Mind your language

Is your quotation secretly Nazi?

Misattribution is more common – and sometimes riskier – than you might think

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

2 January 2016

9:00 AM

I couldn’t help laughing when I found that an Australian senator, Cory Bernardi, had deleted all his tweets from Twitter, apart from a single sad survivor: ‘Parliament finishing up for the year.’ Mr Bernardi had earlier in 2015 tweeted a striking quotation: ‘To know who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticise.’ He attributed it to Voltaire. In fact it is a remark by someone called Kevin Alfred Strom, a neo-Nazi white separatist from Alaska.

Quotations in speech often bore. I always thought it odd that John Tregorran in The Archers came out with literary quotations in conversation. No wonder Carol poisoned him. But letters to the press often have a quotation chucked in. Often it is: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’ This is attributed to Edmund Burke. No trace of it has been found in Burke’s remains. The earliest example of the quotation (unattributed) is from an American prohibitionist in 1916, and the first attribution to Burke from 1920 by Sir Robert Murray Hyslop, also a temperance campaigner.


An even less likely quotation is foisted on poor old Cicero. It usually begins: ‘The budget should be balanced, the Treasury should be refilled, public debt should be reduced.’ It was put on the record of the US Congress as Cicero’s by a representative in 1968. But the excellent website Snopes (which explodes urban myths — such as Black Friday originating in the sale of slaves), tracks it down to a historical novel A Pillar of Iron (1965) by Taylor Caldwell. There, elements of the quotation are dispersed in dialogue put in the old Roman’s mouth.

These quotations are the sort of thing people would write if they were Voltaire, Burke or Cicero. Another, attributed in all seriousness to Petronius Arbiter, begins: ‘We trained hard — but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we were reorganised.’ It ends with the word ‘demoralisation’. Far from being words of Nero’s courtier, they come in an article about a US jungle warfare unit by Charlton Ogburn Jnr, published in 1957. But there’s no jungle so tangled as attributing quotations.

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  • davidofkent

    The quotation that I most hate from the pens of would-be philosophers (usually in newspaper comments sections) is:

    “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

    It may or may not have come from Voltaire, but I laugh when I read it from a person today. It is so obviously specious today that it is risible that anybody would now want to say or write it.

    • TrippingDwarves

      Agreed, though I think that particular one died a death after the ‘Je suis Charlie’ nonsense, which so many of those who claimed they were subsequently proved themselves to be anything but. Perhaps it will now mutate into:

      “I disapprove of what you think, and will kill you if you speak it.”

      • Atlas

        That has been leftist logic since at least 1917.

  • Migru Ghee

    Humor is just another defense against the universe.
    If you’re quiet, you’re not living. You’ve got to be noisy and colorful and lively.

    If presidents can’t do it to their wives, they do it to their country.
    If God wanted us to fly, He would have given us tickets.
    Everything we do in life is based on fear, especially love.
    Good taste is the enemy of comedy.
    As long as the world is turning and spinning, we’re gonna be dizzy and we’re gonna make mistakes.

    – Mel Brooks

  • David Booth.

    “….such as Black Friday originating in the sale of slaves), tracks it down to a historical novel A Pillar of Iron (1965) by Taylor Caldwell”
    Rubbish!
    Black Friday in mining/heavy engineering area’s of the north was the last Friday before Christmas when workers would finish work early and pile into the pubs in their dirty black working clothes to get roaring drunk.

    • Tamerlane

      Taylor Caldwell the miner turned novelist you mean?

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Was walking by Oxford Prison last Friday, and was reminded of a quote by dear Oscar:
    “If this is how Queen Victoria treats her prisoners, she doesn’t deserve to have any.”

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