I Never Said That

Sherlock HolmesAs Abraham Lincoln once famously observed: ‘The trouble with quotes taken from the internet is that you can never know if they’re genuine.’

Kidding of course. I’m quoting Stephen Fry from QI and the Third QI Book of General Ignorance, a Christmas gift from Mrs P that I’m still dipping into. In this case, famous quotes that were never actually said by the people who were supposed to have said them.

Nigel Rees, of Quote Unquote fame, dubs this the tendency to misattribute catchy quotations to the famous as ‘Churchillian drfit’ while the editor of the Yale Book of Quotations dubs those speakers as ‘quote magnets’ because they attract the credit for many a clever quote.

That is usually Winston Churchill in the UK and Mark Twain in the US. Both are supposed to have used the line ‘Golf is a good walk spoiled’, but neither of them ever did say that.

Another misquote is ‘elementary, my dear Watson’. The line doesn’t appear in any of the Sherlock Holmes stories and was actually written more than twenty years later by P G Woodhouse, and then to poke fun at the great detective. The phrase appeared again in 1929 at the end of the first Holmes talkie movie and thus a false quote was born.

You could argue that, since Holmes is a fictional character, that it doesn’t matter in what medium the quote appears and it is fair game, especially when used in a self-mocking manner. But what about real people?

Back to Churchill and when Lady Astor said to him: ‘Winston, if you were my husband, I’d poison your coffee’, and his reply: ‘If you were my wife, I’d drink it’. In fact, the joke predates the exchange by 40 years.

Oscar Wilde never said; ‘I am not young enough to know everything’ (it was J M Barrie). Nor did Einstein ever say: ‘Two things are infinite – the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the former’.

Andy Warhol admitted that his 15 minutes of fame line wasn’t his, although he did use it in a brochure in 1968. He was actually quoting someone else, variously attributed, including the photographer, Nat Finkelstein, the painter Larry Rivers and a Swedish museum curator named Pontus Hultén.

When Bessie Braddock said to Churchill: ‘Winston, you’re drunk’ he certainly did reply: ‘Madam, you are ugly, but I will be sober in the morning’. However, all he was doing was recycling an old gag that dates back to 1882.

I suppose the question is, does a quote become famous and quotable when someone famous uses it? Or is it because even though they didn’t say it, they should have done? When Oscar Wilde said: ‘I wish I had said that’ to James Whistler, the great artist replied: ‘You will, Oscar, you will’. Of course, it wasn’t quite like that.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

1 comment… Add yours
  • Yorkshire Pudding 14th January 2016

    Quotes by a certain NHS management consultant based in Stockport/South Manchester area:-
    “I’ve forgotten my pen.”
    “What’s for lunch?”
    “I’ll help you to fill in your travel expenses claim form Chardonnay. Just come over here and sit on my knee!”
    “This hospital is a pile of shit run by a bunch of self-serving nincompoops and you Gillian are the worst chairman this godawful trust has ever suffered!”

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