The Internet is full of people seeking and sharing useful information. Yet, news stories are subject to constant skepticism — the political views and motivations of legitimate news outlets are under constant scrutiny.
But quotations are for some reason not particularly scrutinized at all. In fact, history is full of misattributions. George Washington never said I cannot tell a lie. The character Sherlock Holmes never said “Elementary, my dear Watson.” And George W. Bush never said “Strategery” — that was Will Ferrell doing a Bush impression.
The Quote Investigator (nom de plume Garson O’Toole) has been tracking and uncovering falsely attributed or apocryphal quotations for years and has of course caught the POTUS misquoting.
But using quotations is seductive. They are lovely for conveying an idea, not only on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, LinkedIn, and business presentations — but occasionally these misattributed quotes turned memes are quoted in media, creating some version of a Mandella effect where a person has been misquoted so often saying something it is taken as fact.
I have been subjected to dozens of sales presentations where the corporation presenting implied comparisons between their own dedication to excellence and Michael Jordan.
Well, of course, corporations want to be compared to the man that is probably the best basketball player of all time.
But when not quoting sports stars, we do love quoting the “founding fathers”.
I am no scholar of history, but anyone who has read any letters (or real quotations by Jefferson, or the Declaration of Independence) is going to feel some dissonance attributing this to Jefferson. The concept of Mental Health started with the Mental Hygiene movement in 1908. Jefferson died famously on the same day as John Adams, July 4, 1826, both “on the Fourth of July.” So no one was talking about the “right mental attitude” for at least another 82 years and even if Jefferson had, he wouldn’t have talked about it that way.
Also, CheckYourFacts has confirmed the Jefferson quote is not real.
To find something reliably authentic, I pulled up the original text of his collected letters. Jefferson did say to John Adams in a letter in 1812:
“But, while writing to you, I lose the sense of these things, in the recollection of antient times, when youth and health made happiness out of every thing. I forget for a while the hoary winter of age, when we can think of nothing but how to keep ourselves warm, and how to get rid of our heavy hours until the friendly hand of death shall rid us of all at once.”
Does that sound like “nothing can stop the right mental attitude”? Sound bites weren’t even a thing then, stop trying to make them a thing in 1812.
There are real quotations out there — take the time to find them.
I pulled these mostly incorrect quotations with quick Google searches. Which goes to show you need to look deeper. Take the time to find the first-hand sources. Don’t take 100 appearances of that same attributed quotes as being authentication — look for appearances in reliable articles or better yet check against the original source.
The Michael Jordan quote seems to be real — something he said in his documentary, “The Last Dance” — but it took several pages of search results (including at least 6 quote sites that shared the quote but didn’t provide citations) to find a source that could verify the quote.
Most misquotes come from lack of time— beleaguered writers find something that works online and drop it into their presentation, proposal, or article without bothering to fact check. If it has a picture of the notable person next to it, it must be real, right?
Like quoting Winston Churchill, a complicated man but a man who definitely has practical experience fighting fascists.
According to Snopes, this quote incorrectly attributed to the former British prime minister was spread on social media by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Perhaps the Governor didn’t do his due diligence — or perhaps he was feeling a particular way about Anti-Fascists and just looked for a historical character to support his sentiment.
In my experience, no one is more misquoted than the venerable GOAT of the English language:
I love the Shakespeare quote above because it sounds more like Will Wheaton than William Shakespeare, to anyone who has ever read any Shakespeare.
Having studied Shakespeare for several years while I got my MFA in playwrighting, read all of his 37 plays, some of his 154 Sonnets, and quite a bit of literary analysis — I can say with some minor authority, it really does not sound like him. For one thing, the meter is way off. I don’t expect everything he said to be in iambic pentameter, but a lot of it was (anything from his plays and sonnets, which is the bulk of the writing we have from old Bill).
It turns out of course that Shakespeare did not say this. It seems to have been taken from a poem that was purportedly written by William Arthur Ward, an American author best known for his inspirational maxims.
Proceed with Care
People often use quotations as a way to agree with themselves and suggest that great minds agree with them. It’s an effective rhetorical device and I use it myself, though I prefer to use quotations to introduce a theme. (As the Shaw quote at the top of this section — though it is unconfirmed whether Shaw said this. It was circulated in his lifetime, so the odds are better than average that he did say it.)
A quote can be used to open a door to a set of ideas, open a discussion, raise a question, or as the exclamation point to slam dunk your point home.
So please do use quotes in your work — but use them with care. Use them sparingly and they can be powerful additions to your writing. But use them from a first-hand source. Look up the original text. Or try quoting from something you have actually read and means something to you — that will give your work the strength of conviction.
Justin Roberti has a background in media and fine arts and has been writing and doing PR/marketing for over 20 years for Fortune 500 and startups in media, gaming, consumer tech, mobile tech, fintech, and blockchain. He is the PR Director for blockchain agency Zage.io.
This story has appeared on Hackernoon.