You don’t say

Am I crazy or is everything that anyone famous ever supposedly said just a big old lie?

The Quote Industrial Complex churns along, the cheerful killjoys at Snopes and Quote Investigator at perpetual, broken-window war with the Share button, the contemporary disease vector of misattribution.

Maybe let’s just not quote anybody anymore, just to be on the safe side. After all, is it not true only that “quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit”? … oops!

But this is no modern phenomenon. Quote expert Nigel Rees:

Long ago, I coined the term “Churchillian Drift” to describe the process whereby the actual originator of a quotation is often elbowed to one side and replaced by someone more famous. So to Churchill or Napoleon would be ascribed what, actually, a lesser-known political figure had said. The process occurs in all fields.

Thomas Jefferson gets drifted a lot. “Let them eat cake” is these days maybe so famously drifty that it isn’t drifty any more.

So. How does this happen? Let’s do some speculating!

  1. Human error. Stuff happens! And stuff times share equals STUFF.
  2. Appeal to authority. “Abraham Lincoln said that. Are you gonna argue with Abraham Lincoln?”
  3. Jokes! Add real people to spice an old joke; forget that it was a joke. e.g. the Churchill-Astor bit.
  4. Jokes II a.k.a. trolling a.k.a. fabrications for fun.
  5. Platitude validation. “This aphorism is a bit thin. Let’s Mark Twain it up a bit!”

Any other suggestions?

Whether misattribution is a white lie, a cynical ploy, or an honest mistake, in any case we can presumably agree that the benefits of misattributing seem to outweigh handily the costs. After all, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while”… ugh, never mind.


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