Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Misattributed quotations are messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive pattern

TVB readers with long memories may recall a 2006 post about multiple online sources misattributing a quotation, "Marriage is a wonderful invention; but then again, so is a bicycle repair kit," to Geoffrey Chaucer--specifically, the Wife of Bath's prologue in The Canterbury Tales. It seems a really odd mistake to happen in the first place--with bicycles dating to the 1800s and Chaucer dead more than 400 years, making him an unreliable source of wisdom on bicycle repair kits (perhaps somewhat less so on marriage). Still, a ton of sites denote him as the source of the quotation; others attribute it to Scottish comedian/actor Billy Connelly, which seems somewhat more likely, though no one says where in his writings or his act it appears. So, who knows, really?

For those with short memories, my theory is the confusion stems from the fact they look a lot alike:

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting Chaucer

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting Billy Connelly

The Chaucer/Connelly confusion continued even after TVB pointed it out. (Amazing, ain't it?) In a blog post from 2008, Lawn Gospel ("Seeking a God-Entranced Vision of Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Christ") posted this:
In his Wife of Bath’s Prologue, Geoffrey Chaucer once quipped, “Marriage is a wonderful invention; but, then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.” One’s view of marriage can be influenced by many things, but as Christians, we have the responsibility to form our view of marriage from Scripture and the principles that we find there. Chaucer viewed marriage as a wonderful invention, and at that point he is correct. However, it is the inventor and the purpose that becomes our point of disagreement. Chaucer, like many people today, imply that marriage is a creation of man, for his own purpose. Christians however must part company there, and declare that it was God who created marriage for his own purpose. Only when we affirm that the author of marriage is God, and realize that its purpose is bound up in God’s purpose, can we then begin to form our Christian view of marriage.

Or, you know, Billy Connelly. But whatever. (I should point out that Anonymous in comments for that post isn't me.)

"Marriage is a wonderful invention ..." isn't the only oddly misattributed quote on the Internet. The NYTPicker, a blog devoted to examining The New York Times, recently noted a similar screw-up:
It's an easy mistake. Mixing up 19th century German philosophers and late 20th Century satirists.

Dani Shapiro did it this morning in her Sunday NYT Book Review critique of
Poser: My Life In Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. ... Here's the second paragraph of Shapiro's review:
This dark enchantment with the joys, rigors and travails of building a family life is at the center of this fine first memoir, and it’s heartening to see a serious female writer take such a risky step into territory where writers of literary ambition fear to tread, lest they be dismissed as trivial. Bills, laundry, cooking, breast-feeding, baby sitters, holidays, aging parents — my favorite curmudgeon, Nietzsche, put it this way: “Family love is messy, clinging, and of an annoying and repetitive pattern, like bad wallpaper.”

It's that last line that caught a NYTPicker reader off guard. Our emailer didn't recall Nietzsche making many, you know, home decorating references in his essays. (Although in fact the controversial philosopher did publish a book called The Gay Science.) So we all looked it up and discovered some misinformation on the web. Apparently a lot of quote books wrongly give the nod to Nietzsche on this one.

Our reader found the actual words in a 1994 book by P.J. O'Rourke called
Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book For Rude People.

Clicking on the link will take you to the exact page in O'Rourke's book where the passage appears.

Searching for uses of the quotation leads me to conclude that sources are pretty equally split between crediting Nietzsche or O'Rourke. (Note that last poster on NYTPicker's post, a certain Anonymous, maintains that it's Nietzsche, and that O'Rourke must have plagiarized him without, um, giving a source for it among Nietzsche's writings. At least someone confused about the "Marriage is a wonderful invention ..." quote could have looked up the Wife of Bath section of The Canterbury Tales to confirm or disprove that one.) One book I found online attributes the quote to "Eva Burrows, Salvation Army General," and credits Nietzche with “In family life, love is the oil that eases friction, the cement that binds closer together, and the music that brings harmony.” It appears the quotations were switched--other sources credit that to Burrows.

All this is just a long way of saying that ... well, you know the line "Now, give me that banana"? That actually comes from Mark Twain.

UPDATE: The New York Times has published a correction, appended to the online version of the story, here.


Dave said...

Did that get edited out in the new Gribben edition?

JohnnyB said...

Half of the people can be part right all of the time
Some of the people can be all right part of the time
But all of the people can’t be all right all of the time
I think Abraham Lincoln said that
“I’ll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours”
I said that (Bob Dylan)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link. As Justin Taylor once said, "I'm not a humble man, but I'm a man who is often humbled."