Are more people doing philology than ever before, or are more people not doing philology than ever before? Surely there has never been such a proliferation of misattributed quotes anywhere. The internet is teeming with them. Wildly replicating predatory memes, infecting everyone with the wrongness.
I frequently find a certain kind of quote on my friends’ Facebook pages, blogs or twitter feeds that are inspiring, heart-warming and pithy and attributed to, say, Nietzsche or Plato or Abraham Lincoln. And something about it rings my bells. Maybe it’s the fact that this heartwarming quote was said by men who had very little heat in, on or around their hearts; or maybe there was something stylistically wrong about it. Maybe the language was a little too self-helpy, a little too modern in its smugness and self-centeredness to have been written in the time of great ideologies and mass movements.
— Réne Descartes, Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, et chercher la vérité dans les sciences, p. 83
But fortunately, someone out there has been kind enough to make a taxonomy of the kinds of wrongness:
There are basically three kinds of Wrongly Attributed Statements. WAS I is an adaptation or composite of a statement or statements from someone or several people, who may or may not be famous. WAS II is a statement that was uttered, as is, by someone, often not famous, that has come to be widely attributed to someone else, invariably more famous. WAS III was never uttered by anyone, at least not that we know of. WAS III is not to be confused with those anonymous sayings you find in Bartlett’s. WAS III is an aperçu of metaphysically uncertain status—the witticism that wasn’t—hanging somewhere between ether and air, quoted but never attributed (at least not credibly) to anyone, not even to Anonymous.
And although I always grit my teeth when someone attributes quotes to the wrong people, I have to admit that I think Robin has a more graceful, tolerant and democratic approach:
It’s precisely these sorts of affectations—and appeals to authority—that have led me over the years to a greater appreciation of the WAS. I no longer think of it as a simple pain in the neck or desperate appeal to authority. I now see it as a kind of democratic poetry, an emanation of genius from the masses. We recognize the utility of crowdsourcing. Why not the beauty of crowdwriting? Someone famous says something fine—”When bad men combine, the good must associate”—and some forgotten wordsmith, or wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it into something finer: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
It’s good that we remember the knockoff rather than the original. The knockoff is better—and we made it.