Just words: Is it plagiarism, homage, or business as usual when public figures "forget" to footnote?

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Fri Feb 22 14:31:59 UTC 2008

I think it's useful to make a distinction between phrasing that is
communally used and phrasing that is associated with a particular
individual. The latter is potentially a more serious offense. The former
isn't an offense at all. (I'm not trying to make a political point here,
just an analytical one.)

No one accused Walter Mondale of plagiarism when he said, "where's the
beef?" in 1984. (Inept use of a popular cliché, perhaps, but not plagiarism.
While the phrase was originally from a Wendy's commercial, it had become a
popular catchphrase by the time Mondale cribbed it.) But eight years later
Joe Biden was knocked out of the race for failing to acknowledge Churchill
as a source of some of his words.

In this case, Obama ad-libbed a remark that is strikingly similar to that
used by Mass. Governor Deval Patrick in a speech some 18 months ago. Patrick
didn't mind and says he is happy to be feeding lines to a candidate he has

In this case, however, I think the words of T.S. Eliot apply: "Immature
poets imitate; mature poets steal."

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Margaret Lee
Sent: Friday, February 22, 2008 1:57 AM
Subject: Re: Just words: Is it plagiarism, homage, or business as usual when
public figures "forget" to footnote?

When Hillary Clinton first announced that she was running for the
Presidency, she said in her speech, "I'm in it to win it." She repeated
these words the other day after the most recent primaries; however, she
neglected to acknowledge that this phrase comes from the African American

  --Margaret Lee

Salikoko Mufwene <s-mufwene at UCHICAGO.EDU> wrote:
    Hillary Clinton’s publisher, Simon and Schuster, hired Barbara Feinman
Todd, who directs the journalism program at Georgetown University in
Washington, to ghostwrite her 1996 New York Times best seller, It Takes a
Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, a book whose on-tape version
won a Grammy for Clinton in 1997 and whose title is not her own words but an
homage to the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
(Although it was no secret that Feinman Todd ghosted the book, she's not
acknowledged in the credits.)

It takes a village to run a campaign, as well, and the modern version of
that village includes not just fund raisers, but also speech writers, media
advisors, press secretaries, spin doctors, money launderers, and even dirty
tricksters. It might include fact checkers, research assistants, and
librarians, but even if it does, their job is not to crank out footnotes,
because there’s no room for citations in a sound bite.


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Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English
University of Illinois

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--  **********************************************************  Salikoko S.
Mufwene                    s-mufwene at uchicago.eduu  Frank J. McLoraine
Distinguished Service Professor  University of Chicago
773-702-8531; FAX 773-834-0924  Department of Linguistics  1010 East 59th
Street  Chicago, IL 60637, USA
------------------------------------------------------------ The American
Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

Margaret G. Lee, Ph.D.
Professor of English & Linguistics
Department of English
Hampton University
Hampton, VA 23668
margaret.lee at hamptonu.edu   or   mlee303 at yahoo.com

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