I HAVE always enjoyed witty sayings and statements that make you pause, think or laugh because of their cleverness. I remember way back when I was still teaching (there was no internet then), and whenever I would come across something interesting, I would write those in a journal that I kept.
Later on, I compiled these quotations and typed them up on a page layout software called Pagemaker, printed them out on board paper, then cut them into small 4x5 cards. I would shuffle the cards, pick out one, and pin it on my corkboard at the faculty area where it would stay for a few days until I got tired of it, and I would pick another one to replace it.
Then the internet came along and memes became popular, and people would post quotations along with who said them. I noticed some of them were from my old collection, but sometimes they were attributed to other people.
There was one time when an entire speech was misattributed to the famous writer, Kurt Vonnegut Jr. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably read it or heard about it also. It was supposedly delivered by the author as a commencement speech to the M.I.T. class of 1997. The speech spread like wildfire via email (social media being virtually nonexistent at that point in time).
Australian film director Baz Luhrmann got the idea of using the speech in the hit single, Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen). When he sought out the author to ask for permission to use the words, he found out then that Vonnegut didn’t actually write the speech, but a Chicago Tribune columnist named Mary Schmich.
It turns out that many famous quotations have been misattributed or even misquoted. Perhaps the original was a bit bland or dated so someone sought to make it more poetic.
For example, the famous line “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” is guilty of both. Do an image search for this phrase and you will see various memes. Some attribute this line to Lao Tzu and some attribute it to Confucius. The truth is that neither of them actually said this line. The original sentence is found in the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and it translates roughly as “the journey of a thousand li begins beneath one’s feet.” (The li is a Chinese unit of measure and a thousand of them converts to roughly 400 miles).
So the exact original phrase would be something like “The journey of 400 miles begins beneath one’s feet.” Then again, that wouldn’t look as good on a meme.
Sometimes, a person is quoting someone else and that person is attributed as the source of the quote. For example, do another image search for “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school” and you will see many memes attributing this quote to Albert Einstein.
The truth is Einstein was not the originator of this statement as he was only quoting someone else, in and this case he did not name the person but just called the person as “some wit.”
Here is the passage as published in On Education: Excerpts from an address by Albert Einstein to the State University of New York at Albany, on the occasion of the celebration of the tercentenary of higher education in America, 15th October, 1931:
If a young man has trained his muscles and physical endurance by gymnastics and walking, he will later be fitted for every physical work. This is also analogous to the training of the mind and of the mental and manual skill. Thus, the wit was not wrong who defined education in this way: "Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school."
The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations and the Routeledge Dictionary of Quotations both attribute a slightly similar phrase “Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught” to George Savile, Lord Halifax as far back as the late 1600’s, but no actual textual reference can be found.
If you are interested in more of these stories, you can pick up The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes. And remember, as Abraham Lincoln once said, “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.”
Email me at email@example.com. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.