[Ads-l] Request for Modern Examples of Misquotation

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Mon Dec 21 06:52:15 UTC 2015

My favorite modern misquotation is from Boswell's Life of Johnson. Boswell delivers himself of some conventional political platitudes, and Johnson tells him: "My dear friend, clear your mind of cant. You may talk as other people do: you may say to a man, 'Sir, I am your most humble servant.' You are not his most humble servant. … You may talk in this manner; it is a mode of talking in Society; but don't think foolishly."

In recent years the first sentence of Johnson’s reproach has acquired an apostrophe in its last word, as “Clear your mind of can’t," and now enjoys a second life as a slogan on inspirational posters featuring pictures of triumphant athletes, mountain climbers and the like. (See http://tinyurl.com/j7me92s) 

Has so minimal an alteration of a quotation ever yielded a sentiment so antipathetic to its original sense? 


> Date: Fri, 18 Dec 2015 15:31:34 -0500> From: adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
> Subject: Request for Modern Examples of Misquotation
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
> Subject:      Request for Modern Examples of Misquotation
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> The book I am currently composing will include a discussion of the
> genesis of misquotations, and a variety of conjectural mechanisms will
> be presented.
> Do you, dear reader, know of any examples of misquotation that were in
> some distinctive way facilitated by modern communication networks,
> social networks, and/or the manipulation of electronic text?
> Note: The information being gathered here may be placed into the book.
> For example, one modern form of misattribution is engendered by
> twitter. When a well-known figure retweets a message from a
> lesser-known person the message is sometimes reassigned to the
> retweeter. The authorship of the following statement was reassigned to
> the award-winning science fiction writer William Gibson after he
> retweeted it:
> Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self esteem, first
> make sure you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.
> This episode was discussed on the Quote Investigator website here:
> http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/10/25/diagnose/
> The message from Gibson was not deceptive. A careful reader who
> examined the retweet would have been able to determine that the
> message did not originate with Gibson. The twitter handle of another
> person was displayed together with the tweet. Indeed, the retweet
> mechanism was designed to preserve information about the source of a
> tweet.
> However, another behavior occurs on twitter which I will call
> "lifting" tweets. To "lift" a tweet one copies the tweet text and
> tweets it again while giving no indication of the original source of
> the tweet. Arguably, this is a modern form of plagiarism.
> If you, dear reader, know of any interesting examples of misquotations
> (via retweets or lifting) in the twittersphere please let me know
> on-list or off-list.
> Here is another example of a modern misattribution: I am currently
> researching a quotation that has been incorrectly ascribed to the
> prominent painter Frida Kahlo. The statement was first distributed
> anonymously via the website PostSecret in 2008, I believe. The words
> were superimposed on artwork that displayed an image of Kahlo and that
> probably induced the misattribution.
> Garson

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