“Really, the peasants have no bread? Let them eat cake!”
“Cake” being nothing more than the scrapings from baker’s pans, these words damned Marie Antoinette as heartless and wicked. But— perhaps because we have just returned from Paris—I find it interesting to note that the actual author of this incendiary tidbit was Rousseau, not Marie. Even so this misquote has resonated through the years. She said what? Really! Well, she certainly deserved her fate at the Place de la Concorde.
Since all of us are going to be famous at some point or other—and if not, we well should be—there is every chance that at some point someone is going to ask, “Can I quote you on that?” Ah, mes amis what should our answer be?
George Washington—that epitome of respectability and honor—would probably hesitate to answer this one knowing well that he has been misquoted through the years, for never did young George chop down a cherry tree. His biographer, Parson Weems, tried to set the record straight in the 19th century… but no one has paid much attention to the Weems’ declarations that the tree in question was never chopped down. “I cannot tell a lie,” etc. makes for a much better story, after all.
Misquotes tend to linger in the mind, much as half truths and hearsay repeated over and over have a tendency to gather more validity than boring facts. How about the classic Humphrey Bogart line in Casablanca? Instead of “Play it again, Sam,” what Bogie said was the rather long-winded: “You played it for her, you can play it for me…If she can stand it, I can. Play it!” And there are literary misquotes, too. Ask my old friend, Will Shakespeare, whether he ever been misquoted, and he will probably turn over in his grave. One of the many things he didn’t say is, “to gild a lily,” when his real words “To gild refined gold, to paint the lily.” Close… but not close enough to make Will happy.
Nor is Shakespeare the only victim of the misquote. Politicians and administrators seem to delight in applying the Rule of Misquote at every opportunity. Al Gore was given much grief because he was purported to say, “I invented the internet,” when what he actually said was, “”During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” Even the wily Machievelli could not escape, though he actually intoned, “One must consider the final result,” instead of “The end justifies the means,” which you have to admit is a snappier sound bite
Perhaps the fact that one’s words get somewhat twisted (or completely invented) is a sort of perverse compliment, but I am not so sure. Though I personally have never really been misquoted, I remember reading on the dust jacket of one of my books that I had been born in Hong Kong. I suppose there is a proximity of that country to my birthplace in Japan, but still. Of course, those were the ‘old days,’ a time when computers and e-mail and telephone interviews were unknown entities. Nowadays it is so much easier for an interviewer to send an attachment of the article that needs to be checked for accuracy, or to verify a quote by e-mail. Even so, misquotes linger Misquotes have no respect for the dear departed, either. The one I remember most of this ilk is that famous line W. C. Field is supposed to have carved on his tombstone: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.” It does sound witty, but what really is carved on his final resting place goes: “Here Lies W.C. Fields: I would rather be living in Philadelphia.”
Which makes more sense actually—but please don’t quote me!
Words that are spoken
Have many legs that wander
Often far from Truth.