“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
Everybody knows that proverb. Some people know that it was the English poet Alexander Pope who said it. Only he didn’t. As Ralph Keyes wrote in The Quote Verifier, what Pope actually said was, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.”
Sadly, learning and knowledge aren’t always the same.
This is a perfect example of misquotes that are so well known that the original quote is forgotten; or may never have existed.
Just for the record, in the first century, Publilius Syrus, a Roman slave who became an author (usually it works the other way around), said “Better be ignorant of a matter than half know it.”
One of my favorite fake quotes was put into Winston Churchill’s mouth. (Remarkably, along with the cigar and Johnnie Walker Red Label, Churchill’s mouth still had room for brilliant quips — whether he said them or not.) There are many versions, but let’s go with the one cited by the International Churchill Society:
“This is the kind of tedious (sometimes “pedantic”) nonsense up with which I will not put!”
The Churchill Society labeled this as an “alleged marginal note by Churchill, 27 February 1944, to a priggish civil servant’s memo objecting to the ending of sentences with prepositions.”
There’s a version I like better. Instead of “tedious” or “pedantic nonsense,” it has Churchill dismissing the correction as “arrant pedantry.” That evokes an elitist air redolent with cigar smoke, scotch and disdain.
Other popular quote racks for unhung aphorisms include Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain.
Lincoln famously answered complaints about General Ulysses Grant’s drinking with, “Tell me what brand of whiskey Grant drinks and I’ll send a barrel to my other generals.”
Only Lincoln unfamously said he never said it.
“Never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel … and newsprint by the ton.”
Mark Twain usually gets the credit for that line. But so do Benjamin Franklin, Winston Churchill, Will Rogers and “Gentleman” Jimmy Walker — mayor of New York (1925–32).
As Twain never said, “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”
Some sayings are correctly attributed, but incorrectly quoted. In 1884, Republican leaders tried to draft Civil War hero General William Tecumseh Sherman to run for president. He told them, “I will not accept if nominated, and will not serve if elected.”
Banisters and quotes get smoother with age. Over time, Sherman’s proclamation of non-candidacy got polished to: “If nominated, I will not accept; if elected, I will not serve.” In political circles, the refusal to run came to be known as “pulling a Sherman.”
What is it that makes people tack sayings onto personages who never said them?
One reason is that most people rely on memory for the quote and source. As Keyes wrote, memory “is a hazardous form of research. Our memory wants quotations to be better than they usually were, and said by the person we want to have said them. … Memory may be a terrible librarian, but it’s a great editor.”
But there’s another motivation. Attributing a quote to a notable person gives it more credibility. A joke sounds funnier if it’s quoted from a famous comedian. Anything sounds more humorous if Mark Twain said it. And a maxim must be true if Washington or Lincoln said it.
Misquoting or misattributing an aphorism is bad enough. But it can become a real problem when holy sources are misquoted.
A popular Hebrew proverb has it that “shoteh, asur lerachem alav — it is forbidden to have mercy on a fool (or madman).”
Being too kind to a lunatic might be dangerous — for you and for the lunatic. Need examples, just open a newspaper. But why shouldn’t we have mercy? Since when is it good to lack compassion?
The problem is that the original source doesn’t mention shoteh. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 92a) says kol adam she’ein bo de’ah: “It is forbidden to have mercy on a person devoid of knowledge.”
The Talmud doesn’t mention someone insane. It’s refers to someone who persists in wrongdoing, regardless of the consequences. That takes it from a psychological to a moral issue.
In a stinging explanation, the Maharsha says that G-d has mercy on all His creations. But someone who is willfully corrupt debases his true nature; he severs his connection to his Creator and Divine mercy.
Is it insane to be bullheaded? A shopworn platitude says: “Insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result.” No, Albert Einstein didn’t say it. And perseverance could help lead to physical, mental and spiritual health. And material success.
It’s more like Samuel Goldwyn may have said, “I was laid up with intentional flu.” And, according to Leo Rosten, Goldwyn actually did say, “Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined.”
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