Misquoting and inaccurate claims

August 5, 2011

One of my most favourite quotes has been attributed to Nelson Mandela. However, when I searched the Internet to get the exact quote, I discovered that Nelson Mandela did not ever utter these words. Rather, Marianne Williamson wrote these words in her book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”. This is one of the greatest benefits of the Internet: to be able to verify the truth behind statements and claims that we hear or read.

Of course, because of the Internet, we have a huge increase in false statements and claims being made. We need to exercise caution before accepting these claims and statements as absolute truth. And, we can easily accomplish that by using a search engine like Google. Simply by searching for the information that is being claimed as “truth,” we will find other variations. If there are too many statements that do not support the one we are searching, we can assume the information we have is wrong.

On the other hand, finding one source that supports what we believe to be true does not necessarily mean that it is. We do need to look for more than one source in order to accept it as truth. Just as I had to in order to find the truth behind my favourite quote.

Misinformation about famous sayings and quotes is easily found in books and on the Internet. One book tries to set the record straight. They Never Said It, by Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George, contains quotes that are incorrectly attributed to famous people. Either the people quoted never did say what many claim they did. Or, the origin of a famous saying has been attributed to the wrong person. They Never Said It explains the truth behind these sayings and quotations.

Many inaccuracies are harmless. As in the famous quote that many said George Washington, considered the “Father of America,” uttered when he was a small boy: “I cannot tell a lie.” According to They Never Said It, the entire story about George Washington making this statement to his father when asked who chopped down the cherry tree is false.

Sometimes the meaning of the quote changes completely in the retelling. Another example from They Never Said It explains that Sam Goldwyn, a Hollywood movie producer, was given credit for saying, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” This is opposite to what he actually said, which was, “His verbal contract is worth more than the paper it’s written on.” This type of misinformation may cause serious problems between individuals and between groups of people. This type of misinformation requires diligent research to ensure the wrong information does not continue.

It’s also important to ensure that we know who actually said what we are quoting. If something is negative, then claiming that the wrong person made the statement could be harmful to that person. On the other hand, crediting the wrong person for a positive quote is not fair to the person who did actually make the statement.

For example, the famous line, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” is claimed as being a common statement made by the character Sherlock Holmes in the novels and short stories written by A. Conan Doyle.  In fact, this statement never appeared in any of the books written by A. Conan Doyle. A British actor, Basil Rathbone, who played Sherlock Holmes in the Hollywood movies appearing in the 1930’s and the 1940’s is the one who actually uttered the phrase.

And, bringing us back to my favourite quote, Marianne Williamson does not get the recognition she deserves for her beautiful words if we continue to attach these words to Nelson Mandela:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us, it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Marianne Williamson’s book, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles,” was published by HarperCollins in 1992.

Paul F. Boller, Jr. and John George’s book, They Never Said It, was published by Oxford University Press in 1989.


    1. I was surprised, to say the least, that one of my favourite quotes was not by the person I had always thought it was. This research was definitely interesting and informative. And actually took hardly any time at all.

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