US President Donald Trump was called out on March 16th for mistakenly citing the following as his favorite Irish proverb during a Saint Patrick’s Day eve reception: “Always remember to forget the friends that proved untrue, but never forget to remember those that have stuck by you.”
Many publications, including Quartz, pointed out that the “proverb” was actually part of a poem called “Remember to Forget” by Nigerian poet Albashir Adam Alhassa, according to the online site Poem Hunter. We were wrong. The line comes a poem that was circulating in American newspapers nearly a century ago. It is sometimes mistakenly quoted as an Irish proverb online.
This type of gaffe is not at all uncommon. Ironically, we had used the president’s error, which became our own, to illustrate the point of a forthcoming book: some of the most recited quotations are commonly misattributed. In Hemingway Didn’t Say That: The Truth Behind Familiar Quotations, the pseudonymous Garson O’Toole, a retired Floridian who runs the website Quote Investigator, will make you question any golden nugget of wisdom you thought you knew well.
O’Toole traces the histories of several quotes that are often misattributed, or whose meaning has shifted over decades or centuries, looking for the link between their precursors and what we are left with today. What becomes clear is that we seem to shape quotations—our mini moral lessons or philosophical lode stars—to suit our needs and the times.
Sometimes worthy ideas are tweaked and tweaked (by different people) in a game of telephone until they reach quotable perfection. Other times assigning an everyday truism to a great thinker adds weight to the observation. “You can take the exact same quotation and say it’s from Plato and it becomes a truth of humanity,” O’Toole tells Quartz, “but if you say it’s a comedian it comes out as funny.”
Here are some examples from the book:
Creative writing professors love to use this six-word short story to demonstrate Ernest Hemingway’s unique genius. According to O’Toole, however, there’s no proof that Hemingway actually said it, and if he did, it wasn’t all that original.
“There were actual classified ads that were very similar,” O’Toole says. In his book he elaborates: “The text of the heartrending very short story evolved over a period of decades, primarily in newspapers.”
In 1906, one Minnesota newspaper ad under the heading “Terse tales of the town” read: “For sale, baby carriage; never been used. Apply at this office.” Many other true stories of the same theme were printed in ads—carriages would be for sale and eventually a pair of shoes.
A Hemingway biographer claimed a newspaper syndicator, never named, recounted a story about Hemingway penning the short fiction as part of a bet between friends having lunch. We may never know if that’s true.
This piece of wisdom is commonly attributed to the Indian independence movement leader M.K. Gandhi, and it seems to succinctly summarize his pacifist views. The Gandhi family told The Yale Book of Quotations editor that they believe the quote should be attributed to Gandhi—but no one has ever been able to provide evidence that he said it.
One of Gandhi’s biographers used a close version of these words in his analysis of the Mahatma’s philosophy. In fact, the author, Louis Fisher, used the phrase twice in relation to Gandhi, in different books, but didn’t attribute the line to him in either one.
The quote references a line from Exodus in the Bible’s Old Testament, of course: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” (US president Donald Trump told a radio host last year that the Old Testament version is his favorite Bible verse.)
But in the New Testament, in Matthew, we’re told that Jesus disagreed. O’Toole quotes from Matthew (5:38-41): “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
Variations on that theme had been deployed by others—including a Canadian Parliamentarian arguing against capital punishment—before the mantra became associated with Gandhi.
Richard Bach, author of the popular 1970 novel Jonathan Livingston Seagull is usually connected to this overused maxim: “If you love something, let it go. If it returns, it’s yours; if it doesn’t, it never was.” But the passage doesn’t appear in Jonathan Livingston Seagull and O’Toole writes that he found “no substantiation that Bach created or used” this phrase.
The quotation is often used to suggest the importance of giving people their freedom (particularly in parenting and romance). On shareable images or motivational posters, it often appears next to an image of butterflies or birds fleeing a net or jar.
In 1951, O’Toole explains, a more literary version of the same principle appeared in “The Tyranny of Love,” a short story by a writer named Harry Kronman published in Esquire magazine.
“I mean, if you love something very much, you’ve got to go easy with it—give it some room to move around. If you try to hold it tight like that, it’ll always try to get away.”
Today’s iteration of the quote may have come from a college student. In 1969, an American professor named Jess Lair self-published a quotation in a book of writing that included samples from his students and one was much closer to what’s circulating now. O’Toole reports that the students had to write on index cards at the beginning of every class, and whatever they wrote didn’t have to be original, so it’s possible that a student made it up or copied it from someone else, or that it was already a saying people shared at that time.
Steve Jobs would have you believe that Pablo Picasso said this. The late founder of Apple twice told the world that he subscribed to the same belief, attributing the quote to Picasso in a newspaper story and during a televised interview.
O’Toole, however, believes the maxim was drawn from a line that had a very different message. In 1892, the author of a Gentleman’s Magazine article about plagiarism wrote: “The great poets imitate and improve; whereas small ones steal and spoil.”
So was it the small and not the great who steal?
According to O’Toole’s research, T.S. Eliot wrote a book of essays about 30 years later and changed its meaning to celebrate intellectual theft, when done properly: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
Other writers and musicians have been credited with the shorter adage that Jobs repeated, too, with “poets” replaced by “musician” or “artist,” for example.
I can’t think of a quotation that has outworn its welcome more than this one. We’re told that it’s a nugget from Ralph Waldo Emerson that urges us to pay more attention to our experiences than to achievements, and is often pronounced following a setback.
But O’Toole found the first precursor to this saying in “Sunday at Home: A family magazine for Sabbath reading” published in 1853. That publication told readers of its kids section that life “is a journey, not a rest” and that our time from cradle to grave is a passage to the promised land. The same notion—that life is merely a delivery vehicle for our trip to the afterlife—later appeared in other religious texts.
That said, Emerson did write a less easily quoted passage that’s closer but not identical in meaning to what is repeated today. I wish more people would use this, even if wouldn’t fit on a bumper sticker:
To finish the moment, to find the journey’s end in every step of the road, to live the greatest number of good hours, is wisdom.
Today this quotation serves as a spur to self-professed “nasty women,” and a warning to women who believe they can achieve greatness without breaking any social rules. In popular culture folklore, presented as fact, it is spoken by the iconoclastic film star Marilyn Monroe.
“The modern interpretation, I think, highlights the value of protest and civil-disobedience, i.e., making history,” says O’Toole in an email to Quartz. But that wasn’t where this quotation started. The historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich first wrote these words in an essay in 1976, but her point wasn’t so much to glorify those who break social convention. “She was interested in the lives of women who were well-behaved,” says O’Toole. “She believed that their lives were important and should be recorded.”
The book dissects the history of dozens of phrases, including beloved quotations attributed to Maya Angelou, Bill Gates, Anton Chekhov, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Jon Stewart. Often the most repeated phrases are found to originate with a journalist, playwright, screenwriter, lesser-known comedian, or even a student. Sometimes it’s an anonymous saying or Chinese proverb grabbed out of the air by a celebrity, which “increases its popularity and transmissibility,” says O’Toole.
Why does O’Toole do all this sleuthing? Because he’d like history to give credit where credit is due, he says—and now that we have the digital tools to set things straight, why not? “I also find it entertaining to see how the quotations have changed over time,” he says.
“There’s nothing wrong with getting quotations wrong,” he adds. “When I’m on Twitter. I see people using quotes wrong all the time.” He never corrects people because, he says, “that would be obnoxious.”
Despite the hazards involved, people will probably never stop quoting famous or poetic lines. As British writer Dorthy L. Sayers (allegedly) said, “It saves original thought.”