David Hunter: It's easy to see how quotations become tangled

David Hunter
David Hunter

In the 1942 film “Casablanca,” Ingrid Bergman never said, “Play it again, Sam.” What she said was, “Play it, Sam.”

This seemed a good place to start when talking about misquotations and wrongly attributed quotations because it is embedded so deeply in our culture, with people willing to swear they heard it themselves.

Anyone who writes for a living has probably assigned quotations to the wrong person or mangled the language in which they were said. When we were using printed quotations from books, arriving at an original source was harder than it is with the internet at our disposal.

For instance, Vince Lombardi, award-winning National Football League coach, did not originate the phrase, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Lombardi did use that phrase as early as 1959, but it actually came from UCLA coach Red Sanders in 1950.

“Let them eat cake,” words that are supposed to have led to the demise of the French aristocracy, probably never passed Marie Antoinette’s lips. The closest we can get is a 1791 quote from Jean-Jaques’ Rousseau in which he attributed the phrase “Let them eat pastry” to the queen.

Nitpicking, you say? A quotation is important when summing up the character of an individual. Besides, most likely, Marie Antoinette was not being sarcastic but spoke from the ignorance of a sheltered royal who didn’t know what was going on.

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” John F. Kennedy attributed the phrase to Edmund Burke, 18th-century Irish philosopher, politician and statesman, but it cannot be verified in Burke’s case. In fact, it is said to be one of the most popular quotes in history and has been attributed to several different people.

“I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” is said to have come from Voltaire. It is not from Voltaire, the 18th-century philosopher, but it was a paraphrase from a biographer named Evelyn Beatrice Hall of what she thought Voltaire was thinking.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.” We all know Albert Einstein said this, right? Not so. The quotation has been tracked back to a quote by a fictional character in a mystery novel by Rita Mae Brown in a novel called “Sudden Death.”

A confession is in order. I have used the following quote numerous times, attributing it to Winston Churchill: "If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative at 40, you have no brain.” In fact, it was 35, not 40, and Francois Guirot, a 19th-century writer, who did use a variation of the statement, but Churchill never did.

It’s somewhat embarrassing to realize I have not only been citing the wrong source for a quote for decades, but that the quote was a garbled version of the original.

“Do you feel lucky, punk?” This phrase has become iconic among fans of Clint Eastwood in the film “Dirty Harry,” in which Inspector Callahan stands over a downed suspect with his .44 magnum revolver and asks the question.

The fly in the ointment is that is not what Dirty Harry said. His actual words were: “You have to ask yourself, do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

These days, I check my quotations carefully. I hate making retractions.

David Hunter is a freelance writer and former Knox County sheriff’s deputy. He may be reached at davidhunter333@comcast.net.