The Vagueness Is All
I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said ‘Only fools use quotations.’ In fact, I know it wasn’t George Bernard Shaw who said that. I am merely following the custom adopted by so many who are called upon to speak or write. The names Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, or Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln (and for a period, not so long ago, Orson Welles) may be substituted for Shaw’s, but the form remains the same.
Notice particularly the use of ‘I think.’ This is inserted to give the speaker the air of a man who is familiar with everything worth quoting but does not wish to appear too effortlessly knowledgeable. In all probability the speaker had no idea that Shaw, Wilde, Churchill, Lincoln, Twain or Welles had ever said any such thing until, shortly before standing up to speak, he opened a dictionary of quotations. No matter. He decided to start with a quotation in order to lend his theme dignity and himself with a whiff of erudition. The choice of Shaw is instructive, however. He is an OK name to quote. So much so that even if G.B.S. never uttered anything remotely similar it is possible to get away with quoting remarks he never made.
Hence, Rees’s First Law of Quotation: ‘When in doubt, ascribe all quotations to George Bernard Shaw.’ The law’s first qualification is: ‘Except when they obviously derive from Shakespeare, the Bible or Kipling.’ The corollary is: ‘In time, all humorous remarks will be ascribed to Shaw whether he said them or not.’
Why should this be? People are notoriously lax about quoting and attributing remarks correctly, as witness an analogous process I shall call Churchillian Drift. The Drift is almost indistinguishable from the First Law, but there is a subtle difference. Whereas quotations with an apothegmatic feel are normally ascribed to Shaw, those with a more grandiose or belligerent tone are almost automatically credited to Churchill. All quotations in translation, on the other hand, should be attributed to Goethe (with ‘I think’ obligatory).
Shaw, Churchill, Wilde, Lincoln and Twain are, in fact, fixed in the popular mind as practically the sole source of witty and quotable sayings. But what is alarming is the way in which almost any remark not obviously tied to some other originator will one day find itself attributed to one of these five.
An item in the first of my Quote...Unquote books gave rise to an example of pseudo-Churchillian Drift which did not unusually involve any of the Big Five. I had included a remark noted down after seeing a performance of Alan Bennett’s play Forth Years On. I emphasize ‘noted down’ because it does not appear in the play’s printed text: ‘Sidney and Beatrice Webb two of the nicest people if ever there was one.’ Imagine my amusement when I came across this line, subsequently, in someone else’s anthology attributed to Arnold Bennett. Clearly, the second anthologist either misread his own handwriting or he was afflicted to an attack of Churchillian Drift. ‘Somehow’, he may have thought to himself, ‘this unfamiliar line needs to be ascribed to someone rather more venerable (and more dead) than Alan Bennett. What could be more appropriate than to stick it on Arnold Bennett (a contemporary of Shaw, Churchill, Wilde and Twain, to boot)?
Incidentally, quite how Orson Welles found his way into the pantheon, I’m not so sure. Because of his Falstaffian stature? In 1977, Kenneth Williams, the late comic actor, appeared on radio Quote...Unquote and told how Welles had said of Donny Osmond, then a prominent pop star, ‘He has Van Gogh’s ear for music.’ In fact it was Billy Wilder who had said this about Cliff Osmond an actor who appeared in a number of Wilder’s films and had then been asked to sing for the first time. But behold the process at work: Welles is still, to the general public, a better known film director than Wilder; Donny Osmond is much better known than poor Cliff.
Having written all this, I am only too aware that I am open to Rees’s Second Law of Quotation: ‘However sure you are that you have attributed a quotation correctly, an earlier source will be pointed out to you.’ For example, in that first Quote...Unquote book (1978) I also stated that Somerset Maugham took the title of his novel Cakes and Ale from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In no time at all, I received a letter from a reader pointing out that the phrase occurs in a papyrus dated c 1,000-900 BC: ‘Grant ye cakes and ale and oxen and feathered fowl to Osiris.’ I was duly mortified but I have a suspicion that Maugham didn’t know that either.
Even when a quotation has become firmly yoked to a particular source, there is always someone to put you right about it. Again in that first Quote...Unquote book I included Churchill’s description of Clement Attlee as ‘a sheep in sheep’s clothing’. Later I discovered that Churchill himself had corrected this he claimed he had said it about Ramsay MacDonald (rather more to the point, be it said). Then along came another phrase-detective who asserted that even if Churchill had expressed the sentiment about either gentleman, he had been taking unto himself a phrase originated by J.B. Morton, alias ‘Beachcomber.’ Without re-reading the whole of Beachcomber a pleasant enough task, to be sure I am unable to say if this is so. But it seems quite feasible, even if that would make it more a case of Churchillian Grab than Churchillian Drift.
It stands to reason that when a bon mot is first uttered, a lot depends on the hearing and memory of those present or the truthfulness and accuracy of the man who disseminates his own bon mots (Oscar Wilde was a dab hand at this, so they say). Yet even when words are actually broadcast on radio or television, error is likely to creep in.
In fact, strictly speaking, one ought to append to every quotation a covering note of deliberate and vague periphrasis: ‘I am not saying it was Shaw/Wilde/Twain who said this...I am merely suggesting that sources would support the view that thingummy is one of a number of possible options as to who might have been associated with the above remark at one time or another.’ I look forward to this catching on.
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