On the Misattribution of Quotations

Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory.  

— some Italian guy whose name I can’t remember and what’s it matter anyway?

For all my adult life I have found the misattribution of quotations to be a crime akin to plagiarism and theft, indeed, it is a sort of cultural vandalism, an appropriation committed against a usually dead author and the framing of another for the crime.

Social media have increased the incidence of the crime and my anxiety level over it.  When I come across a tweet in which Sinclair Lewis is given words about fascism, flags, and Bibles, or Voltaire defends to the death the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdou, or any of the countless other bits of pith that echo through cyberspace attached to the names of great wits who likely said no such thing, I grab a book of quotations, then another, and another. Then I google.  Rarely does it turn out that the attribution is correct.

For the record, Voltaire did not offer to defend to the death anyone’s right to say something:, those were his biographer’s words. And there is no record of Sinclair Lewis talking of fascism wrapped in a flag holding a Bible — and there is significant record of other people saying similar things.

Sure, we all make mistakes.  I confess I spent a number of years quietly convinced that “What tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive” was in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, never imagining it was from Scott’s Marmion.  Thankfully, I never exposed such an error on social media, and I was glad when I learned the truth.

Some will ask “what’s it matter?”

I’m sorry, but I think it important to accurately give credit to the persons of the past who had the wit, who spoke the words which capture our attention and express our feelings today.  Giving credit to the wrong person is little different from claiming the credit oneself.  If we don’t care to remember by name the giants upon whose shoulders we sit (to paraphrase Newton [1676] paraphrasing Bertrand of Chartres [12th Century], Burton [1621], et. al.), are we not remarkably tiny people?

Perhaps a reason I am so obsessive about the problem is that I was, as a young boy, framed for the theft of some of the most beautiful lines of English poetry.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, sometime before my fourteenth birthday I discovered the poetry of Yeats while reading Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe.  In those days, I had youthful dreams of becoming a science fiction author (instead, I came to live, as we all have, in the science fiction I read as a teen).  For an assignment in my grade 8 English class in late 1974 or early 1975, I wrote a short, two page science fiction story about a young man searching the universe for eternity for his lost sister.  My story closed with the young fellow recalling some lines from The Song of the Wandering Aengus by Yeats.  I clearly included attribution!

Some time later my teacher, Mrs. Whittaker, approached me with the news that the yearbook committee would be interested in printing my story in the literary section of the yearbook.

“Cool,” I thought.

“Okay,” I said.

At the end of the year I got my copy of the yearbook and was absolutely horrified.  My story was not in the yearbook.  Instead, there were Yeats’ lines, lines that had inspired Ray Bradbury, there they were, perpetually preserved, with my name attached as author!

I immediately crossed out my name and wrote “WBYeats” in an emphatic but kind of ragged scrawl. image The idea that someday, somewhere someone would think I had claimed Yeats’ words for my own has haunted me now for almost forty years.  I am horrified today as I look at the evidence.  In all seriousness, I feel like I have been framed for a truly heinous intellectual crime, a false accusation which hangs over every academic paper I’ve published and sullies those achievements with the guano of injustice.

For decades I’ve hidden this undeserved shame, but now I’ve finally come clean.

Despite what the nameless members of that yearbook committee accused me of, I never claimed the words of Yeats as my own! (Using Yeats’ line “Through hollow lands and hilly lands” in my poem “Elven-Maid: A Consciously Archaic Fragment” was an homage.)  Seriously, after forty years, it still hurts, and I’m still ashamed of an intellectual crime I was wrongly accused of committing.

However much the Twitterati may shrug it off, proper attribution is important!  For god’s sake, do your due diligence before you hit “retweet”!


A note of due diligence:

the epigram at the head of this post is from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, as “rendered into English” by Edward MacCurdy, London, 1954, p. 85.

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