to the Casbah.” Many of the phrases for which Winston Churchill is famous he adapted from the phrases of other people, and when Yogi Berra said “I didn’t really say everything I said” he was correct.
So what? Should we care? Quotable quotes are coins rubbed smooth by circulation. What Michael Douglas did say in “Wall Street” was “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” That was not a quotable quote; it needed some editorial attention, the consequence of which is that everyone distinctly remembers Michael Douglas uttering the words “Greed is good” in “Wall Street,” just as everyone distinctly remembers Ingrid Bergman uttering the words “Play it again, Sam” in “Casablanca,” even though what she really utters is “Play it, Sam.” When you watch the movie and get to that line, you don’t think your memory is wrong. You think the movie is wrong.
“For lack of a better word” spoils a nice quotation—the speech is about calling a spade a spade, so there is no better word—and “Play it again, Sam” is somehow more affecting than “Play it, Sam.” But not all emendations are improvements. What Leo Durocher actually said (referring to the New York Giants baseball team) was “The nice guys are all over there, in seventh place.” The sportswriters who heard him telescoped (the technical term is “piped”) the quote because it made a neater headline. They could have done a better job of piping. “Nice guys finish seventh” is a lot cleverer (and also marginally more plausible) than the non-utterance that gave immortality to Leo Durocher. But Leo Durocher doesn’t own that quotation; the quotation owns Leo Durocher, the way a parasite sometimes takes over the host organism. Quotations are in a perpetual struggle for survival. They want people to keep saying them. They don’t want to die any more than the rest of us do. And so, whenever they can, they attach themselves to colorful or famous people. “Nice guys finish last” profits by its association with a man whose nickname was the Lip, even if the Lip never said it, just as “Winning isn’t everything” has a higher market valuation because of the mental image people have of Vince Lombardi. No one has a mental image of Henry (Red) Sanders, the coach who used the phrase first.
The adaptive mechanism benefits both parties. The survival of the quotation helps insure the survival of the person to whom it is misattributed. The Patrick Henry who lives in our heads and hearts is the man who said “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Apparently, the line was cooked up by his biographer William Wirt, a notorious embellisher, who also invented Henry’s other familiar quotation, “If this be treason, make the most of it!” But a Patrick Henry who never said “Give me liberty, or give me death!” or “If this be treason, make the most of it!,” a Patrick Henry without a death wish, is just not someone we know or care about. His having been said to have said what he never said is a condition of his being “Patrick Henry.” Certain sayings, like “It’s déjà vu all over again,” are Berra-isms, whether Yogi Berra ever said them or not. “Je ne suis pas marxiste,” Karl Marx once complained. Too late for that. Like Yogi, he was the author of a discourse, and he lives as long as it does.
Karl Marx has thirteen quotations (plus eight for which he shares credit with Friedrich Engels, who, interestingly, never felt it necessary to say “Je ne suis pas engeliste”) in the compendious, enjoyable, and expensive “Yale Book of Quotations” (Yale; $50), edited by Fred Shapiro. Groucho Marx (no relation) has fifty-one quotations. The big winner is William Shakespeare, with four hundred and fifty-five, topping even the Yahwist and his co-authors, the wordsmiths who churned out the Bible but managed to come up with only four hundred quotable passages. Mark Twain has a hundred and fifty-three quotations, Oscar Wilde a hundred and twenty-three. Ambrose Bierce edges out Samuel Johnson in double overtime by a final score of a hundred and forty-four to a hundred and ten. And Woody Allen has forty, beating out William Words-worth, Rudyard Kipling, and both Roosevelts.
Read the rest of the article here.

No comments: