Misquotations and stuff

I'll admit it. When I see a good quotation, I often use it (i.e., retweet it) before I check out its source and authenticity. A good example would be the recent Martin Luther King quotation that spread after Osama bin Laden was killed.

The story behind this misattribution, according to The Atlantic, is that it went viral after Jessica Dovey posted a status update on Facebook but added MLK's quotation at the end and the two became associated:

From Jessica Dovey:

"I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy."

From Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Evidently, people missed the start of the quotation marks and thought Dovey's words were MLK's.

Another one that went viral soon after the event was the misattributed Mark Twain quotation:

"I've never wished a man dead, but I have read some obituaries with great pleasure."

The problem with this wasn't just that it was requoted wrong, it was also attributed to the wrong person. The person who actually said it was Clarence Darrow (the lawyer involved in the Scopes trial, the basis for Inherit the Wind):

"I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction."

Here's another, from President Reagan on the Challenger disaster:

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

Many people assumed it was something Reagan came up on his own, but he was actually quoting an American aviatar and poet, John Gillespie Magee, Jr.'s poem High Flight, which was written about the Battle of Britain:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Here's another one: The story of the boy and the starfish. If you haven't heard it, here's the gist: An old man sees a young boy along the beach, throwing starfish into the waves. He goes over and asks him why he's doing that, and the boy says the starfish were washed up by the tide, and that they'll die in the sun. The old man points out that there're thousands of starfish and surely he can't make a difference. The boy picks up another starfish and throws it back into the waves, and says "It made a difference to that one." It's a story used by motivational speakers. I think the first time I heard it was during the last class I attended in business school. It's a nice, simple, moving story about how small actions can make huge differences.

But that story wasn't an original. It was adapted from a short story The Star Thrower by Loren Eisenly, which includes this key, unbroken section:

The shore grew steeper, the sound of the sea heavier and more menacing, as I rounded a bluff into the full blast of the offshore wind. I was away from the shellers now and strode more rapidly over the wet sand that effaced my footprints. Around the next point there might be a refuge from the wind. The sun behind me was pressing upward at the horizon's rim--an ominous red glare amidst the tumbling blackness of the clouds. Ahead of me, over the projecting point, a gigantic rainbow of incredible perfection had sprung shimmering into existence. Somewhere toward its food I discerned a human figure standing, as it seemed to me, within the rainbow, though unconscious of his position. He was gazing fixedly at something in the sand.

Eventually he stooped and flung the object beyond the breaking surf. I labored toward him over a half-mile of uncertain footing. By the time I reached him the rainbow had receded ahead of us, but something of its color still ran hastily in many changing lights across his features. He was starting to kneel again.

In a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.

"It's still alive," I ventured.

"Yes," he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

"It may live," he said, "if the offshore pull is strong enough." He spoke gently, and across his bronzed worn face the light still came and went in subtly altering colors.

"There are not many who come this far," I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. "Do you collect?"

"Only like this," he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. "And only for the living." He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.

"The stars," he said, "throw well. One can help them."

He looked full at me with faint question kindling in his eyes, which seemed to take on the far depths of the sea.

Quotations are fun. They're beautiful when they're articulated just right, and even better when they're timely. But they can be tricky because was live in a dynamic age now and we're dealing with literacies that are between the immediacy of orality and the permanence of print. It's too easy to pass a misquoted line along through social networks at a time when a precise sentiment is arguably more important than authenticity.

Note: I did my best to ensure that none of these "corrected attributions" are themselves misattributed in some way. If you've notice any errors, please point them out to me.