Thursday 16 February 2017

'A stupid person's idea of a clever person' and other misattributions

As everyone is continually pointing out, we live in an era of 'fake news' - which means that 'fake news' is in the, er, news - you know, the other news - and there's quite a lot of it around, thanks to the opportunities presented by social media, the world wide web, etc. No doubt this is true, though I fancy the borderline between 'fake' and 'real' in this area can be a little porous, and 'fake' news can sometimes point to a kind of truth (though more usually to a pack of lies).
 But I'm not going to get drawn into all that - I'd rather take a look at the proliferation of undoubted 'fake quotes' on social media. Me, I only dabble in Facebook and have never emitted a tweet, but I'm constantly coming across quotations that are obviously misattributed. They often become very successful 'memes', and some of them are presented as words of strangely topical wisdom from sages of the past. In these cases, some plainly modern usage usually gives the game away.
 This doesn't bother me greatly, but today it led me to delve, in an idle moment, into the wider field of misquotation and misattribution - two mis-es that have been thriving since long before the internet. Examples include 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it' (never said by Voltaire but put into his mouth by an English writer called Evelyn Beatrice Hall) and 'Elementary, my dear Watson', 'Play it again, Sam' and 'You dirty rat!' (never said by, respectively, Holmes, Bogart and Cagney). I was interested to learn that 'The end justifies the means' goes back all the way to Ovid (exitus acta probat). Then there are quotations that are obviously biblical - expect that they're not: 'Between a rock and a hard place' originated in early 20th-century America and caught on fast - and as for 'God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb', that is from Laurence Sterne, of all people (in one of the sermons of Yorick - about whom, of course, the words 'Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well' were never spoken).
 But one of the best misattributions I came across was 'A stupid person's idea of a clever person', generally believed to be Julie Burchill skewering Stephen Fry. But was it? By Burchill's account, 'My husband claims that it was I who coined the line about Stephen Fry being "a stupid person's idea of a clever person". And if I weren't a sober person's idea of a booze-addled person, I might be more useful in remembering whether this was true or not. Whatever, it's pretty damn good.' Indeed it is. And it was first said in the Thirties by Elizabeth Bowen, about Aldous Huxley - who surely fits the bill at least as well as Fry.


  1. 'Events, dear boy, events' may well not have been uttered by Macmillan. But perhaps that's a misquotation as well.

  2. Ah yes - I'd forgotten that one. I think it's the 'dear boy' that's made it stick so tenaciously to Macmillan.

  3. In Johnson's Life of Waller, one finds

    "... Such is the story, which I once heard of some other man. Pointed axioms, and acute replies, fly loose about the world, and are assigned successively to those whom it may be the fashion to celebrate."