Did Mark Twain say, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why”? The quotation was included one morning in a post to a list for writers that I belong to. A man I’ll call Pangloss, after the Voltaire professor character who insisted on optimism, posts three or four quotations every morning. Pangloss, who doesn’t question his Internet sources, attributed the quotation to Twain. I am no Twain expert, but it struck me as too sunny and religion-tinged for that celebrated crank. I turned to a website dedicated to ferreting out “apocryphal Twain,” which confirmed my suspicion.
However, when I pointed out the error to the list, Pangloss complained that I could “only find fault with the quotation and not find anything positive in it to think about.” Other list members, calling my post “negative,” echoed his sentiment. The most thoughtful objection was this:
The answer to the larger question of What [sic] is the point of sending around a quotation if we aren’t given its context is quite clear–these are words of inspiration and encouragement to the List. If you were to post sayings like ‘the whole nine yards’ and ‘dead ringers,’ then you might get into the real origin of said sayings and the etymology of such expressions would be enlightening, entertaining, but not inspiring.
Yet quotation disseminators know the source matters. Otherwise, why do they always either cite one or tack on, “Unknown”?
Since then, I’ve kept silent about Pangloss’s batches of inspirational quotes, even though my attribution radar keeps pinging. As just one among many examples, Pangloss attributed “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it” to Confucius.
This nugget of wisdom is to be found nowhere in Confucius’s works. According to a quotation-checking website, Confucius used the (presumably Chinese) word for “beauty” only twice, and there is only one example where he did so meaningfully: “The Master said: ‘I have never seen one who loves virtue as much as he loves beauty.’”
The website’s author comments:
Ironically enough, this is one of those pithy statements that Confucius actually said. It also happens to illustrate the polar opposite of the fake quote. … Confucius is lamenting the fact that most humans care too much about beauty, while not caring as much about their virtue.
As the reaction of list members to my correction confirms, many readers love inspirational quotations, whatever the accuracy of their origin. Then who am I to seek to pop their balloons? But I do care, and I think I’m right to. Context affects meaning, sometimes deepening it, sometimes negating it. And context begins with correct attribution. Anyone who disseminates quotations, whether on the Internet or on an email list, whether in a book or on television, owes their audience the true source, and sometimes the story, behind them. Otherwise, they’re helping make the world into one big propaganda machine, one big lie.
Since that argument failed to convince my fellow list members, I ask myself, beyond perpetuating an error, why should misattribution matter?
Words to have the power to inspire. Nothing goes deeper than the lessons from experience that loving fathers relate to their sons and loving mothers to their daughters. In the moment, a president’s, general’s or coach’s speech can motivate civilians to sacrifice, soldiers to fight, team players to excel. But as those examples suggest, the source matters. Churchill’s many popular sayings have an impact not just because of his felicity with words, but because he is perceived as almost single-handedly having saved the world from tyranny between May, 1940 and December 7, 1941. Other words that deeply affect our actions and attitudes come from beloved authors and song writers, often with a context. “We shall overcome” would have been an empty phrase without the civil rights movement that made it famous. Then there are our influential teachers and those who helped us in times of crisis. “One day at a time” is most effective when recovering alcoholics are participating in the program.
By contrast, who honestly remembers beyond a day or two the seeming wisdom that appears in daily messages containing three or four isolated inspirational quotations? A barrage of inspirational words undermines their impact. True inspiration comes rarely, like a spring day. If every day of the year were temperate and sunny, we’d be unlikely to appreciate it the way we do after a harsh winter.
Moreover, to have a genuine impact, inspiration must be earned. Artists and scientists talk about inspiration as a joyful boost between long hours of hard work and sometimes grim plodding. Without all that work, inspiration is pointless. As Louis Pasteur said in a nicely translated phrase, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
Inspiration and hard work have a similar relationship in our private lives. If we’re struggling, an apt phrase might bring hope and comfort, but it will never be enough if we aren’t actively seeking to make it through.
Wrongly attributed quotations out of context are a recipe for disenchantment, just as the relentless optimism in Eleanor H. Porter’s 1913 novel, Pollyanna, led to the sour word, Pollyannaish. In Voltaire’s 1759 novella, Candide, the eponymous hero completes a similar journey when he at last renounces his mentor Pangloss’s aggressive optimism and turns to gardening.
Going back to the quotation wrongly attributed to Twain, I’d love to know that there really was a reason I was brought into this world and what that reason might be. But that the quotation disseminators felt it necessary to falsely attribute it to Twain makes me even more skeptical than I might otherwise be.
Likewise, with the misattributed Confucius quotation in mind, it would be nice if everything, and everyone, were beautiful, and that all anyone who doubted it about themselves need do was to wait for someone to notice. How wonderful it would be if every Hans Christian Andersen ugly duckling turned out to be a swan. Clearly, someone made this claim for beauty, or else it wouldn’t be all over the Internet. Maybe it was a person as wise as Confucius, but more likely it was some candle scent-addled crystal-gazer.
Correct attribution matters. Truth matters. The dark side of the Internet is the easy dissemination of falsehoods. The bright side is that checking for accuracy on the Internet is almost as easy. When we are sent an intriguing quotation but can’t be sure who deserves credit, we need only Google the words and the claimed author. Almost invariably, there’ll be a link to a relevant fact-checking site on the first page of results.
Readers who rely for inspiration on wrongly attributed quotations taken out of context are begging to be deceived.