kottke.org posts about misquotes

Giving our feelings a nameMay 03 2011

At least two popular quotations circulating on Twitter and Facebook in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden are misattributed. By what I guess is chance, they happen to express opposing (but nuanced and appealing) sentiments:

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

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

The Fake Mark Twain quote has a pretty straightforward story. It's a slightly altered version of a quote by lawyer/orator/evolution & civil rights hero Clarence Darrow:

All men have an emotion to kill; when they strongly dislike some one they involuntarily wish he was dead. I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction.

(Note: That's from Darrow's autobiography, The Story of My Life. Wired's story above linked to Wikiquote, so I thought I'd pull it from Google Books at least.)

Darrow is still pretty famous, but not Mark Twain famous. And especially in the truncated version, the quip sounds like the sort of thing that Mark Twain might say.

Easy mistake - and when the line fits how we might feel at a given moment, and the author fits our moral/intellectual identity, it becomes a natural quote to pass around.

The story behind the Fake Martin Luther King quote is a little bit more complicated. Megan McCardle was the first to flag it as suspect. Then people began to notice that while the version above was making the rounds on Twitter, a longer version on Facebook paired it with an extended quote that was genuine MLK:

"I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not
rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.
Returning hate for
hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night devoid of
stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." ~Martin Luther
King Jr

The real quote (beginning with "Returning hate for hate") is from MLK's book of sermons Strength to Love.

And the context really is about why you have to love your enemy. In the same book, too, is an essay called "The death of evil upon the seashore," which has this not totally unrelated quote about the escape of the Israelites from Egypt by crossing the Red Sea:

The meaning of this story is not found in the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers, for no one should rejoice at the death or defeat of a human being. Rather, this story symbolizes the death of evil and of inhuman oppression and unjust exploitation.

So, again, it's the kind of thing that sounds like something Martin Luther King, Jr might say -- even though he didn't say it.

At some point, someone deduced what must have happened. The real King quote (about returning hate for hate) must have gotten paired with the King-esque quote/paraphrase (about not rejoicing in the death of an enemy). Somewhere in circulating on Facebook, the whole thing got attributed to King, then jumped to Twitter, where the first line got separated from the genuine quote, re-attributed to King, then passed around from there.

It turns out that this is exactly what happened. The actual source of the quote (with the screenshot to prove it) is actually Jessica Dovey.

This is where it gets a little confusing. Salon's Drew Grant thought she had tracked the misquote's jump to Twitter to magician/author Penn Jillette. Grant wrote a story about how Jillette had made up the quote, possibly as a deliberate prank.

Grant said Jillette had admitted to inventing the quote. But Jillette's Twitter apology doesn't really seem to say that:

I checked a long quote from MLK's "Strength to love"1963 that spoke to some of my feelings, then I cut and pasted an altered hunk. Sorry.

Jillette's actually disclaiming authorship here - he says he "cut and pasted" it. But people are still arguing that he's claiming credit and complaining that he won't comment.

One of the many things that fascinated Freud about jokes was that they passed around from person to person without an author. This is why they were interesting - they showed the unconscious uncensored, in public. (This is a big part of what Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious is about.)

When we (mis)attribute a joke or quote, we're doing something different: we're giving our unconscious an author, and leaning on the author's authority. Just like with jokes, it's an acceptable way to let our nervous feelings out, without having to completely own them ourselves. We just co-sign.

In the spirit of Freud, here are some of the best MLK-misquote jokes currently going around on Twitter (with anonymity of the jokesters preserved):

"You dummies will retweet anything with my name." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

There is a Martin Luther King Jr. cookie recipe making its way around the web! It does not taste good. DO NOT MAKE IT.

"Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will have some good ideas." - Theodore Roosevelt

"War is a giant dishwasher full of tiny elephants but the soap is motor oil and the dishes are pee" -Martin Luther King, Jr

"Scrambled eggs, side of home fries, and a light and sweet coffee, thanks." --Martin Luther King Jr. (in a diner)

"Luke. I am your father." - Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Actually, Penn Jillette wrote all of these jokes. That guy's amazing.)

Update: Ivan Cavero Belaunde may have identified the source of the Twain/Darrow misquote -- a 2006 blog post with Darrow's quote next to another on the same theme by Twain:

Clarence Darrow

I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.
Mark Twain

I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.

Ivan adds that "that link was until yesterday the #1 Google result for the phrase 'I have read some obituaries with great pleasure'."

So odds are pretty good that someone half-remembered the Darrow quote, did a quick Google search for attribution, saw the result with Twain's name at the end, and went for it (maybe without even clicking through).

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