language corner

Put up or shut up

‘Famous’ quotes that aren’t
September 17, 2012

Your child’s grade school teacher has asked her to come up with some “famous quotations,” so, naturally, she goes right to her computer and types in “famous quotations.”

The paper she turns in has some really famous ones, including this one, from Winston Churchill:

From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.

And this one, from Casablanca:

Play it again, Sam.

And, of course, Marie Antoinette’s famous rallying cry:

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Let them eat cake.

The problem is, none of those were said by the people who were supposed to have said it.
To paraphrase what may or may not be a Yogi Berra quote, many times people never said the things they said.

Because journalists are in effect historians, it’s important that they not just repeat “famous” quotations without checking them out. If you type any of those quotations into a search engine, you’ll get lots of hits, misleading you into thinking they’re correct.

But as researchers will tell you, a primary source is the only way to verify that a famous quotation is accurate. For the Casablanca quotation, for example, simply watching the movie will confirm that no one said it. (It’s usually attributed to Rick Blaine, the Humphrey Bogart character.) Barring that, even a Wikipedia check will discredit the quotation. Wikipedia is not a source to base your research on, of course, but its references are usually useful. The misquote has taken on a life of its own, with games, a play, movie, and song named for it.
The Marie Antoinette quote has been discredited many times. The book They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions, by Paul F. Boller Jr. and John George, notes that the scholar Jacques Barzun attributes it to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, written long before Marie Antoinette is supposed to have uttered it during the French Revolution. (Using the “search inside” feature on bookseller sites is one way to do research.)
Note that the previous “research” relies on secondary sources, not a primary one. But finding citations that question a quotation with reliable references should certainly raise alarms. A good place to start researching quotations is’s Quotations site.
As for the Churchill quotation, the best clue that it may not be accurate is the variety of ways it’s rendered online:

“This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

“Not ending a sentence with a preposition is a bit of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

“That is the sort of nonsense up with which I will not put.”

No one has been able to pinpoint where and when Churchill “said” it. Some attribute it to a statement he made in the House of Commons report, or to a note scribbled on a manuscript. It’s a mystery not likely to be solved, so avoid using it.

It’s perfectly OK, though, to do the thing Churchill was supposedly against.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.